People love to pick on chain restaurants. Like used car salesmen, the mass feeders are easy targets. Their uniformity and ubiquity seem to go against a culture increasingly bent on personal customization.
But the promises of speed and sameness can be welcome when you’re hungry and near a highway exit, on a business trip in a strange place, or home for the holidays.
I spent several months grazing through the menus of the 10 casual, full-service restaurant chains that have the highest sales, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. (For the record, Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar is No. 1, with $4.4 billion in annual domestic sales.) I visited each chain multiple times.
Some lessons: Mashed potatoes are almost always better than french fries, and “lite” applied to a dish might as well be a stop sign.
Here’s how I ranked the chains, from least favorite to most, along with letter grades.
Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, Grade: F
The sports bar couldn’t even get its signature dish right. I’m not sure which is more of a travesty, the scrawny wings or the woody carrot sticks that accompany them. Sauces vary from fair (Caribbean jerk) to grim (Parmesan-garlic). The factory-issue fried boneless wings taste like KFC sans every one of those secret 11 herbs and spices, save for salt. It gets worse. “Street tacos” — tasteless soft flour tortillas encasing bland grilled erasers (chicken, per the menu) splashed with ranch dressing — do a disservice to food trucks everywhere. There are a lot of bad black bean burgers out there, but this place takes the trophy — for worst. The dozens of TVs, most turned to sports, force you to look away from the food, a good thing given whatever glop is on the table. Bottom line: Better to miss a meal than to find yourself in this loud, garish and soulless restaurant-in-name-only.
Cuisine: Wings and beer.
Claim to fame: Sauces and seasonings offering endless customization.
Best of the bunch: Getting the check.
Steer clear of: Everything but the beer.
Tidbit: The number of TVs varies by the size of the restaurant. Most are equipped with 50 or so.
IHOP, Grade: D
Probably the best that can be said is that the pancakes are fluffy (if salty); the vegetable omelet is as green with fresh spinach as it is yellow from eggs; and marbled rye bread can turn even an unfortunate beef patty into a fair-enough sandwich.
Ultimately, the service leaves a better taste in my mouth. I salute the honesty, as when I ask about the day’s soup and am told it is “potato, but we’re at the end of it, and I wouldn’t do that to you.” Two of us order enough for four, a cross-section of the plastic menu. “If you eat all that food,” the server cracks, “I’m going to give you a hug.” Ten minutes later, we are biting into a dry cheeseburger served in a cottony bun, hoisting a leathery soft tortilla crammed with fish, and trying to decide which was more of a salt bomb: the thin batter-fried steak or the cream gravy covering it. Our table, in other words, has turned into a health minefield. No hugs for us.
Claim to fame: Open 24/7.
Best of the bunch: Patty melt, spinach-mushroom omelet (hold the flat hollandaise).
Steer clear of: Burgers, fried fish tacos, country-fried steak.
Tidbit: Four syrups (typically old-fashioned, butter pecan, blueberry and strawberry) are always offered. Franchisees can opt to swap in real maple syrup and boysenberry.
Outback Steakhouse, Grade: D
The pièce de résistance is one of the most vulgar creations any chain has ever whipped up. The Bloomin’ Onion packs in more fat, more salt, more guilt than any single signature I can think of. So why is my party denuding the baseball-size vegetable of its greasy petals as if we’re in a race? Because Americans can’t resist over-the-top fair food, even in their restaurants. Also, because strips of hot onions dunked in something cool and creamy (imagine ketchup-tinted mayonnaise with a slight bite) are an addictive combination.
People come here for steak. They shouldn’t; the cuts I try taste tame. The alternatives to beef — bready crab cakes, arid pork ribs — are almost as sad. An exception is chicken, specifically the moist grilled chicken with an herbed Parmesan crust and a garnish of tomatoes and basil — everything fresher-tasting than the woody carrots riding shotgun. Don’t let the menu or the outdoorsy decor fool you. Outback has as much in common with Australia as Olive Garden has with Italy. The single-best dish turns out to be dessert: spiced carrot cake with actual threads of carrot in each big slice and a veneer of icing.
Cuisine: Steak, and a pretend notion of what’s cooking Down Under.
Claim to fame: The 1,950-calorie, enough-for-six Bloomin’ Onion.
Best of the bunch: Wine by the glass poured from individual carafes, garlicky mashed potatoes, Parmesan-herbed chicken, spiced carrot cake.
Steer clear of: Crab cakes, fish tacos in leathery tortillas, pork ribs, not-so-hot and batter-heavy “volcano” shrimp.
Tidbit: The free-spirited Australian theme was chosen in part based on the success of the 1986 Hollywood film “Crocodile Dundee.”
Red Lobster, Grade: C-
Red lobster makes for blue diners, where the headliner can be found scattered on a thin but doughy pizza with a binder of mozzarella, and steamed and split to reveal seafood that tastes like . . . not much without lots of melted butter. Clams make a poor impression, too, be they the few in a bowl of pasty chowder with mealy potatoes or offered as chewy fried strips. Salmon might as well have swum in from a banquet. Sometimes, the most nautical part of my visits are the garnishes on the walls: paintings of lighthouses and framed signal flags.
Exceptions give me hope. If snow crab claws require some work to tackle, at least their yield is sweet. And Yucatan shrimp, among the chain’s new “tasting” plates, benefit from diced caramelized pineapple and the heat of jalapeños. In the end, though, the choice parts of the dining experience are the warm and fluffy biscuits that launch every meal, and the creamy coleslaw you can request as a side.
Claim to fame: Biscuits so popular their mix is for sale in supermarkets.
Best of the bunch: Cheese biscuits, Yucatan shrimp, coconut shrimp, crab legs.
Steer clear of: Doughy lobster pizza, fried clams, maple-glazed chicken that tastes like an airline issue, steamed lobster, achingly sweet and dense Key lime pie.
Tidbit: The chain sells 395 million cheddar biscuits a year.
Chili’s Grill & Bar, Grade: C-
If all you were to eat were the ribs that spawned one of the most popular restaurant jingles of all time, you would wonder what all the fuss is about. No amount of barbecue sauce hides the fact that they are dry. (Like french fries, ribs are a dish that chains have a hard time nailing.) Your best bet is to front-load or focus on appetizers. Chili’s makes it easy with its Triple Dipper, your choice of three snacks. Zero in on the tasty mini-burgers, the spiced onion rings and the kicky Southwestern egg rolls filled with corn and black beans.
Elsewhere on the menu, Chili’s tries and fails to deliver. The mushy ear of corn slathered with mayo and pops of harsh spices is a poor way to replicate the Mexican street food staple elote loco (crazy corn), and a cloying salted caramel molten cake in the shape of a volcano appears to use pancake batter in its base. As for the Cajun pasta, penne with chicken or shrimp in cream sauce is salty with Parmesan — a gummy bore. Simple is better. Rib-eye comes with a nice beefiness and a scoop of mashed potatoes loaded with bacon, cheese and scallions. Trying to eat healthfully lands you disappointments, including a “Caribbean” salad strewn with Mandarin oranges, pineapple and red bell peppers, along with a honey-lime dressing that tastes more like a dessert topping. The stinging citrus-chile sauce on the overcooked salmon, from the “Guiltless Grill” section of the menu, keeps the dish from being served DOA.
Cuisine: American with a Southwest touch.
Claim to fame: The earworm to promote Chili’s baby back ribs.
Best of the bunch: Southwestern egg rolls, mini-burgers, panko onion rings, rib-eye.
Steer clear of: Caribbean salad, Cajun pasta, salted caramel cake.
Tidbit: The creative director behind the chain’s song says he’s never eaten Chili’s ribs.
Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, Grade: C
Applebee’s offers sufficient choices on its plastic menus in its rec-room-dressed dining rooms to keep the brand interesting for discerning eaters. Skeptics can warm up to the mildly zesty Sriracha shrimp presented on tortilla strips and agreeable chicken tacos, the filling tucked into its wonton shells with a light slaw. Forget the arid ribs with their vaguely sweet glaze, the whiskey-bacon burger, best for its fried onion ringlets, and the sangria, a ringer for spiked apple juice and served in a glass the size of a birdbath. (I hear Miss Piggy in my head: Never eat anything bigger than your head, a rule that could also apply to drinks.) Better than you might expect are the juicy-enough steak on the surf-and-turf combo, and slices of lemony grilled chicken arranged on quinoa jazzed up with dried cranberries. The latter is a rarity among the chains: something relatively healthful that you could imagine actually finishing.
Claim to fame: $1 margaritas (Dollaritas) and Long Island Iced Teas.
Best of the bunch: Sriracha shrimp, crunchy-spicy chicken wings, steak quesadillas, skin-on mashed potatoes, grilled chicken with quinoa and cranberries.
Steer clear of: Ribs, salmon, apple chimicheesecake (caramel apples and cheesecake wrapped in a tortilla and fried).
Tidbit: The original 1980 menu included quiche and quail.
Olive Garden, Grade: C
Of all the chain restaurants I surveyed, this one aspires to a modicum of sophistication; servers are more than happy to proffer tastes of wines. The popular breadsticks — pillowy wands seasoned with garlic salt, brushed with margarine and palatable only when warm — are wholly American, as is the kitchen’s tendency to overcook its pastas. Steer clear of the three-dishes-on-one-platter Tour of Italy, whose chicken parmigiana and gloppy fettuccine Alfredo taste like nothing in the Old World. (The herbed lasagna on the plate makes a better port of call.) The citrus-glazed salmon served on “creamy citrus” Alfredo sauce is by turns sweet and dull. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to appreciate the fresh-tasting minestrone, thick with beans and tomato, and serious comfort can be found on a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, a “create your own pasta” selection.
Claim to fame: Unlimited breadsticks and bottomless salad bowls.
Best of the bunch: Gratis wine tastes, minestrone, spaghetti with meatballs, tiramisu.
Steer clear of: Sangria that tastes like Kool-Aid, Tour of Italy (not!).
Tidbit: The first restaurant was opened in 1982 by General Mills.
Texas Roadhouse, Grade: B
Buckets of peanuts help stave off hunger while you peruse the menu. Beef is your friend here, be it in a bowl of zippy chili, chopped steak under a cover of cheese and caramelized onions, or an agreeable rib-eye cooked the color you ask and best paired with mashed potatoes cratered with cream gravy.
But the fresh-baked, butter-brushed, slightly sweet rolls can’t mask some flaws, among them stiff catfish and dry pulled pork, the mass humiliated with a sweet barbecue sauce. The most pleasant surprise is the Cactus Blossom, a whole deep-fried onion, each bronzed slice crunchy, peppery and far less greasy than the bloomin’ draw at the place that pretends to take you Down Under.
Cuisine: Steaks with a Western theme.
Claim to fame: Steaks cut by hand and fresh-baked bread.
Best of the bunch: Most anything starring beef, mashed potatoes, Cactus Blossom.
Steer clear of: Pulled pork (dry) and catfish (stiff).
Tidbit: Each branch employs a butcher and a baker.
Denny’s, Grade: B
The cheeseburger? It’s a whopper. Bite down on the bun that’s freckled with sesame seeds, and the crusty patty might squirt juices, like a decent hamburger might. The piping-hot fries are memorable more for their churro-like ridges than any potato flavor, but that means you might have room for the brownie-like chocolate lava cake, a knockoff of the molten chocolate cake made famous decades ago by the esteemed Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York.
Breakfast is a ’round-the-clock option. I’m partial to the fluffy pancakes with their lacy edges, and I’d like the “loaded” breakfast sandwich more if its shaved ham was less salty and the swollen package was easier to tackle; my scrambled eggs slipped out when I chomped down. My go-to entrée is spaghetti and meatballs, offered with a sauce that bridges sweetness and tang, and a buttery cushion of garlic toast. Lighter options include a pleasing chicken soup, sweet with carrots, and a dish of fresh fruit that brought together strawberries, apples and grapes.
Claim to fame: The Grand Slam, starring pancakes, eggs, bacon strips and sausage links.
Best of the bunch: Pancakes, hash browns, spaghetti and meatballs, warm chocolate lava cake.
Steer clear of: Seasonal specials such as pancakes smothered in what tastes like white chocolate with orange zest.
Tidbit: The chain made a special menu for several “Hobbit” movies.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Grade: A
No other chain restaurant comes as close to home cooking as this operation. If the chicken dumplings are a little doughy and the corn bread muffins prove a tad salty, just about everything else is something I’d be happy to try again. Seconds, please, of the tasty meatloaf streaked with vegetables, tender roast beef with peppery brown gravy, and lemony, skin-on trout fillets, a weekly special. You don’t have to eat rich here; a side of fruit brims with fresh pineapple, blackberries and blueberries, although the not-too-sweet pecan pie is worth the detour from any diet.
The all-American food is only part of Cracker Barrel’s charm. To reach the restaurant proper, you cross a porch set with rocking chairs and pass through a folksy retail store peddling candy, clothing and toys. The service couldn’t be more personable. Soda glasses are refilled without your having to ask, and should staff members see you struggling with a bag of leftovers, they rush over to help. Yes, I take what I can’t finish home with me. And every bite of those thin, well-seasoned pork chops, part of a “country boy” platter with fried apples and cheesy hash browns, makes me think of my grandmother — a feat matched by no other chain in my survey.
Cuisine: Southern-focused comfort food.
Claim to fame: Shopping and dining under one roof.
Best of the bunch: Meatloaf, pork chops, trout, macaroni and cheese, pecan pie.
Steer clear of: Pasty chicken and dumplings.
Tidbit: Every branch has an ox yoke and a horseshoe over the door, and a traffic light over the restrooms.