When my children were little, we would keep an eye out on road trips for Carrabba's Italian Grill because we could get decent pizza and pasta, but mainly because the kids were given pizza dough balls to play with. Chain restaurants are also notably better than independents at providing kid menus.
They also are excellent at enticing children with marketing. Both of my kids were obsessed with Red Lobster. Once, after watching a buttery, lemony, juicy commercial of endless shrimp, they asked indignantly why they never got to eat there.
I had to remind them that we lived in Charleston where we could get fresh and local seafood and that you can't always believe what you see on TV, since it's manufactured to make your mouth water. A good lesson, I thought. I even considered taking them to prove my point, but then realized they'd probably love it.
I once adored Olive Garden myself. As a college student in the suburbs of Atlanta, I discovered Olive Garden's incredible lunch deal of unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks. Today, that deal is still a bargain for $6.99. It still counts as my casual dining chain favorite.
I reached out to some chefs and others in the Charleston food and beverage community to see if they would cop to loving something served by a chain restaurant. Here's a roundup of their responses.
BJ Dennis, private chef and caterer
"S&S Cafeteria when I'm craving some down-home food, mainly on Sundays. I guess it's a childhood memory that keeps me coming back at least once a month. I like the deviled eggs, pies are decent, fried chicken is solid, red rice, squash casserole, country steak, chicken livers."
John Lewis, chef/owner of Lewis Barbecue
"Not surprisingly, I am a big fan of Outback Steakhouse. When I go, I always order the Bloomin’ Onion, rib-eye, Caesar salad and Shrimp on the Barbie. I can’t really resist the wheat bread with honey butter, too. In fact, I’m actually working on a Bloomin' Onion Detroit-style pizza for our next Johnnie Luigi pop-up."
Michael Perez, chef at Cannon Green
"I have fond memories of Olive Garden, where my mom took me for every birthday growing up. My go-to is the Tour of Italy, but my pro tip is substitute double alfredo for the lasagna. And a sweet tea, of course."
Harper Howell, bartender at The Macintosh
"I actually worked at Outback for years, and Red Lobster was my break into the service industry. I always loved Outback because they do a lot of their own preparation in-house. Cheese fries all the way. And the filet they have is really nice. Don’t get the Bloomin' Onion, unless there’s more than four people. Settle for the Bloom Petals instead. Smaller, more approachable, and not as filling. Outback also makes most of their dressings in-house."
Mickey Bakst, general manager at Charleston Grill
"I like to go to Burtons Grill, which is a multi-unit, mid-dining place. We find that the quality is consistent each time we visit, and they are always doing creative and different things. Every time I take a chain restaurant naysayer, they always walk out and go, 'I didn't know it was that good.'"
Joe DiMaio, chef at The Darling
"Outback Steakhouse is definitely my guilty pleasure. My sister worked there when I was in middle school so I’ve been a quite a few times. Of course, I love the classic Bloomin' Onion, but I’m a big fan of their Alice Springs Chicken with a sweet potato for my side. And you can’t forget a Foster's Beer to go with it."
"Love some chain restos. Arby’s is my go-to, but I don’t think that applies. Give me a Bloomin' Onion and a big beer at the bar at Outback, and I’m in heaven. I’m also partial to Fuddruckers. Their jalapeño cheese sauce on that burger with the soft bun is special."
Dr. Ann Kulze, nutritionist
"Ruby Tuesday is my go-to when it comes to chain restaurants, but if I was ordering from the Olive Garden, I would get a side garden salad as my appetizer with extra carrots and tomatoes and dressing on the side (no croutons); or a bowl of minestrone soup (only if I was really hungry, and I would not eat most of the pasta in it). Or the herb-grilled salmon or Venetian apricot chicken. Both come with a generous portion of non-starchy vegetables and no pasta."
Jeffrey Stoneberger, chef/owner Two Nixons
"The fajitas at Chili’s because of the sizzle. The smell of sizzling onions and meat hitting cast iron. They aren’t selling the skirt steak, they’re selling the sizzle and it works. Even the cooks who spend all day creating roses out of perfectly placed vegetables can understand the greatness of sizzling onions and steak. And yes, the flour tortillas soak up the drippings from the pan, and it’s awesome."
Robert Stehling, chef/owner Hominy Grill
"Thanks for including me, but I don't share Charleston's guilty fast-food obsessions. The whole Waffle House thing just baffles me. It's an acquired taste, life's too short."
David Thompson, restaurant architect
"In a pinch, I will totally get down with an order of fajitas for two from Chili's."
Jennifer Kulick, owner Tattooed Moose, Voodoo
"Chili's! Why? I have no idea. I think the fajitas because it actually has a vegetable or two in it and doesn't make me feel gross. It's also kid-friendly, which helps immensely. And they have all the booze."
Ken Vedrinski, chef/owner Trattoria Lucca and Coda del Pesce
"I am a huge Jim 'N Nick's fan. Maybe not the cool barbecue choice, but truthfully more consistent than others that get the barbecue press. Plus, they have a drive-through. I always get the half-roasted chicken. They brine them, and it's always moist breast meat, and their banana pudding is by far best in the barbecue world."
John Keener, owner Charleston Crab House
Bonefish does a great job.
Michelle Weaver, chef at Charleston Grill
"Both Waffle House and Krystal are my road-tripping stops. Breakfast 24-7 or steamy greasy little square cheeseburgers? Come on! As far as casual full-service goes: As long as I can get a glass of wine or a bourbon cocktail, I can find something on the menu. Be advised to stick to the basics and don't order anything too fancy-sounding. If they are known for burgers — get the burger. Known for steak? Get a steak."
Brooks Reitz, owner Leon's, Little Jack's Tavern and Melfi's
"I honestly wish I could answer this. I don’t go to chains, nor have I been in years. Last one I went to was PF Chang's, probably six years ago."
Shuai Wang, chef/owner Short Grain
"My parents like to take us to LongHorn when we visit them in Connecticut. The steaks are decent, sides are fun, all the apps are deep-fried with a side of deep-fried. I usually get fried pickles to start, a 12-ounce rib eye with Caesar salad and baked tater. Their warm rolls are crazy good, too. I guess what I like the most about it or any chain is the nostalgia of it."
Michael Tuohy, food and beverage director at The Dewberry
"Believe it or not, I don't have one. Really. Avoid. I like to know where my food comes from, who grew or raised it and, I cook at home when I’m not working. I try and support local operators with the same ethos. Having said that, Chipotle is a model that is good on many levels. They’ve had their challenges over the past couple of years, but I would go there."