At the beginning of July, I ate 20 chain restaurant meals in a row. On purpose.
Over the course of a week, I paid two visits apiece to each of the casual dining chains with the most U.S. locations, as counted by Nation’s Restaurant News. Just for fun, I turned my eating itinerary into a road trip: I started with lunch at an Outback Steakhouse in Beaufort, and then meandered around Florida for a few days before finishing up with dinner at the Olive Garden in North Charleston. (I didn’t tell my server what I’d just done, but she dropped nine after-dinner mints with my check, which felt like a fitting conclusion).
Yet the objective of my tour was serious. I set out to review these restaurants with the same rigor I apply to restaurants in the running for national accolades and James Beard awards. To be clear, I wasn’t out looking for steak tartare and locally sourced seafood. But I firmly believe that a restaurant should respect its customers; strive to create memorable experiences and charge fair prices for the food it serves, whether it exists in just one place or 701 places. So off I went.
In addition to believing that these well-known restaurants were long overdue for critical assessment, I embarked on this project for two main reasons: 1. Casual dining chain restaurants are slowly disappearing. 2. I don’t think they should.
1. Casual dining chain restaurants are slowly disappearing.
Over the past two years, restaurant chains have closed hundreds of locations in response to sales plummets that can’t be slowed by new menus, generous promotions or redecorating schemes.
Alan Liddle, senior editor of data and event content for Nation’s Restaurant News, says the only chains entitled to optimism in the current dining economy are those that occupy a very specific niche. For example, Cooper’s Hawk has installed a wine tasting room in every restaurant, while Fogo de Chao serves meat on skewers.
Still, even those restaurants aren’t completely immune to the forces that have battered Ruby Tuesday, Outback Steakhouse and Applebee’s. Liddle says chains have been disproportionately affected by rising wages; tougher drunk driving laws; the popularity of meal kits and the decline of shopping malls, which long provided an anchor for casual dining restaurants.
Casual dining has also suffered from the growth in income inequality. When the rich get richer, they stop going to Olive Garden and start flying to Italy for fettuccine. When the poor get poorer, they stop going to Olive Garden and start making Spaghetti-O’s at home.
For many food-minded folks, the response to the shuttering of chain restaurants is “good riddance.” How can potato skins advance society? In more ways than the naysayers might imagine, I’d argue.
2. I don’t think they should.
In Charleston, we’re very lucky to have easy access to some of the best restaurants in the country. This is not a normal situation: In most towns across America, when people want to experience the warmth of being welcomed into a dining room or the luxury of ordering an appetizer, they’re dependent on chain restaurants. If hospitality really has civilizing powers, this is hardly the time to wish chain restaurants away.
And no matter where chain restaurants are situated, it’s worth recognizing that they’re highly diverse spaces. Corporate restaurants generally offer benefits and career paths, so they’re not staffed solely by rich kids just out of college: Employees at chain restaurants represent a vast range of racial and social backgrounds, ages and body types. Their customers are a diverse group, too: I rarely encounter an independent restaurant dining room that’s as fully integrated as a chain restaurant dining room.
Finally, and most importantly, no independent restaurant will ever determine how the nation’s meat producers treat sick chickens or slaughter cows. If the food system is going to change, it’s up to restaurants with multiple locations to exercise their influence. In other words, people who care about things like sustainable seafood and farming methods probably ought to engage with chains instead of ignoring them.
Obviously, I already had a high opinion of chain restaurants before I set out on my trip. But the week I spent reviewing them was tremendously instructive.
I discovered that the quality of casual dining chains varies wildly. And, to my surprise, I learned that service in chain restaurants is approximately a million times better than service in independent restaurants with hard-to-get reservations. According to Liddle, that’s because chains pay better than the independents, and have the resources to develop training videos and incentive programs.
But you want to know where to eat.
My ranking provides a rough guide, at least if you’re torn between Red Lobster and Ruby Tuesday. The short blurbs are just the beginning, though. I’ve recorded a complete review of each chain, which you can access at postandcourier.com. The reviews are also available as a podcast at highwayhelper.simplecast.fm.
The reviews are in an audio format because there’s a good chance you’ll be driving just before dinner at a chain restaurant. Perhaps you’ll find yourself hungry on the highway this weekend, and realize your only restaurant choices are Chili’s Grill and Bar and Outback Steakhouse. If you punch up my reviews, you’ll immediately find out what you should and shouldn’t order. (Spoiler: There’s one item everyone should get at Outback, and it’s not a Bloomin’ Onion).
Most of the restaurants I review are new and expensive, which means I’m usually telling readers about a restaurant they haven’t yet tried. But I bet you’ve been to at least one or two of the restaurants on this list. I’d love to hear whether your opinion of them lines up with mine. In fact, The Post and Courier Food section has a brand new Facebook group that’s the perfect venue for our conversation. See you at Post and Courier Food.