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.
Read (and listen) on for the results; for more information on how the reviews were conducted -- and why neither Waffle House nor Cracker Barrel is on the list -- cue up the first episode of Highway Helper, or click here.
1. LongHorn Steakhouse (509 U.S. locations)
LongHorn just squeaked on to this list, with less than one-third as many locations as behemoth Applebee’s. So good luck finding it, pardner. But should your trail lead to this steakhouse with a high mountain ranch theme, you’re in for a lesson in chain restaurant dynamics: LongHorn belongs to the same company as The Capital Grille and Eddie V’s, and much of their fancy beef know-how has trickled down to this far more affordable restaurant. For proof, try the Outlaw Ribeye.
2. Texas Roadhouse (510 U.S. locations)
With a name like “roadhouse” and buckets of peanuts on every table, this sounds like the kind of place where you’d throw back whiskey and hoot sporadically. And there is a fair amount of hollering at Texas Roadhouse, especially when servers coax birthday celebrants on to a saddle they wheel around the dining room. But the kitchen’s focus is old-timey Southern cooking: Country-fried steak with white gravy and green beans could make a runaway get misty about momma. If you prefer red meat, the restaurant’s adept at seasoning a ridiculously affordable sirloin.
3. Red Lobster (677 U.S. locations)
Counterintuitively, the one thing you don’t want to order at this 50-year-old chain is the lobster: It’s routinely overcooked, oversauced and overwrought. But there are plenty of dishes befitting the dining room’s relatively elegant air, which is the chain way of saying there aren’t televisions all over the place. Red Lobster’s foray into faddish poke turns out to be terrific, and plain wood-grilled fish with rice has the dual advantage of being both tasty and healthy. Plus, the biscuits are just as good as their devotees claim.
4. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews (548 U.S. locations)
Red Robin’s menu looks about as long as the average casual dining chain menu, but you’re really just choosing between a Tavern and Gourmet burger (and then deciding what to put on it). The Tavern burger is the clear winner, and even better with the aptly named Tavern sauce, a zesty blend of ketchup and mayonnaise. Sauce selection is critical at the family-friendly Red Robin, because the steak fries distributed freely to burger eaters aren’t very good. For that matter, neither are the celebrated milkshakes, but a stack of downsized doughnuts, also served with sauce, make up for it.
5. Olive Garden (849 U.S. locations)
Chili’s baby back rib jingle is catchier, but Olive Garden’s old tagline about feeling like family at this Italian chain might be the most accurate ad campaign ever mounted in the casual dining sphere. Maybe it’s the assurance that the breadsticks will never stop coming, but customers reach a comfort level at Olive Garden that no other restaurant on this list can match. As for the food, Olive Garden has a tendency to whiff on softballs, such as chicken parmesan, but there’s nothing wrong with a fried lasagna appetizer, followed by fettucine alfredo. Pro tip: Ask for the Tuscan soup instead of salad.
6. Buffalo Wild Wings (1206 U.S. locations)
If you’re not interested in watching the game, you’re not interested in Buffalo Wild Wings. This restaurant is basically a sports bar, and its focus on wings is so complete that a server’s likely to look at you funny if you stray past the sauce page of the menu. But the good news for sports fans who end up here is BWW’s once-scrawny wings have filled out over the past few years (and I’m not talking about the bits of breast meat sold as “boneless wings,” which are really just soggy chicken nuggets). There are some execrable sauces in the line-up, but the chipotle dry rub is a reliable choice.
7. Chili's Grill & Bar (1260 U.S.locations)
When did you last get to Chilis? If it’s been a few years, it’s a pretty good bet that what you ordered last time is no longer on the menu: The chain last year 86ed 40 percent of the dishes it served. What’s left are the items in line with the restaurant’s Texas heritage, including a thoroughly excellent chili and fajitas with enough verve to distract from the generic decor and curt service. The ribs and burgers aren’t quite up to the task.
8. Outback Steakhouse (740 U.S. locations)
It’s not accurate to call Outback’s food one-note, since there are 17 different spices in the blend with which almost every dish is blasted. But it’s certainly monotonous, and sometimes worse, at least beyond the complimentary loaf of molasses-sweet brown bread. Steaks here are consistently mealy, and if you’ve never had the chance to pity an asparagus, Outback’s uncrowned stalk segments will surely change that situation. The servers seem to spend most of their time delivering Bloomin’ Onions, which taste primarily of grease and burnt batter.
9. Ruby Tuesday (544 U.S. locations)
One of the last restaurants in America staking its future on a self-service salad bar, Ruby Tuesday has lately cultivated a Southern theme for folks who aren’t charmed by diced red onions and bell pepper strips. Unfortunately, the chain’s way of Southernizing a dish involves a thick coating of sticky, sugary sauce and the uncalled-for addition of bacon. But the pimento cheese, predominated by mayonnaise, is served with the sturdy lavash crackers that developed a fan base as a salad bar staple.
10. Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar (1782 U.S. locations)
The downside of table tents featuring photographs of whatever the restaurant’s promoting is customers notice when their dishes don’t measure up to the airbrushed images. And there is no casual dining chain where the gulf between what’s pictured and what’s served is greater than at Applebee’s. Spinach artichoke dip is gloopy; burgers are bland and the fries always taste as though they’ve been sitting around. About the only thing Applebee’s has going for it is a relatively robust barbecue sauce. Apply liberally.