Tuesday, November 29, 2011

REVIEW: Chain Casual Dining Restaurants (UPDATE)

Chain restaurants that fall into the "casual dining" market bracket have, over the course of the last twenty-odd years, come to dominate the landscape. They have been the catalyst to a nearly complete reorganizing of the target markets, have nearly killed the previously booming haute-cuisine industry in the US, have increased the amount many people are spending on food by multiple times, and have likely played a major part in the increasingly alarming size of the American waistline. They have, in a very literal way, redefined food in America.

I could write an entire book on the effects of casual dining has had on our fine country, but instead, for the more limited scope of this article, I will write mini-reviews of each one. I won't bother much addressing service, atmosphere, or design, since all of them seem to subscribe to the exact same philosophy. Also, I won't assign a $-rating to them since their prices are all similar. Instead, I will talk primarily about the food with brief mention of price. Again, the star ratings are based on my traditional ratings system and not in exclusive comparison to other casual dining restaurants.

My reviews are limited to what I have nearby, but living in the northeast, nestled between Boston and New York, provides me with access to nearly every major chain in the country.

An issue that I generally had with many of these places is that the menus are laughably similar, and they all followed the same strategies to hide poor ingredients. Cheesecake Factory is one of the worst, with nearly everything on the menu tasting heavy, greasy, and cheap.

UPDATE: Added Johnny Rockets to the list.
UPDATE: Added Five Guys to the list. Edited Johny Rockets entry from *** to **1/2. Reduced Bertucci's from **1/2 to **.

Chili's- **1/2
Chili's is one of the "junk wall" trio, the other two being Applebee's and TGI Fridays. They have the same personality, the same menu, and the same goddamned "junk wall" aesthetic that was done three minutes after it started. Chili's is the most muted of the three, and as time has gone on, they have moved away from this design, but bits of it remain. Much like TGI Friday's, the food is mostly decent. Anything that is grilled is good. Avoid all of the fried foods because, one, they are ungodly bad for you, and two, frying hides bad ingredients.

Applebee's- **
Applebee's is the second of the trio, the largest, and also the worst. I've never had bad food at an Applebee's. Quality control is obviously high, and unlike some other restaurants, like Olive Garden, they don't overreach the quality of their ingredients in their recipes. But that also means that all of the recipes are either quite bland or taste like something that I bought at Stop & Shop and microwaved. The menu is borderline identical with both Chile's and TGIF, the only difference being inferior recipes.

TGI Friday's- **1/2
The third and final member of the "junk wall" trio is also the worst when it comes to bolting crap to the wall. I hated it the moment I saw it. As far as food is concerned, it has the genuinely good Jack Daniel's menu, and anything that is grilled is rather tasty. Ingredients are of acceptable quality. Chicken has good, meaty texture, and the steak, while a bit tough, is flavorful. It is in many of the other recipes where it falls down. Salads are literally DRENCHED in dressing unless you ask for it on the side. Fried foods are overwhelmingly greasy and heavy, as is the pasta. Still, it's a tasty, fairly-priced restaurant that can handle massive crowds, so there is rarely a wait. I generally don't go to TGI Friday's, but if friends were going, I wouldn't complain.

IHOP- **1/2
IHOP makes mostly acceptable food, with a few things that are legitimately tasty. Unlike Denny's, they do not totally screw up basic breakfast food. French toast, eggs, and other simple things are always cooked well. When you venture into more complex territory, such as omlettes, the menu becomes a bit more disappointing. Things like steak and other such dinner items are not terribly good, but nor are they bad. If I was in a bind, I would have no issues eating an an IHOP. Given the choice, though, I would always opt for someplace better, like T's.

Denny's- *1/2
How one screws up eggs and toast is beyond me, but Denny's manages it. The eggs are flavorless, the toast tastes like wonderbread, and the bacon is rubbery and overly greasy. Why anyone would pay to have this prepared when they could screw it up at home for less money is a mystery. The sweet stuff, a standby for both IHOP and Denny's, is cloying and simplistic, with the absolute pinnacle being their Sweet Ride nachos, which were fried tortillas covered in crappy chocolate syrup and aerated whipped cream from a can. I have never had anything even remotely tasty at a Denny's. The best that I can say is that I have never been poisoned. On the bright side, service is usually good, even though someone gets arrested at every Denny's location in the country at least once per day, and Denny's are always very clean. Every time I enter a Denny's, it is against my will.

Cheescake Factory- **
I have never had a fully satisfactory meal at the Cheesecake Factory. I don't want to go so far as to call it bad, but the food is always fatty, greasy, sugary, breaded, dipped, and slathered in sauce. Their website says:

"The Cheesecake Factory menu features more than 200 menu selections made fresh from scratch each day — using only the highest quality ingredients — which combines to create our remarkable tastes."

If by remarkable tastes they mean remarkably average, then they are right on the money. The bit about highest quality ingredients is laughable. Chicken is gummy. Steak is tough. There are a number of recipes that are very good. It depends on if the ingredients for that item are naturally cheap. I suspect that much of the poor quality has to do with with offering over two hundred items. Two hundred?! No kitchen can produce two hundred items and keep quality at the utmost. It would be the size of a warehouse.

Cheesecake Factory also holds the distinction of being the Worst Restaurant in America, according to Men's Health Magazine. They say that "No establishment better represents the confluence of factors that have saddled America with an ever-worsening obesity crisis." Would you want to eat there?

California Pizza Kitchen- ***
The food is a mixed bag at CPK. Pasta is too salty, which is a common problem at these chain restaurants. Salads are, likewise, covered in dressings and toppings, turning what should be light and flavorful into something that is heavy and fatty. The pizzas are good enough to lift this place up to a full three stars, though. The topping selection is unique, prices are fair, and the quality is good. While I would always opt to make my own pizza at home (it's SO easy), this place beats out the legions of crappy little local joints that are named after some guy quite easily.

Red Robin- ***
Red Robin is another place that does what it does and does it well. They don't overreach their ingredient quality with their recipes. Their toppings are fresh, prices are little on the high side, but still fair. Some of their recipes, such as their chicken sandwiches, are light on the herbs and spices and lean toward bland, but nothing is bad. The design is a bit garish, with strong Junkwall aspirations inside, but they seem to be aiming Red Robin at the child market, and it works well for that. This is a great place to bring kids for a treat. But for the adults, avoid this place during kid-friendly hours like the plague. Everyone has kids. All of the kids are little psychos. And the noise combined with an aesthetic that looks like Pee Wee Herman's nightmare will drive you away such that you will never want to return.

Johnny Rockets- **1/2

Recently, I have been to both the Providence and Cranston locations and been shocked by the poor service. I'm absolutely not one to complain — I commiserate with all food service people — but I have been left with no service for, on one occasion, nearly twenty minutes. No menus. No water. No hellos. The waiter arrived less than thirty seconds before we were about to get up to leave. I stress that this has happened on multiple occasions and at two different locations.

I do not blame the employees. Because to me, this speaks of corporate fuckery. To me, this speaks of employees being treated poorly and paid crappy wages. Most importantly, this speaks of corporate fuckery because service wasn't always like this. Service was previously excellent and then, quiet suddenly, hit the skids. This indicates some idiot with an MBA coming in and finding "inefficiencies." For most idiots with MBAs, this usually involves cutting pay to lower-level employees (Just look at how well that worked for Circuit City). The person who made this decision is almost undoubtedly white, male, and a libertarian. I do not find it surprising that during this period of drastic service quality loss, Johnny Rockets changed hands between investment groups twice: in 2007 and in 2013.

My father has an interesting phrase that I have adopted: grass in the parking lot. This is a term applied to anything in business that has been visibly left to degrade. This is indicative of both bad management and poor business. It is a sign of dying. With that phrase in mind, I don't know of any locations that have their jukeboxes actually functioning, and this has been the case for some time. Coincidentally, since about 2007. It's not surprising that the current owner of Johnny Rockets, Sun Capital, also owns other struggling restaurant chains, including the foundering Friendly's and Boston Market, the latter of which was recently lampooned by The Onion. Boston Market's CEO was featured on Undercover Boss where a shift manager was fired for complaining about customers. Well, instead of getting angry, how about paying your employees more than shit? Oh right. I forgot. CEOs are good at getting self-righteous on camera, but when it comes to putting money where their mouth is, pissed off employees are just fine.

That was something of a tangent. So back to the point, I suspect that Johnny Rockets is dying. We don't know this because the revenue figures are hidden in the earnings of investment group figure sheets, but when the amount of grass that I see in their parking lot is growing, it's the only conclusion to reach.

All that said, the food is still alright. The 1950's kitsch isn't overwhelming and doesn't seem bolted on, since the whole concept of a Golden Age diner is woven into the company's DNA. Most burgers are in the $6-$7, which places them just below the burgers at places like Red Robin and Smokey Bones, and just above the burgers at Five Guys. That's a tough spot, and with their service so bad, an untenable spot.

Johnny Rockets is not bad, but I would still never again go there.

Five Guys Burger and Fries- ***1/2 (Read my full review)
Five Guys is growing like a weed. It went from a single location about a decade ago to hundreds scattered across the country. Rhode Island went from zero to five in two years. This isn't corporate-driven growth, either; this is desire. Five Guys is beloved by all who love burgers, and with good reason. I have not yet had Smashburger or In & Out, so I am perhaps not qualified to declare Five Guys the best, but others who have eaten at all the requisite places have declared them the best. When your competition includes Shake Shack, that's one hell of an achievement. The burgers are affordable, all toppings are included in the price, and service is a well-oiled machine.

The downside is the inevitable result of all of its upsides: children. Tons of them. Cheap, high-quality burgers can fill the bellies of an entire minivan of screaming, human larvae and parents all across the land take Five Guys up on its offer. Weekends around dinner time are BEDLAM. The noise level whittles away any emotional energy you have as the employees work diligently to clean up the spills that happen every five minutes. This period of chaos is short, though, and going during off hours is pleasant. The store is almost always busy, but only during those crush hours is it nigh-intolerable.

All things considered, Five Guys is the burger joint to hit up for a quick, cheap, delicious burger. Forget McDonald's. Forget Burger King. Forget Wendy's. Unless your alternatives are hidden, local, diamonds in the rough like Beef Barn, Go to Five Guys.

Cracker Barrel- **
I hate absolutely everything about Cracker Barrel. I hate its kitsch. I hate its ambiance. I hate its decor. I hate its religious foundations. I hate that they make you wait in a "country store" for your table. Even if the food was amazing, I would never visit. Unfortunately for them, the food isn't amazing. It's greasy, overly salty, and poorly cooked. They have a good breakfast selection, but their food is no better or worse than IHOP. Like many chain places, nothing at Cracker Barrel is bad. But if it doesn't stand out in some fundamental way, why go? I see no reason, and as such, I don't.

Olive Garden- *1/2
How something like this succeeds in a state where half of the population is Italian leaves me baffled. First, the good: the salads are all acceptable, and the pasta is decent. The sauce is entirely unremarkable and herbs and spices seem to be something to which the chefs have never been properly introduced. The pathetically weak flavor is indicative of freeze-dried herbs used across the boards. Ingredient quality is noticeably poor. Chicken, something that is generally seen as bulletproof, is 100% borked at The Olive Garden. It is always rubbery, flavorless, and fatty on the palate. Steak is never cooked correctly, but not like it matters. The meat is very cheap. Olive Garden also holds the distinction of using my most hated advertising tagline in history: "When You're Here, You're Family." Fuck you. No I'm not. If I was family, you wouldn't be charging me.

Ruby Tuesday- ***
I remember Ruby Tuesday as being a Junkwall restaurant. They may have been, but they certainly aren't now, at least, which is great. Their menu is similar to the Junkwall Trio, but everything seems to be a notch above. There are no glaring piles of fried apocalypse, and few tricks to hide poor ingredients. Their salad bar is a true deal, and their more expensive meals are of high quality.

Longhorn Steakhouse- ***
This is the reason why the meat at Olive Garden, the Junk Wall Trio, and Cheesecake Factory have crappy meat: it costs a lot! Outback Steakhouse is a chain, but all of their meat is of rather high quality, and, big shock, their steaks cost almost as much as many singular steak houses. As long as you stick to their steak creations, the food is good. Their sandwiches and salads frequently underwhelm, with bland flavors and no inventiveness. Longhorn has significantly toned down their kitsch in recent years, and the dining room is much more pleasant for it.

Outback Steakhouse- ***
Outback is like Longhorn's little brother. They are quite a bit cheaper across the board, but their quality is also noticeably lower. I've had a number of tough steaks, with more fat than there should be. Everything has always been flavorful, and their menu is much wider than Longhorn. For example, Longhorn has two sandwiches on the menu, Outback has six. Outback also follows the Junkwall aesthetic a bit, with weird shit nailed to the wall, but it's not too bad.

Bertucci's- **
Bertucci's pizza is very good. They also have a gigantic array of available toppings. Their prices are just this side of insane, though. You are undoubtedly better off trying local pizza places until you find a good one. Either that or make pizza at home; it's very, very easy. Their pasta is universally too salty. They must honestly cook it in sea water. Their red sauce is watery and bland, with zero body and no punch. There are quite a few jarred sauces that are significantly better. Seafood quality is low, but not terrible. If I wanted non-pizza Italian food, the only place that I would prefer less is The Olive Garden.

Ted's Montana Grill- ***
Ted's has one of the best interiors of all of the chain restaurants. It still has the fundamental aesthetic of a designed restaurant, with large open spaces filled with tables. But the muted wood tones, large, impressive prints of paintings showing the wide open spaces of the Old West, and rustic design touches provide a genuine sense of splendor and charm. All of this is made hilarious when you find out that the restaurant has nothing to do with Montana, farms, or cowboys, and the eponymous Ted is actually Ted Turner... who just wanted to make a steak house.

Everything is of very high quality. Recipes are austere. The centerpiece of the menu is their selection of bison meat, of which I'm not the biggest fan. The only major knock against them is that their prices are quite high. Where most places sell burgers for $8-$10, Ted's starts at $10 for a naked burger, and gets as high as $15. Bison meat adds $3 to each burger. That is a pricey burger. With that in mind, Ted's is still a very good restaurant. You will enjoy your food.

Smokey Bones: ***1/2
Smokey Bones is great. They have a large, dynamic menu of high-quality food. Their BBQ options are all excellent. Their pulled pork is hands-down the best that you can buy at any chain. Their prices are fully competitive. Their kitsch is more than a little off-putting, and since they changed owners and were rebranded a "fire grill," whatever the hell that is, they have bits of "wisdom" posted around the place that read like something out of The Man Show scripts. It's almost enough to ruin the excellent food, but not quite. If you want BBQ, I would recommend Smokey Bones over every other chain, and even most local places.

Carrabba's- ***1/2
This is one of my favorite chain restaurants. I very much enjoy eating at Carrabba's. Recipes are always thoughtful, decently-sized, and ingredient quality is good across the board. This is what Olive Garden should be.The dining room has little kitsch. Aside from the requisite fake wood texture, the bulk of the things on the wall are prints of old photos of the founders' mother. The whole restaurant is a bit dim, which is annoying, but the quality of the food more than compensates. Herbs and spices are present and they don't taste freeze-dried. The oil that comes with bread is a legitimate replacement for butter. And the dessert selection is among the best of all chains.

Texas Roadhouse- ***
I like Texas Roadhouse. It has good quality meats and recipes. I cannot stand the character or decor. You can eat peanuts as you wait for your table. Do not look for a garbage can in which to place your shells, though. There isn't one. They do this on purpose because they want you to throw your shells on the ground to really drive home how down-fucking-home quaint their restaurant is. It's practically a local bar down in Texas, h'yuk!!! Fuck you. This is forced charm. It is kitsch. When what makes your place charming is part of a corporate plan, it is not charming. It is annoying. Give me a damned garbage can.

Birthday celebrations are the most obnoxious of all restaurants in the entirety of the galaxy. They wheel out a saddle, scream, holler, and point a light in the face of the subject like they want information. Worse, people actually seem to enjoy this, because no less than nine hundred birthdays will happen while you are there. This horrifying show is enough to keep me away for ever.


I have a love-hate relationship with chain restaurants. On the one hand, they are an economic force that is causing local restaurants to either step up their game or go out of business. This is a good thing because local places have a tendency to simply do the same thing, and do that same thing, at times, poorly. The chains come in with brutal efficiency, marketing, style, cheap prices, and the ability to handle massive crowds.

It is also a bad thing because they force conformity upon the general market. Local restaurants will simply fall in line, and before you know it, all of the restaurants in the area are serving the same damned food. Unless you live in an urban center, your selections are very limited because of these restaurants.

Moreover, since the restaurants are usually not run by people who want to own restaurants, profit is the deciding factor in recipes and ingredient choices. Obviously, profit is always important, but most local places are run by people that simply enjoy running a restaurant. But since they have less to save by switching to lower-quality materials, as they are serving fewer meals, they are less inclined to do so. Compare this to the horrible quality frequently seen at chains. Because saving $0.25 per meal equals huge profits when your restaurant is pumping out fifty million meals per year.

That said, there are quite a few places out there that are truly a cut above. Restaurants like Carrabba's, Smokey Bones, and Ted's show that even a major chain can be a legitimate destination. They can be such because they don't shoot for generic food. Their menus have unique, identifiable character. There is quality out there in the din. Sometimes it is hard to find, but the quest is, without doubt, worthwhile.

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