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Ranking America's top 10 chain restaurants

By: Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post
January 5, 2018 Updated: January 6, 2018 at 7:25 am
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The Outback Steakhouse location in Silver Spring, Maryland. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

People love to pick on chain restaurants. Like used car salesmen, the mass feeders are easy targets. Their uniformity and ubiquity go against a culture increasingly bent on personal customization.

Indeed, casual chains' customer base has been dropping. But some of their presumed negatives are also part of their appeal.

The promises of speed and sameness can be welcome. Knowing you can wake up to the same fluffy pancakes from Denny's whether you're in Miami or Minneapolis, or the identical warm breadsticks at Olive Garden, no matter which of its 800-plus branches you're in, speaks to the chains' charm offensive: no-surprise comfort.

But not all chains are created equal. I spent months grazing through the menus of the 10 casual, full-service restaurant chains with the highest sales, according to Nation's Restaurant News. Just as I would for a star-rated critique, I visited each chain multiple times.

I surprised myself at one restaurant when I took home leftovers - something I seldom do even from independent establishments. Other 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.

   

10. Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar

The saddest meals of my year? Nothing can touch lunch and dinner at the sports bar that can'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), and I can't help but think of them as masks rather than enhancements.

Grade: F

Claim to fame: sauces and seasonings offering endless customization.

Best of the bunch: getting the check.

Steer clear of: everything but the beer.

   

9. IHOP

The best that can be said about the food in one of the most generic backdrops is that the pancakes are fluffy (if a dash 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 and barely melted cheese into a fair-enough sandwich. Ultimately, the service leaves a better taste in my mouth menu.

Grade: D

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.

   

8. Outback Steakhouse

People come here for steak. They shouldn't. While the beef looks the part of steak you want to slice into, the cuts I tried taste tame. The alternatives to beef here - bready crab cakes, arid pork ribs - are almost as sad. An exception is chicken, specifically the moist grilled chicken with an herbed Parmesan crust. The best dish turns out to be dessert: spiced carrot cake.

Grade: D

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.

   

7. Red Lobster

Red lobster makes for blue diners, at least here, 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 melted butter, lots of it. Clams make a poor impression, too. The choice parts of a meal are apt to be the warm and fluffy biscuits that launch every meal and the freshly creamy coleslaw.

Grade: C-minus

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.

   

6. Chili's Grill & Bar

As is true of a lot of restaurants, 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, Rib-eye comes with a nice beefiness and a scoop of mashed potatoes loaded with bacon, cheese and scallions.

Grade: C-minus

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.

     

5. Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar

Eat in enough full-service chains, and the similarities become clear: None can cook broccoli right. Salmon is almost always overdone. Bigger is often perceived as better. All of the above are true at Applebee's. Forget the arid ribs with their vaguely sweet glaze. Better than you might expect are the juicy-enough steak on the surf-and-turf combo and slices of lemony grilled chicken.

Grade: C

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).

   

4. Olive Garden

Brick arches and sepia photographs play up an Italian theme, but 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. You don't have to be a vegetarian to appreciate the fresh-tasting minestrone, thick with beans and tomato.

Grade: C

Claim to fame: unlimited breadsticks and bottomless salad bowls.

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: sangria that tastes like Kool-Aid for adults, Tour of Italy (not!).

   

3. Texas Roadhouse

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. There are some flaws, among them stiff catfish and dry pulled pork. The most pleasant surprise is the Cactus Blossom, a whole deep-fried onion.

Grade: B

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).

   

2. Denny's

The cheeseburger? It's a whopper. Bite down on the construction, and the crusty patty might squirt juices - you know, as 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 brownielike chocolate lava cake. My go-to entree is spaghetti and meatballs and a buttery cushion of garlic toast.

Grade: B

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.

   

1. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

No other chain restaurant in my monthslong survey comes as close to home cooking as this operation. If the chicken dumplings are a little doughy and the corn bread muffins a tad salty, about everything else that crossed my lips 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.

Grade: A

Claim to fame: shopping and dining under one roof, and firing Brad's wife that time.

Best of the bunch: meatloaf, pork chops, trout, macaroni and cheese, pecan pie.

Steer clear of: pasty chicken and dumplings.

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