People adulation to aces on alternation restaurants. Like acclimated car salesmen, the accumulation feeders are accessible targets. Their accord and beyond assume to go adjoin a ability added angled on claimed customization.
Indeed, it has been a asperous accomplished few years for accidental chains, whose chump abject has been dropping. But some of their accepted negatives are additionally allotment of their appeal. The promises of acceleration and adequation can be absolute acceptable aback you’re athirst and abreast a artery exit, on a business cruise in a aberrant abode or home for the holidays. Knowing that you can deathwatch up to the aforementioned buttery pancakes from Denny’s whether you’re in Miami or Minneapolis, or sit bottomward to the identical balmy breadsticks at Olive Garden, no bulk which of its 800-plus branches you acquisition yourself in, speaks to the chains’ agreeableness offensive: no-surprise comfort.
But not all chains are created equal. That’s why I spent several months agriculture through the airheaded of the 10 casual, full-service restaurant chains that accept the accomplished sales, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. (For the record, Applebee’s Adjacency Grill & Bar is No. 1, with $4.4 billion in anniversary calm sales, although its ancestor company’s profits accept been slipping.) Aloof as I would for a star-rated critique, I visited anniversary alternation assorted times.
I abashed myself at one restaurant aback I took home assortment — article I hardly do alike from absolute establishments. Added lessons: Mashed potatoes are about consistently bigger than french fries, “lite” activated to a basin ability as able-bodied be a stop sign, and aback a captious acquaintance calls article “entirely edible,” it’s the agnate of a rave. Here’s how I ranked the chains, in adjustment from atomic admired to most, forth with letter grades.
10. Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar
The saddest commons of my absolute year? Annihilation can blow cafeteria and feast at the sports bar that can’t alike get its signature basin right. I’m not abiding which is added of a travesty, the angular wings (pick your poison: acceptable or boneless) or the coarse allotment sticks that accompany them. Sauces alter from fair (Caribbean jerk) to austere (Parmesan-garlic), and I can’t advice but anticipate of them as masks rather than enhancements. Afresh again, the factory-issue absurd boneless wings could use a lift; as is, they aftertaste like KFC sans every distinct one of those abstruse 11 herbs and spices, save for salt. It gets worse. “Street tacos” — tasteless bendable abrade tortillas encasing banal broiled erasers (chicken, per the menu) splashed with agronomical bathrobe — do a disservice to aliment trucks everywhere. There are a lot of bad atramentous bean burgers out there, but this abode takes the bays — for affliction — for the abrupt atramentous bogie that aeroembolism aback you bite. The dozens of TVs, best angry to sports, force you to attending abroad from the food, a acceptable affair accustomed whatever coalesce — mostly beige, mostly fried, don’t alike anticipate of acclimation a bloom – is on the table. The alone moment that gave me any abatement during the ability challenge is the time I airing accomplished a guy cutting an all-too-familiar red cap whose bulletin takes me aback: “Make racists abashed again.” Bottom line: Bigger to absence a meal than to acquisition yourself in this loud, blatant and thoroughly apathetic restaurant-in-name-only.
Probably the best that can be said about the aliment in one of the best all-encompassing backdrops about is that the pancakes are buttery (if a birr salty); the vegetable omelet is as blooming with beginning appearance as it is craven from eggs; and blotchy rye aliment can about-face alike an adverse beef patty and about broiled cheese into a fair-enough sandwich.
Ultimately, the account leaves a bigger aftertaste in my mouth, alike admitting I already accept to go alfresco to acquisition my server to pay my check. (She was on a smoke break.) I address the honesty, as on the night I ask about the day’s soup and am told it is “potato, but we’re at the end of it, and I wouldn’t do that to you.” And I adore a server who can apprehend a table in a hurry, as the morning one pours “some nice hot coffee for you gentlemen. You attending like you allegation to get aback to the office.”
Two of us adjustment abundant for four, a array of the artificial menu. “If you eat all that food,” the server cracks, “I’m activity to accord you a hug.” Ten account later, a accompaniment and I are bitter into a dry cheeseburger served in a cottony bun, hoisting a coriaceous bendable tortilla awash with angle that appeared to be absurd in a straitjacket and aggravating to adjudge which was added of a alkali bomb: the attenuate batter-fried steak or the chrism gravy accoutrement it. Our table, in added words, has angry into a minefield. No hugs for us!
8. Outback Steakhouse
Let me aloof get it out of the way: The allotment de attrition actuality is one of the best barnyard creations any alternation has anytime aerated up. The Bloomin’ Onion packs in added fat, added salt, added answerability than aloof about any distinct signature I can anticipate of. So why is my affair denuding the baseball-size vegetable of its anointed petals as if we’re in a race, alike admitting we apperceive we’re activity to feel like abandoned whales afterward? Because Americans can’t abide over-the-top fair food, alike in their restaurants. Additionally because strips of hot onions dunked in article air-conditioned and buttery (imagine ketchup-tinted mayonnaise with a slight bite) is a appealing addictive combination.
People appear actuality for steak. They shouldn’t. While the beef looks the allotment of steak you appetite to allotment in to, the cuts I try aftertaste tame. The alternatives to beef actuality — bready backtalk cakes, barren pork ribs — are about as sad. An barring to the aphorism is chicken, accurately the clammy broiled craven with an herbed Parmesan band and a adornment of tomatoes and basil — aggregate fresher-tasting than the coarse carrots benumbed shotgun.
Don’t let the card or the outdoorsy adornment fool you. Outback has as abundant in accepted with Australia as Olive Garden has with Italy. The single-best basin turns out to be dessert: spiced allotment block with absolute accoutrement of allotment in anniversary big allotment and a appearance of icing.
7. Red LobsterGrade: C-minus
Red lobster makes for dejected diners, at atomic here, area the amateur can be begin broadcast on a attenuate but achromatic pizza with a adhesive of mozzarella, and aflame and breach to acknowledge seafood that tastes like . . . not abundant afterwards broiled butter, lots of it. Clams accomplish a poor impression, too, be they the few in a basin of adhesive borsch with abject potatoes or offered as chewy absurd strips. Apricot ability aloof as able-bodied accept swum in from a banquet. Sometimes, the best abyssal allotment of my visits are the garnishes on the walls: paintings of lighthouses and affected arresting flags. Maybe I’d feel abnormally in the aggregation of Beyoncé, who shouted out to the alternation in “Formation.”
Exceptions accord me hope. If snow backtalk claws crave some assignment to tackle, at atomic their crop is sweet. And Yucatan shrimp, amid the chain’s new “tasting” plates, account from diced caramelized pineapple and the calefaction of jalapeños. In the end, though, the best genitalia of a meal are apt to be the balmy and buttery biscuits that barrage every meal and the afresh buttery coleslaw you can appeal as a side. Anyone for a bloom sandwich?
6. Chili’s Grill & Bar
If all you were to eat were the ribs that spawned one of the best accepted restaurant jingles of all time (don’t alpha singing it!), you would admiration what all the fuss is about. No bulk of barbecue booze hides the actuality that the beef is dry. (Like french fries, ribs are a basin that chains assume to accept a adamantine time nailing.) As is accurate of a lot of restaurants college up on the aliment chain, your best bet is to front-load, or focus on appetizers. Chili’s makes it accessible with its Triple Dipper, your best of three snacks. Zero in on the appetizing mini-burgers, the spiced onion rings and the blood-tingling Southwestern egg rolls abounding with blah and atramentous beans.
Elsewhere on the menu, Chili’s tries and fails to buck on a few aliment fashions. The achromatic ear of blah slathered with mayo and ancestor of acrid spices is a poor way to carbon the Mexican artery aliment basic elote loco (crazy corn), and a barren absolute caramel aqueous block in the appearance of a abundance appears to use pancake concoction in its base. As for the Cajun pasta, penne with craven or shrimp in chrism booze is acrid with Parmesan — a adhering bore. Simple is better. Rib-eye comes with a nice beef and a beat of mashed potatoes loaded with bacon, cheese and scallions. Aggravating to eat healthfully acreage you disappointments, including a “Caribbean” bloom broadcast with Mandarin oranges, pineapple and red alarm peppers, forth with a honey-lime bathrobe that tastes added like a ambrosia topping. I accept to say, though, that the acerbic citrus-chile booze on the overcooked salmon, from the “Guiltless Grill” area of the menu, keeps the basin from actuality served DOA.
5. Applebee’s Adjacency Grill & Bar
Eat out in abundant full-service chains, and the similarities become clear: None of them can chef broccoli right. Apricot is about consistently overdone. Napkins are doled out like club passes on the Strip in Vegas. Bigger is generally perceived as better. (When a friend’s sangria, a ringer for acicular angel juice, shows up in a bottle the admeasurement of a bird bath, I apprehend Absence Piggy in my head: Never eat annihilation bigger than your head, a aphorism that could additionally administer to drinks.) Also, if you don’t feel like talking, you can generally comedy amateur on the tabletop tablets, a aberration that additionally allows you to pay, alike breach bills, afterwards interacting with your server.
All of the aloft is accurate at Applebee’s, which about offers acceptable choices on its assorted artificial airheaded in its rec-room-dressed dining apartment to accumulate the cast absorbing for acute eaters. Skeptics can balmy up to the agilely fiery Sriracha shrimp presented on tortilla strips and acceptable craven tacos, the bushing tucked into its wonton shells with a ablaze slaw. Forget the barren ribs with their vaguely candied coat and the whiskey-bacon burger, best for its absurd onion ringlets. Bigger than you ability apprehend are the juicy-enough steak on the surf-and-turf admixture and slices of lemony broiled craven abiding on quinoa active up with broiled cranberries. The closing is a aberration amid the chains: article almost benign that you could brainstorm absolutely finishing.
4. Olive Garden
Unlike some of its competition, Olive Garden smells as if absolute affable is activity on: The scents of Parmesan and garlic adhere in the air aback I airing in. I’m added charmed by the bluntness of the bartender aback I ask her for the best white wine, and she says, “I’m declared to say Porto Vita, our abode white,” afresh suggests an unoaked chardonnay, Seven Suns, is superior. Of all the alternation restaurants I surveyed, this one aspires to a atom of sophistication; servers are added than blessed to extend tastes of wines.
Brick arches and amber photographs comedy up an Italian theme, but the accepted breadsticks — pillowy wands acclimatized with garlic salt, brushed with margarine and acceptable alone aback balmy — are wholly American, as is the kitchen’s addiction to overcook its pastas. Steer bright of the three-dishes-on-one-platter Tour of Italy, whose craven parmigiana and buttery fettuccine Alfredo aftertaste like annihilation I’ve encountered in the Old World. (The herbed lasagna on the basin makes a bigger anchorage of call.) A new item, citrus-glazed apricot served on “creamy citrus” Alfredo sauce, is by turns candied and dull. You don’t accept to be a vegetarian to acknowledge the fresh-tasting minestrone, blubbery with beans and tomato, and austere abundance can be begin on a basin of spaghetti and meatballs, a “create your own pasta” selection. “More salad? Added soup?” the affable severs afresh ask. What the restaurant lacks in acumen it makes up with generosity.
3. Texas Bank
Talk about a howdy! Country music welcomes barter alike from the outside. En avenue to a table, diners canyon a scarlet affectation of raw meat that primes carnivores for cafeteria or dinner. Buckets of in-their-shell atom advice avoid off ache while you analyze the menu. Like a cardinal of chains, this one makes some babble for altogether celebrants, but this pine-walled bank is the alone cast I apperceive that invites them to sit on a saddle-on-wheels while they’re actuality feted with staff-led auspicious and clapping. Beef is your acquaintance here, be it in a basin of active chili, chopped steak beneath a awning of cheese and caramelized onions or an acceptable rib-eye adapted the blush you ask and best commutual with mashed potatoes cratered with chrism gravy.
The antecedent buck hug of hospitality, which includes a declivity of fresh-baked, butter-brushed, hardly candied rolls, can’t affectation some flaws, amid them annealed catfish and dry pulled pork, the accumulation ashamed with a candied barbecue sauce. (And my adhesive artificial card makes me ambition added chains wiped their lists down, forth with booths, afterwards every use. No one wants to feel a stranger’s fingerprints.) But this enactment does abundant able-bodied to become your best amid like brands. Indeed, the best affable abruptness is the Cactus Blossom, a accomplished deep-fried onion, anniversary blooming allotment crunchy, fiery — and far beneath anointed — than the bloomin’ draw at the abode that pretends to booty you Bottomward Under.
The cheeseburger? It’s a whopper. Chaw bottomward on the construction, congenital with a bun that’s brindle with sesame seeds, and the abrupt patty ability eject juices — you know, like a appropriate hamburger might. The piping-hot chips are memorable added for their churro-like ridges than any potato flavor, but that agency you ability accept allowance for the brownielike amber bedrock cake, a knockoff of the aqueous amber block fabricated acclaimed decades ago by the admired Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York. (Chains are acceptable at anecdotic adorned aliment trends and rethinking them for the masses.)
Breakfast is a ’round-the-clock option. I’m fractional to the buttery pancakes with their delicate edges, and I’d like the “loaded” breakfast sandwich added if its baldheaded ham was beneath acrid and the bloated amalgamation was easier to tackle; my accolade eggs slipped out aback I chomped down. My go-to access is spaghetti and meatballs, offered with a booze that bridges acidity and tang, and a buttery beanbag of garlic toast. Lighter options accommodate a adorable craven soup, candied with carrots, and a basin of beginning bake-apple that brought calm strawberries, apples and grapes. “Lemon for your water?” a server asks, aloof as waiters do in added flush settings. My Uber disciplinarian asks for my analysis aback he picks me up at what he said was his admired area in Washington. Turns out he brand to go on Sundays, aback actuality music is allotment of the mix. Afresh and there, he tells me, “It feels like my grandfather’s.” Proof, in added words, that chains can be personal.
1. Cracker Barrel Old Country Abundance
Especially afterwards bistro a lot of aliment that tasted as if it came from a annex rather than a kitchen, it was clear: No added alternation restaurant in my months-long analysis comes as abutting to home affable as this operation. If the craven dumplings are a little achromatic and the blah aliment muffins prove a tad salty, aloof about aggregate abroad that beyond my aperture in this barn-size dining allowance dressed with lanterns and authorization plates is article I’d be blessed to try again. Seconds, please, of the appetizing meatloaf streaked with vegetables, breakable buzz beef with fiery amber gravy, and lemony, skin-on trout fillets, a account special. You don’t accept to eat affluent here; a ancillary of bake-apple brims with beginning pineapple, blackberries and blueberries, although the not-too-sweet pecan pie is account the detour from any diet.
The all-American aliment is alone allotment of Cracker Barrel’s charm. To ability the restaurant proper, you cantankerous a balustrade set with agitation chairs (they’re for sale) and canyon through a aloof retail abundance peddling candy, bounded sodas, clothing, toys and Gwen Stefani’s Christmas release. Country music and a crackling blaze — you apprehend that right, the restaurant comes with a address — appropriate any amiss you may accept suffered that day, and the account couldn’t be added personable. Is the acceptable mat out for everyone? An adverse history of accumulated racism and bigotry has been addressed in contempo years with across-the-board declarations on the company’s website. An imbiber’s regret: no wine or beer to adore with my meals. Soda glasses are refilled afterwards your accepting to ask, requests are met with “yes, sir” or “ma’am,” and should agents associates see you disturbing with a bag of leftovers, they blitz over to help. Yes, I booty what I can’t accomplishment home with me. And every chaw of those thin, adorable pork chops, allotment of a “country boy” bowl with absurd apples and abominable assortment browns, makes me anticipate of my grandmother — a accomplishment akin by no added alternation in my survey.
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