The Golden Chains
Chain restaurants aren’t all bad. And even the bad ones sometimes scratch a particular itch or fill a specific need. You won’t find me bashing chains just for sport. Some are better than others. Plus, since these businesses tend to feed the mass market, positive changes made within those operations can have significant effects on how consumers think about and relate to food.
We have some good chains here in the Capital Region. Whole Foods is great. Never did I expect to see them come to our humble DMA, but I’m glad that they did and seem to have found an audience. Just last night I went to Blaze, which might not make great pizza, but they produce a quick, convenient, and tasty way of eating lots of vegetables. It’s been years since I’ve stepped foot into a Hooters, but those breaded and sauced wings are still a guilty pleasure of mine, and you can’t find them anywhere else.
Of course, there are those chains without any redeemable value whatsoever. Like that pink and orange monstrosity that is ruining donuts. Or that sandwich maker from Connecticut that trucks in pre-sliced meat in from hundreds of miles away and celebrates its freshness. Blech.
Just recently, Consumer Reports published its list of the best chain restaurants in America. When I looked at the top places in each of the categories, one thing became immediately clear.
Here’s how this broke down.
2) Seasons 52
1) First Watch
2) The Original Pancake House
3) Le Peep
1) Fogo de Chao Brazilian Steakhouse
2) The Capital Grille
3) Ruth’s Chris Steak House
2) Sakura Japanese Steak, Seafood House & Sushi Bar
1) Eddie V’s Prime Seafood
2) Ocean Prime
1) Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q
2) Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill
3) Sonny’s BBQ
1) Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano
2) Maggiano’s Little Italy
3) Bravo Cucina Italiana
2) Gloria’s Latin Cuisine
3) El Fenix Mexican Restaurant
Bar & Brill
1) Ted’s Montana Grill
2) Redstone American Grill
3) Marlow’s Tavern
1) Tommy Bahama Restaurant & Bar
2) Razzoo’s Cajun Cafe
3) Copeland’s of New Orleans
What? Who? Okay. Let’s take this all in for a moment. Because I think it’s fascinating that I’ve never even heard of the vast majority of restaurants on this list. All the big names like Olive Garden, Chili’s, Red Lobster, Smokey Bones, Applebee’s, Denny’s, and such all fail to make the list.
Part of me wonders if these large, national, and long-demonized chains actually compete in an entirely separate category. Because for the most part, the chains that made the list offer a decidedly much more upscale dining experience. So it might be a good thing if people were moving away from the largest national food troughs.
However, perhaps this is an alarming trend, as these gussied up chains may be siphoning business from truly great independent restaurants. It’s hard to say since of all these restaurants I’ve only ever been to First Watch.
Which brings me to the point that we have none of these here in the Capital Region. Some of the chains we do have made the deeper list.
-Ninety Nine came in 10th under Contemporary/Traditional American
-Cracker Barrel Old Country Store came in 5th under Family
-Texas de Brazil Churrascaria came in 4th under Steakhouse
-P.F. Chang’s came in 6th for Asian
-Bonefish Grill is 14th in the Seafood category
-Carrabba’s Italian Grill ranked #8 for Italian/Pizza
-Houlihan’s (which used to be in Crossgates Mall) got 11th best Bar & Grill
-The Melting Pot is hot at #6 within Specialty
The message to me here, is that even for those who enjoy chain restaurants, the Capital Region could be doing better. Maybe one day I’ll have the energy to really see what the differences are between The Olive Garden, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, and Carrabba’s Italian Grill. I’m relatively curious, but not quite curious enough to check them out.
Nor could I imagine choosing to sit down for a meal at Texas de Brazil over Salt and Char. Sure, the later would be more expensive, but not by much. And the bump in quality more than makes up for the increase in price.
I’m not begrudging the region’s lack of top ranked chain restaurants, nor am I calling for more chains to move into the area. But it’s always good to occasionally take a step back from the Capital Region and recognize how our perceptions of food might be different from people who live elsewhere.