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The Golden Chains

September 29, 2016

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.

Contemporary/Traditional American
1) Hillstone
2) Seasons 52
3) Charleston’s

Family
1) First Watch
2) The Original Pancake House
3) Le Peep

Steakhouse
1) Fogo de Chao Brazilian Steakhouse
2) The Capital Grille
3) Ruth’s Chris Steak House

Asian
1) Nobu
2) Sakura Japanese Steak, Seafood House & Sushi Bar
3) Benihana

Seafood
1) Eddie V’s Prime Seafood
2) Ocean Prime
3) Roy’s

Barbecue
1) Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q
2) Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill
3) Sonny’s BBQ

Italian/Pizza
1) Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano
2) Maggiano’s Little Italy
3) Bravo Cucina Italiana

Mexican/Tex-Mex
1) Abuelo’s
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

Specialty
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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Holier than Thou permalink
    September 29, 2016 10:26 am

    There’s an Al Cheit for eating in chain restaurants. Don’t forget it on Yom Kippur.

  2. Jeff permalink
    September 29, 2016 10:51 am

    Didn’t you know? Albany is where chains come to die… Quiznos, Krispy Kreme are two of the most recent. I used to be really excited about getting a Sonic, but the reality has been meh.

  3. Jenny permalink
    September 29, 2016 1:25 pm

    In all fairness to both chains and Albany, I’m not sure this article truly says anything about either chains or what we Albany might not be doing right . I, too, had not heard of many of these restaurants, so I looked up a couple. Hillstone looks like they have a good menu. Unfortunately, there are only 10 Hillstone restaurants in the entire country. Seasons 52 is a little more prolific — there are 40 across the country. But only 8 in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania combined. Even Ruths Chris, more of a familiar name, keeps to mostly to major cities and population centers. I am not defending teh chains we do have, but I don’t think we should judge our food culture on whether or not we have these places near us.

  4. September 29, 2016 3:30 pm

    Hillstone is in a separate category. Chefs adore it. Bon Appetit broke with recent tradition and did a feature about them a few months back. Its employees are actually happy to put it on their CV as meaningful experience when applying for some of the country’s most famous restaurants.
    I think the lesson is that the level of franchising directly impacts its general quality. Corky’s, for instance, has 5 or 6 locations in Tennessee and is still great (hell, Joe’s is technically considered a chain). Sonny’s has over 100 and is not. Smokey Bones is an abomination. This isn’t an absolute relationship (see In ‘n’ Out Burger), but it’s certainly a factor.
    I also think that chains in general require either a level of anonymity (Times Square), a consumer base with few other options (rural America), or just straight philistines (I can never understand how Cracker Barrel flourishes in the south). I think it’s to our credit that the CR is relatively barren of them. Sure, they’re there in Colonie, Glenmont, Latham, Clifton Park, etc. But Albany, Troy, Saratoga, and Schenectady are still small enough that independent restaurants garner strong, personal followings. Thus, though there are enough people to support some of them in the suburbs, the region is not fertile ground for chains. That’s no something to bemoan.
    But Daniel, don’t ever admit to going to Bruegger’s for “bagels” again. The New Yorker in me died a little for the image of my respected foodie friend shoving one of those sad balls of dough down his well-cultured palate.

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