Chain Restaurant Elitism
Over the last couple of days, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Ross Douthat, Daniel Larison, and Megan McArdle have confessed that chain restaurants such as Outback, Cheesecake Factory, and Olive Garden aren’t all that bad, generating a surprisingly fierce round of responses in their comment sections.
Most of these places serve reliable food in large quantities at reasonable prices which, really, is what most folks are looking for when dining out. If you’re looking to have a special evening out, are in a major metropolitan area, and have a surplus of disposable income then, obviously, there are far superior choices. But if you’re looking for a decent alternative to cooking your own dinner, grabbing some lunch during the work day, traveling, have small children, or otherwise not looking for a unique culinary experience, most of the chains are fine.
Personally, I’m not an Outback fan. Their restaurants tend to be noisy and crowded, the waits are long, and the steaks are apparently soaked in brine and are thus quite salty. But, really, that’s a matter of personal preference. But Ruth’s Chris is better than any random local steakhouse you’re liable to find even in Chicago or New York (although you’d probably do better at a family owned establishment if you know where to go). Similarly, PF Chang’s is better than a random Chinese restaurant, the Great American Restaurants (Mike’s, Coastal Flats, Sweetwater Tavern, etc.) are better than almost any local family restaurant, Bonefish Grill better than the average seafood place, and so forth. The best of the upscale chains are quite good and still relatively affordable. Most even include side dishes with their entrée rather than charging $8 to $10 for them!
There are almost certainly plenty of better restaurants in New York or Chicago or Boston or Los Angeles. Or even Atlanta or Birmingham. But even the priciest, best rated restaurant is a comparatively dicey proposition. The great chef who made the place famous may have been lured away by another establishment, or simply not be there that day. And the fact that food critics love a place for its novel preparations does not necessarily mean you will. Going to one of those places is an adventure, where you may be delighted by a unique experience or sorely disappointed. That range is substantially limited with the chains.