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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    As I wrote at my place yesterday, I’m unconvinced that their eletism doesn’t run much deeper than this. I wonder if it’s not part of the Anti-American herd tradition that predominates so much of Klien’s crowd these days. It’s cool, after all, to be seen at trendy little spots in the Village, as oppsoed to being seen at Outback in White Plains;

    But what if we take this kind of instinctive anti-American success nonsense and apply such to their choices in politics… where they’re ashamed to admit the truth of things because it’s not ‘cool’ and doesn’t fit in with the elitist notions spread by the group they’re trying to fit in with?

    You need to understand the insidious nature of what I’m talking about here, to grasp what I’m asking. In that direction lies Hollywood, for example, where one’s career can ride on their being accepted by the group. Which tends to explain Tom Hanks yesterday, and on the other hand, why Chuck Heston wasn’t filming for the last 20 years of his life.

    The food ain’t much better,(if it’s even as good, frankly) but whatever the cost, you get social stature. Or as Jon Anderson once put it: “Here is my soul; I eat at chez nous”

  2. J.W. Hamner says:

    I live in Boston/Cambridge and never eat at big national chains, but I agree with your post 100%. Because I have so many dining options and enjoy the “risk taking” of going to an unknown place that may have gotten a few good user reviews on Chowhound or something, I don’t see the point of going to P.F. Chang’s or something.

    However, when people talk down about national chains they are grossly underestimating the number of really terrible or at least incredibly inconsistent restaurants out there. What people who favor the “local place” seem to do is think of the handful of local places that are truly exceptional and forget about the dozens and dozens that are pretty bad.

  3. James Joyner says:

    The food ain’t much better,(if it’s even as good, frankly) but whatever the cost, you get social stature.

    There’s some of that, to be sure. But part of it is just a mindset about what’s “good” and what’s not. My wife eschewed chains entirely before we got together and now reluctantly admits that she likes several of them. Then again, she’s more adventurous and less picky about food than I am.

    What people who favor the “local place” seem to do is think of the handful of local places that are truly exceptional and forget about the dozens and dozens that are pretty bad.

    Exactly. There was a point in my life, not all that long ago, where Olive Garden and PF Chang’s were the best Italian and Chinese restaurants available to me.

  4. Scott Swank says:

    My complaint with Outback, Cheesecake Factory, and Olive Garden is not with their recipes or even so very much with their preparation. Their ingredients are awful.

    You will not find a fresh tomato being made into sauce at Olive Garden, you will instead find a catsupy product being extruded from a bag. I can open a bottle of Prego, thank you very much and I in point of fact _will_ instead of spending $12-15 at Olive Garden. So it’s not that I avoid these places so that I can eat at spendier, more prestigious restaurants. It’s rather because I think that they are overpriced.

  5. James Joyner says:

    I can open a bottle of Prego, thank you very much and I in point of fact _will_ instead of spending $12-15 at Olive Garden.

    I can make better spaghetti than Olive Garden and, indeed, can make a steak at least as good as Ruth’s Chris. And frequently do. But doing that requires planning the meal, shopping for the ingredients, cooking, and cleaning up. There are times when that’s too much hassle and I’d rather let someone else do the cooking.

    I don’t actually eat at either of those places very often. I don’t have one of either particularly close and there are better steak houses within comparable distance. I do, however, eat at Mike’s and Coastal Flats with some regularity. And I had lunch at Olive Garden every now and again when I had one across the street from my office.

  6. Bithead says:

    But part of it is just a mindset about what’s “good” and what’s not.

    Well, as you will already know, James, taste is a sensation that is subject to surroundings, including the social stigma… attached to a place. I’m not convinced that in a side-by side mos of the folks who insist that the local places are so much better, would be able to tell the difference, in a neutral location.

    Now, I’ll tell you something; One of my favorite places to eat is the Flying J truckstop, about 20 miles west of me here. I’ve eaten at several around the country, with varied results. And certainly, the place is not going to win any culinary prizes. But when I go there, that’s not what I’m after… and frankly, I couldn’t possibly care less about the stigma of eating at a truck stop.

    (OK, I heard that “Yeehaw”….)

    That said, the food is reliably good,(Particularly at the prices) the Salad bar in this place is always good,(though as I say, I’ve had that vary with location) and the service you’ll get at Truck stops in general, is usually among the best you’ll find anywhere… and this place is no exception to that rule. And guess what? SOmetimes, that’s more than enough, particularly if you’re on the road.

    Scott, I avhe to tell you that the reason for what you call ‘sauce in a bag’ is because what they’re after is consistancy in the flavors, etc. That’s hard to do with fresh on site stuff, particularly in variable foods like Tomatoes, which can go from super bland to super acid in a heartbeat. Makes for a nightmare when you’re aiming at a consistant product.

    Smaller concerns, like ‘Fred’s Italian place” aren’t so much concerned about the consistancy of the flavor/texture, and so can go with fresh made stuff. they know you’re not likley to be back for month. Roaders, though are faily likely to be in another Olive Garden (Or, a another Denny’s for that matter) firly soon, and changes in the flavor and consistancy make for poor PR for a chain.

    Kinda like serving blended wines… same reasoning. Follow?

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    But Ruth’s Chris is better than any random local steakhouse you’re liable to find even in Chicago or New York

    James, have you ever spent any time in Chicago? I can’t speak for New York but one of the remarkable things about dining in Chicago is the high general quality of ordinary non-chain restaurants.

    There are four small non-chain Chinese restaurants within walking distance of my home. Any of them is better than any chain I’ve been to including P. F. Chang’s. There’s a pan-Asian restaurant, essentially a Thai restaurant that serves sushi, a block away that I’d stack up against any chain. There are two hot dog stands (both owned by Greeks) within walking distance of my house. Either is better than any chain restaurant in a comparable price range.

    Within two miles of my house there are two barbecue places better than any of the chain barbecue places and two steak places better than any chain. One is the well-known Myron and Phil’s.

    I’ve visited and eaten in a lot of places all over the world. Chicago is a really amazing place from a dining standpoint. The only places in the States I’ve been to that are better are San Francisco, New Orleans, and Boston.

  8. Scott Swank says:

    Bithead,

    You have a good point in that Olive Garden gets its sauces from a bag for consistency. Unfortunately that means that its sauces never taste like fresh tomatos. Their pasta is also dry rather than fresh. While I do have to clean up afterward (factual note: I cook, my wife cleans), that really doesn’t take any more time than it would to drive to Olive Garden and back.

    James,

    Yup, convenience often trumps. I eat far more mediocre meals at lunch on work days than at any other time.

    Dave,

    Well if you’re in Chicago then you can get damn’d fine Italian food a couple of miles east.

    Cucina di Donatella is priced roughly comparably to dreck like Olive Garden and tastes like your proverbial Italian grandmother has been cooking all day. And don’t skip the gelato.

    Consider — Donatella makes fresh sauce from fresh ingredients, uses fresh pasta, buys good ingredients, and then just tries to bring out their flavor. Now that is worth my money.

  9. John Burgess says:

    Dave: Your assessment of Chicago food is what I hear from a lot of people: Very high quality and fairly reasonable prices.

    I’m utterly catholic in my dining preferences. I can be happy with something from a street vendor in many parts of the world, eat with pleasure at a hole in the wall, or, if I’m in that mood, drop five or six hundred at a 4-star restaurant. It depends on what I’m doing, how flush I am, what I feel like eating.

    I’m not a habitué of the restaurant chains. The quality isn’t good enough, generally, to justify the prices. The steaks at Outback are okay by me, but the rest of the menu is boring as can be. Most of the others are simply boring, with no redeeming–to my palate–value.

    In fact, I’d rather go to Checkers or McD’s if I’m not in the mood to cook or if I’m tired of my own cooking. Usually, I’ll head for some good, local ethnic restaurant and usually I’ll order something that I wouldn’t cook for myself.

    But I am very picky. Most Chinese restaurants are simply in a deeply inferior league to the good Chinese restaurants I’ve dined in, so I don’t bother. Finding a good Thai, Turkish, Ethiopian, Arabic restaurant is, to me, worth the effort and I’ll stick with a good discovery. At least until they get a new chef who can’t hack it or try to either save money on ingredients or ‘naturalize’ the cuisine for local tastes. For instance, the plethora of ‘Indian’ restaurants in London have little to do with actual Indian food. Most Thai restaurants tone down the heat and add sugar to match what they suppose are Western tastes. When that happens, I start searching again…

  10. James Joyner says:

    James, have you ever spent any time in Chicago? I can’t speak for New York but one of the remarkable things about dining in Chicago is the high general quality of ordinary non-chain restaurants.

    Dave, I’ve been a few times and had mixed experience. For example, the vaunted Gibson’s steakhouse, which is highly touted and ridiculously overpriced, likes to “char” their steaks. Even though my wife gets hers medium rare, the outside tastes like charcoal. Ugh.

    Similarly, I ate at one of the famous “Chicago pizza” places (a tourist trap, I’m sure, but a well known one) and found the service awful and the pizza worse than most frozen ones I’ve had.

    Then again, we also had several very good experiences there, including a couple of truly outstanding meals.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s practically impossible to get a bad pizza in Chicago. I don’t eat pizza too often but when I do I’ll usually get Edwardo’s although Lou Malnati’s, beloved by many, is just a good stretch of the legs away.

    John, Devon Avenue (again, just a little farther than walking distance for me) east of McCormick is, according to Indian friends of mine, as close to New Delhi as you can get without actually going there. A favorite of mine there, Indian Garden, has two locations, one on Devon, one downtown. There are literally 30 good Indian restaurants along about a six block stretch of Devon.

    And, of course, if you start walking down Clark Street south of say, Bryn Mawr, you’ll run into a dizzying sequence of Turkish, Iranian, Japanese, Swedish, Thai, Ethiopian, Colombian, and who knows what all else restaurants, nearly all reasonably priced and most of quite high quality.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW, John, I’ve got an amusing story about Indian food. My wife and I are godparents to the child of some Indian friends of ours. At the naming party I got into a lengthy discussion with the mother of the husband on the subject of making bhel. I told her that in my family making bail was a common issue but I’m not sure she got the joke.

  13. Scott Swank says:

    Dave,

    I like Indian Garden for a buffet. But for individual entrees I recommend Hema’s Kitchen: Oakley & Devon (the original where you’ll find Hema’s daughter Pam) or in Lincoln Park (where you’ll find Hema).

  14. Tnk_Eddy says:

    I saw Ana Marie Cox lunching with fellow travelers Marnie Vander Helsing and Maureen Dowd at the Olive Garden in Falls Church last week. And nope, I couldn’t believe it either.

  15. Joyce says:

    Ruth Chris oughta be Ruth Crisp

    We were very excited to see a Ruth Chris steakhouse open downtown Fort Worth right across the street from my husband’s old building. We dropped in on them one day for lunch after they opened, but found out they are only open for supper. And they recommend getting a reservation. So, we took a card, and waited for a better time.

    Even though we had a reservation, we were sent to wait in the bar, and it was very crowded, and by the time the one bar-waiter got to us, we were tired of waiting. The bar chairs were none too comfortable.

    They tried shoveling us into a teeny booth, but I did not fit. I was amused to see that they usually shovel six people into this booth. The manager sensed my discomfort and gave us a table. I have never had a manager rub me on the shoulders like that. It was creepy. The light was better at the table. We could actually read the menu and were shocked to see that some items did not even have a price. Buffalo, for example, was open-ended as far as what it was going to cost. Buffalo are migratory creatures, so I guess, it depends on how far and wide they had to go to procure said buffalo.

    We were provided with one sad French roll and a tiny bit of butter to keep us occupied until the food arrived. It bothered me and I realized later that we could have eaten at Carrabbas THREE times for what this ended up costing us. And the Carrabbas bread is heavenly, and they keep it coming, fresh and hot.

    I ordered medium well, which promised some pink. Good thing I did not order well done. Our steak-loving son does not like broccoli so he chose the broiled tomato. I don’t think I have ever paid seven dollars for a broiled tomato. No bread crumbs, no cheese, no nothing. Just a broiled tomato. My grandpa, who was a farmer, would find high humor in the city slickers being so dumb.

    Disappointed with Ruth Crisp? That would be an understatement. We have listened to Sean Hannity brag about them for YEARS on the radio. I realize this Ruth Chris had only been open a few weeks, but the service was agonizingly slow, the manager too touchy-feely, they ran out of cheesecake, and the prices way too high. Give me Carrabbas any day. And what is with this serving wine in a huge glass that they don’t even fill half-way? Precise measuring must be saving them some pennies somewhere, I guess. And they gouge the silly rich folks selling bottled water, too. Please.

  16. J.W. Hamner says:

    Yes, New York, Chicago, San Fransisco, Boston and probably many other cities have a tremendous amount of quality restaurants… but how many Americans really live close enough to those cities that they can really experience those restaurants on a daily or weekly basis? It doesn’t really make sense to be criticizing chain restaurants on the basis of the finest of the fine dining options available in Manhattan. Living a 5 minute walk from Harvard Square I probably have half a dozen different Thai places within walking distance, but when my girlfriend goes up to Maine they talk about THE Thai Place that is a thirty minutes away. Really, when you think of the vast majority of places out there, I’m betting that many chains are significantly more quality than average.

  17. James Joyner says:

    And what is with this serving wine in a huge glass that they don’t even fill half-way? Precise measuring must be saving them some pennies somewhere, I guess.

    That’s how you’re supposed to serve most reds, actually. You have a large bowl to allow oxygenation and never fill more than a third full. Typically, though, wine by the glass will come in a carafe and then you pour into the glass itself. At any rate, unless they’re gouging you, you still get a quarter bottle in your gigantic glass.

  18. Joyce says:

    No, this was white wine. Does it need to breathe?

  19. James Joyner says:

    No, this was white wine. Does it need to breathe?

    I seldom order white wine in a restaurant but certainly never got it in a burgundy glass. Maybe there are varieties where that’s the norm, though. Dunno.

  20. Ben says:

    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.

    James, OutBack does not use brine or any thing on there steaks they are seasoned & seard on a flat top ( just like you would cook pancakes )if ya don’t like seasoning or just light just ask,also most ingredients are fresh and made in house all dressings etc.. I’ve been an employye 15+ yrs . Yes it’s not as good as when we first started but hey pretty consistent anyhow just wanted to let you know .

  21. I too do not like Outback much, they don’t know how to do a steak medium rare.
    I do go to chains because they are reasonably priced, well portioned and I KNOW what I’m getting.
    Macaroni Grill does decent pasta, their calamari is always done right.
    Olive Garden is good for soup, salad and breadsticks for lunch
    No Chains for Mexican food! At least not here in California. Plenty of good local places.
    I just had dinner last weekend at The Restaurant in Palm Beach. $400 for two, including drinks, and tip. Much smaller portions than, Cheesecake Factory, better ingredients, but 6 times the price? Not necessarily a value.
    Find a local place you like and then visit it regularly, so they stay in business.