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jhlurie

The chain restaurant topic

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Recently I was in an area out of town where I knew none of the restaurants, had no opportunity to look anything up, and didn't have the time to go around asking.  So I pulled into a local Applebee's and had lunch.  It wasn't great, it wasn't bad... it was just Applebee's.  Applebee's is my current "safe" chain restaurant in the same way that many MANY years ago TGI Friday's was (but no longer is...).

Thinking about this reminded me of the internal debate I've always had about chain restaurants.  On one hand they cater to the lowest common denominator and even if they luck into an up and coming or accidental talent to run their kitchen the menu is always unchallenging.  On the other hand, they provide a safe harbor of consistency for the traveler (in that light even a "fast food" chain like McDonald's qualifies--perhaps even more so...).

Also, it occured to me that even the most despised chain sometimes, by happy accident, has one or two outstanding items--things that may be guilty pleasures just as much as the "junk food" we've discussed elsewhere.

I'm curious if the opinion here is overwhelmingly that chain restaurants are a scourge, or if anyone thinks there are redeeming qualities.  I'll qualify this by saying that my own consumption of chain restaurant food is pretty limited (3 or 4 times a year at most), excluding fast food--which I'm guilty of eating on road trips, commutes, late nights, etc. as much as once every few weeks.

Also, if you are a confessed fan of some type of chain restaurant, what are the outstanding items that draw you there?  This can include fast food if you'd like.

And yes, I've seen the many articles on how unhealthy most chain restaurant food is.  Worse than most outright fast food in many cases.

(edited for speeling, er, spelling... hey guys does the next Ikonboard have a spellchecker! :) )

(Edited by jhlurie at 11:53 pm on Aug. 13, 2001)


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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A few points on this:

1. In a lot of towns -- probably the majority of American towns in terms of sheer number, as opposed to population -- the best restaurant in town today is the local Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday's, or whatever. Most strip-mall-type towns I've driven through in the heartland have contained zero family-run, non-chain restaurants other than the occasional diner (which in many cases isn't as good as the average Waffle House anyway). The major exceptions are certain regions where there is a deep local culinary tradition, such as in some of the towns in the barbecue belt.

2. Amazingly, as I have learned from talking to locals in a lot of these typical American towns, locals don't necessarily even perceive these places as chains. I was very surprised to learn that some pretty well educated friends in the Midwest had no idea that their local TGI Friday's was part of a chain. They thought it was a great local restaurant. Once I was alerted to that phenomenon, I started seeing it much more often because I knew to ask people about it.

3. I don't think the mere existence of a franchise arrangement or other multiple-restaurant-corporate-structure guarantees bad food. It may guarantee that you won't see food of an independent, artistic nature. But theoretically a very high level of cuisine -- pretty much as high as the average person will ever want -- can be provided by a chain. Howard Johnson's in its heyday, which was coming to an end when I was a kid, is a good example of a chain that, by the standards of its day, served food worthy of praise. Most of the chain's menu development in those days occurred under the guidance of Pierre Franey. Remember, at this point it would not be an overstatement to call, say, Ruth's Chris steakhouse a chain (76 locations and growing). Ruth's Chris may not be the best steakhouse in New York or Chicago, but it is in many other markets where it competes. And on an objective level you'd have to say it's pretty good, if not fabulous, not only in terms of its steaks but also in terms of the overall experience it provides at a typical branch.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Last year while in Florida we were going to a different chain restaurant each night after spending all day in the hospital with a sick relative. The only one that I thought was worth going back to was Champps. The service was good, the food was fresh and the prices reasonable. Recently in Ohio we had dinner at Buca, a chain restaurant that serves tremendous dishes that must be shared. It is the Carmine's of the midwest. Their concept and quality of food would be worth trying if you are traveling and want someplace casual to eat. And if I was in a bind I like Outback but only if there isn't another choice in the city I am traveling through.

(Edited by Rosie at 11:22 am on Aug. 12, 2001)


Rosalie Saferstein, aka "Rosie"

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With a few exceptions like Waffle House, Krispy Kreme, and The Palm I abhor chain restaurants and will tread the gastronomical precipe of unknown local eateries to avoid them.

It gauls me that hundreds of thousands of non-urban kids are growing up believing that Olive Garden is great Eye-talian cuisine, that all seafood must be drenched in orange red oil a la Red Lobster or that Chi Chi's fried ice cream is as Mexican as it gets.

I disagree that Olive Garden can be the best restaurant in any town.  Nor would I ever seek a safe harbor of consistency.  There is always a buffet or a tap room or a local dinner house to try.  

You may strike out, but you may hit a home run or at least a double.   And with dessert you can savor the satisfaction that you haven't encouraged the spread / blight of lowest common denominator menu planning, fabricated plastic ethnic decor and the Wal-Marting of local restaurants by the giant corporations.


Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

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Quote: from Holly Moore on 10:59 am on Aug. 12, 2001

With a few exceptions like Waffle House, Krispy Kreme, and The Palm I abhor chain restaurants and will tread the gastronomical precipe of unknown local eateries to avoid them.

It gauls me that hundreds of thousands of non-urban kids are growing up believing that Olive Garden is great Eye-talian cuisine, that all seafood must be drenched in orange red oil a la Red Lobster or that Chi Chi's fried ice cream is as Mexican as it gets.

I disagree that Olive Garden can be the best restaurant in any town.  Nor would I ever seek a safe harbor of consistency.  There is always a buffet or a tap room or a local dinner house to try.

Personally, the one or two times I've been thrust through the doors of an Olive Garden I have NOT been impressed.  Heck, it wasn't even a little good.  And the other "downside" argument I didn't make in my initial presentation was that arguably chain restaurants have helped kill many smaller mom & pop restaurants.  And another argument could be that they've helped keep down the expectations of locals who come to think of that chain as being "high class" somehow (odd idea that... but I've seen it).

But there ARE exceptions... even you seem to have admitted so.  So that was partially the purpose here: to discuss the exceptions, as well as the whole concept of chain/franchise restaurants.  I mean, have Stuckey's really done any harm as a concept?  Was Howard Johnson's the beginning of the end, or just what they claimed to be--a consistent good meal mainly for the traveler?  And the big kahuna... Starbucks.  Some people swear by it and some think its the ultimate scourge.

(Edited by jhlurie at 11:09 am on Aug. 12, 2001)


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Quote: from Holly Moore on 10:59 am on Aug. 12, 2001

It gauls me that hundreds of thousands of non-urban kids are growing up believing that Olive Garden is great Eye-talian cuisine, that all seafood must be drenched in orange red oil a la Red Lobster or that Chi Chi's fried ice cream is as Mexican as it gets.

do you honestly think that people really think this?  come on.

as far as my "favorites" go...

applebee's has one heck of a margarita.

there's nothing quite as satisfying on a hung-over morning as sausage mcmuffin with egg from mcdonald's.

taco bell has some tasty items.  again, best when hung-over.

KFC, ####, that chicken can be pretty good.

olive garden, chi chi's, that "Fresh mex" place, whatever it's called, bennigans, et al, are just horrendous and horribly over-priced.  it's a shame that families of limited means actually go to these places for a night out, and drop that much money, when they could easily spend 1/3 the amount at a good, local, ethnic restaurant.

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Quote: from tommy on 12:34 pm on Aug. 12, 2001

KFC, ####, that chicken can be pretty good.

olive garden, chi chi's, that "Fresh mex" place, whatever

I never liked KFC, but I miss Roy Rogers - they really had the best fried chicken.  The breasts were whole breasts too, not like KFC where they cut the breast into 2 or 3 pieces and still charge you extra for white meat.  Sadly, they were bought by Wendy's a few years ago.  There are still some RRs around, but the chicken doesn't seem the same as it used to be.

Also, the "fresh mex" place is called Chevy's.  Every single time I've been to one there's been service problems.  Makes you wonder why I'd go back, but it was in a very convenient location to meet people, work lunches, etc, with not much else nearby.  Each time I'm there I vow not to go back, but sometimes you just can't help it when it's that or a Pizza/Chinese combo with no good choices. :(

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Yes I really do think that - especially suburban and rural kids, many of whom I believe grow up without any exposure to non-chain and non-fast food dining out.

Quote: from tommy on 12:34 pm on Aug. 12, 2001

[do you honestly think that people really think this?  come on.


Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

HollyEats.Com

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Holly is definitely right that a lot of people believe their local chains are the ne plus ultra of food (see my comments above). And Holly, when I said the Olive Garden is the best restaurant in a lot of towns, I didn't mean it's a good restaurant. Just that it's often the best. Commuting around the Northeast and certain other culinary hotbeds (and also the random town where there just happens to be a better-than-average food culture) you generally have good choices in most towns, but once you get way out there in the middle the chains are king and I've often found myself grateful for them. In plenty of towns the Olive Garden is the only place you can get a reasonably fresh green salad -- and that includes the local supermarket. Last time we drove cross country we had this lesson reinforced time and again. Our best experiences were of course in idiosyncratic independent restaurants. But so were our worst.

I have no philosophical opposition to the idea of a chain. It's merely a method of organizing a business, and there are a lot of different types of organizations under the heading "chain" and those would probably include the restaurants of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse, and Nobu Matsuhisa -- all of which I consider among the very finest in the world. There are good and bad chains, and there are good and bad independents. Good is good and bad is bad as far as I'm concerned.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm going to disagree with you.

I have no philosophical opposition to the idea of a chain.

My opposition to chains is purely philosophical. They sacrifice individual expression and therefore ultimate choice in favor of consistency, which in itself is something I find less than desireable. I'd rather eat in one of Jean-George's "chain" restaurants than all but perhaps a very few diners, but for each one of Jean-George's restaurants, maybe another restaurant with greater individuality might spring up. Of course Jean-Georges is not a good choice as his restaurants are quite unique, but my point is not diminished by the exceptions nor by the fact that the economics of restaurants these days help make the chain inevitable and acceptable in many ways. My point is only that should Ducasse manage to run a chain of a thousand identical restaurants all up to his Paris/Monte Carlo/NYC standards, you'd probably fall all over yourself finding that little diner that serves it's own brand of forthright and honest simple food.


Robert Buxbaum

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Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

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I like good restaurants. If they can be reproduced, that doesn't lessen their appeal to me. If anything it makes me glad I can find a similar restaurant in a place where good food might otherwise be difficult to find. To think less of a restaurant because there are two of it makes little sense to me.

Taking the whole discussion to such a theoretical level pretty much guarantees that nobody is going to budge. But the reality is that there aren't enough interesting, individualistic restaurants out there to feed all the people who want to eat meals out. There never were, and I doubt there ever could be. This is emphatically the case even in France. So chains certainly have their place. The question really is what that place is.

There are a lot of different scenarios that can be brought about by the entry of chains into a local marketplace. I've seen examples where the chains have put sole proprietorships out of business, and I've seen situations where the chains could barely make a dent in the viability of the established independent restaurants. No doubt some good independent restaurants cease to exist or never come into existence on account of the presence of chains. There is some extent to which imprinting of chain tastes on popular culture creates society-wide poor taste. But I think in general the chains have simply created a higher standard for the independents: The independents must be demonstrably and significantly better than their chain competitors in order to overcome the economies-of-scale-type advantages of the chains. That can be a good thing as often as not.

I don't believe there was ever a time in America when great restaurants abounded, all of which are now gone on account of the chains. Most of the restaurants in America, especially outside the major cities, have historically been terrible. In a very large percentage of towns the chains have represented an improvement.

In the end, though, chains exist and opposing them is purely a theoretical proposition with no potential ever to have any impact on the world. There's no prospective legislation to ban chains or anything like that, so I'm not sure what is gained by railing against them. I'll use chains for some purposes, and seek out independents for others.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I don't rail against chains. I generally avoid them in the hope of finding something different and interesting thought not necessarily better. Part of my theorhetical complaint about chains in general is the sameness and lack of variety and regionalism, but in real life all they do is put the bars serving greasy bugers and the pizza shops selling lousy pizza out of business most of the time, so the loss is rarely real.

Paris is full of chains, and I don't mean the fast food places. I'm thinking of the Belgian mussel chain and the Bistro Romain Italian restaurant chain, as well as some others in which I suspect I will never set food, but there's also the Flo chain which may be guilty of homogenizing brasserie fare, but they have saved and restored some of the most wonderful rooms and kept up the overall quality of the food. Most of them are a great choice for a simple meal or raw oysters and fresh seafood. To prove they could more than save and operate a traditional brasserie, they opened a modern version next to the Bastile Opera and we had a fine meal there that was surprisingly contemporary in a contemporary chic setting. I woudn't let my theories interfere with my dining enjoyment, but I'll still hunt out a quirky little restaurant for sport.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Surprisingly even to myself, I have to stand up for chains.  My husband and I travel frequently, spending around 50 nights a year away from home domestically.  We are often up at 3 and 4am, which is midnight and 1am our local time, and by the time we are looking for dinner, trial and error don't make it.  When we are able to ferret out the local treasure, we make it our own.  But when evening comes and we're exhausted and hungry, Applebee's looks like a beacon.  Great food, it's not; partucularly interesting, it's not.  But decent quality, if you order simply, and predictable, it is. We have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on truly horendous meals at dining rooms which came with unanimous local accolades.  It frequently depends on where you are and the style of the local cuisine.

Now when we're in France, it's a totally different story! :-)


eGullet member #80.

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I expect I will have no problem continuing to find interesting and unique places in which to eat in North America, just so long as I continue to limit my travels to Chicago, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle , San Francisco and New Orleans. ;)

It's difficult to travel on your stomach across  the US. It's a reasonable way to travel in France and other parts of Europe.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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It's amazing just how bad it can get out there in the middle. There are towns -- towns with significant populations but that aren't quite large enough to attract major chain supermarkets -- where you can't even get palatable fresh vegetables in the grocery store no less a good restaurant meal.

Margaret, I hope you're not trying to dine in France at 3am! That's not going to happen. I'll give the US credit for having the best hours of operation for businesses of any Western nation.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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This is such an interesting discussion -- I've had the same twisted relationship with chains as most of you -- avoiding but often when traveling they can be the last hope.

A pet peeve: that Olive Garden (where I've had a truly vile meal) run commercials that dare to compare their food favorably to real Italian food. Insult to injury! (Luckily, I'm a Neilsen Rating family, every time one of those commercials come on -- 46,000 people change the channel!)

I've compiled some tips for spotting good indies when traveling -- I'm going to start a new thread.

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I'm not swayed.  I'll still avoid most chains, no matter what.  

For me, finding restaurants is much of the adventure of travel.  I'd rather risk a bad meal at local spot that could also turn out to be good to great, than play it safe for mediocre chain fare.

True I'll often end up suffering a bad meal, maybe one even worse than Olive Garden though I'm not sure that's possible.  But sometimes such places are so bad that they are fun.  And once in a while I end up discovering a hidden treasure, and there are no hidden treasures to be discovered in chain dining.


Holly Moore

"I eat, therefore I am."

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Some proprietors get pretty creative, much as a determined homeowner can give his home some uniqueness even in the most generic of new subdivision developments. For example, have you been to the McDonald's near Wall Street with the tuxedoed doorman, marble tables, digital stock ticker, live piano music, table service, etc.? Worth stopping in for some fries if nothing else.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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This is an incredible place

I was in there a few months ago and some Wall St types came in after cracking a big deal and started ladling out champagne to one and all.  Then the old Bill came in and got a bit shirty as they had no licence ( obviously ) but were placated when they were offered a glass ( or a cardboard cup ) of the stuff as well.

A memorable experience

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I read about that place ages ago, tried to find it and couldn't. I had decided it was an urban myth, like the aligators in the sewage pipes, but obviously not!  

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There is also a Burger King somewhere downtown with high speed Internet-browsing while you eat capability.  I haven't been there but read about it in a newspaper last year.


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Shaw, Now if you can produce the URL for the story of the recent caiman in Central Park, perhaps Andy will truly understand NYC. ;)

Holly, There are no absolutes, but I'm with you. A bit of adventure in dining is far better than safe and mediocre. Just don't ask me for affirmation immediately after the next time I make a lousy choice.


Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I, too, travel much too much, and have been doing so for the last 10 years or so.

And I always try to find a good local pub/eatery.

BUT.

There are plenty of places where all there is is mall-#### type cookie-cutter food factories, which I rate as follows:

Gone There While At Home, Once or Twice: Outback, Uno's

I'm Ok if I See One Near The Hotel: Chilli's, TGI Fridays

Not Bad: Appebee's, Ruby Tuesday, Starbucks.

Avoid Like The Plague: Pizza Sl*t, Olive Garden, Bennigans, Macaroni Grill, etc. etc.

Most Improved: TGI Friday.

Best Fried Chicken: Popeyes spicy.

A note about Starbucks: Yah, it ate my local chain, and made me cry, but boy-o-boy am I happy when there is one on the way from the hotel to the job site when in West Cammel Toe, just 40 minutes from the booming metropolis of Chinchilla, OK.

Same goes for Sam Adams.  Time was the choices were Bud, Miller, Coors or maybe, just maybe Heniken.  

Sigh.  So much bad food, so little time on earth.  Such a shame, such a waste.

-Nef

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