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The merits of chain dining in the Heartland


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...so, piggy-backing off of another thread, i'm taking the liberty to ask you (who are familiar with) whether pb&j counts as a "chain?"

u.e.

How did I know that was coming? I'm not the arbiter of what is/is not a chain but in my own philosophy: they are locally based, the restaurants each have their own, unique menu (Red Robin excepted, apparently...I've not been to one), the food is prepared on-premise from fresh ingredients.

I have always thought they were kind of the KC version of lettuceentertainyou and, if that's a chain, I guess I'll have to stop eating at Tru, Everest et al. or lobby for a redefinition.

Judy Jones aka "moosnsqrl"

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

M.F.K. Fisher

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I have always thought they were kind of the KC version of lettuceentertainyou and, if that's a chain, I guess I'll have to stop eating at Tru, Everest et al. or lobby for a redefinition.

NO! don't do that!! :laugh:

i agree with your definition.

u.e.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

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I have always thought they were kind of the KC version of lettuceentertainyou and, if that's a chain, I guess I'll have to stop eating at Tru, Everest et al. or lobby for a redefinition.

NO! don't do that!! :laugh:

i agree with your definition.

u.e.

GOOD! I feel better now that I can eat at Yia Yia's without guilt! :wink:

"Many people believe the names of In 'n Out and Steak 'n Shake perfectly describe the contrast in bedroom techniques between the coast and the heartland." ~Roger Ebert

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I have to admit that over the weekend, I dined at a chain restaurant. The town I was in was closing up, it was after 8pm and I wanted more than fast food drive through window. The restaurant was an Applebee's. It was awful. The steak was cooked pretty much medium rare, but had no flavor. I requested broccoli to sub for the french fries, they were almost overcooked. After it was over, I decided I should of gone for the drive through. Oh well. Live and learn.

Edited by joiei (log)

It is good to be a BBQ Judge.  And now it is even gooder to be a Steak Cookoff Association Judge.  Life just got even better.  Woo Hoo!!!

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I have to admit that over the weekend, I dined at a chain restaurant.  The town I was in was closing up, it was after 8pm and I wanted more than fast food drive through window.  The restaurant was an Applebee's.  It was awful.  The steak was cooked pretty much medium rare, but had no flavor.  I  requested broccoli to sub for the french fries, they were almost overcooked.  After it was over, I decided I should of gone for the drive through.  Oh well.  Live and learn.

sorry to hear... :sad:

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

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[...] the madness of the Barry Road corridor on a booming Saturday night.  [...]

Boy, it has been a while since I was in the area.

Comments on the substance of this thread to follow.

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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One thing that strikes me about this conversation is that Heartlanders actually were the center of the FIRST real chain of restaurants in the US. Fred Harvey's Harvey House Restaurant first opened in Topeka in 1876 and quickly spread all over the Central and Western US. He provided dependable meals that were basically the same at everystop and, on top of all that, he provided wives for many of the towns in the West where there were no women. Will Rogers once said that Harvey "kept the West in food and wives," as many a Harvey Girl married a local fellow. Although the girls were asked not to marry during their first year of work, some historians estimate that more than 5,000 Harvey Girls married and settled in the West.

So you guys didn't just start doing this yesterday. It's part of your heritage. Just like corn and tuna casserole. You should be proud of carrying on this old Midwestern tradition. :wink:

It's also part of the railroad tradition.

Fred Harvey and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway--which contracted with Harvey to operate restaurants in its stations--built their respective reputations together. Eventually, Harvey came to run the railroad's own food service operation--Fred Harvey food in the dining cars was a big selling point.

There used to be several Harvey Houses in the Kansas City area, including one in Union Station itself.

--Sandy, train buff food lover

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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What Brooks' post reminded me of was the glory days of Howard Johnson's, as I've read and heard about it over the years.  There was a point in our history where HoJo's quality-focused, straighforward approach made it an appetizing option and a financially viable venture.  Seems those days are, for the most part, gone.  Consistency today is sought more through the increased use of food technology and supply-chain logistics than through fundamental culinary practices.

And yet, Popeyes turns out better fried chicken than I could ever make at home and what is arguably the best pizza in Chicago is produced by chain. :wink:

=R=

I make pretty good fried chicken, and I too "love that chicken from Popeyes." I'd say they're one of the best national fast-food chains, hands down. (Though I groan whenever I see that slogan on their signs: "We Do Good Ba-You.")

However, I note that the Chicago pizza chain in question is a local one. Local chains, as has already been suggested here, occupy a sort of grey zone in the continuum that has independent restaruants over Here in Heaven and the chains over There in Hell.

But my own experience tells me that simply because a restaurant is a chain operation is no guarantee that its food will suck, just as the fact that a restaurant is a unique local institution is no guarantee that it will serve good food.

And that value proposition can't be dismissed either. I was having dinner out tonight at Jones on Chestnut Street with my partner and a friend, and in the course of the conversation, the friend--who lives alone, does not cook and thus eats out most of the time--mentioned that he dined at the Olive Garden regularly.

"Why," I asked, "in a city with so many good Italian restaurants--at all price points, both red-gravy and fancy--would anyone want to eat at the Olive Garden?"

The friend replied, "Because they have a good veal parmesan special for $15.95."

The fact of the matter is, dining out at most of the good Italian restaurants in Center City Philadelphia will set you back more than that, and many of the Center City Italian restaurants in the Olive Garden's price range--including a local chain, the Italian Bistro--are not that much better than the Olive Garden. I'd choose the Italian Bistro over the Olive Garden only because it's a hometown operation; otherwise, I'd avoid both. The really good inexpensive Italian places are mainly in South Philadelphia, well away from where my friend lives--and me, for that matter.

Local chains do have the advantage of knowing the area in which they operate better, but unless their owners know their food too, they won't necessarily be better than their national counterparts. In Philadelphia, for instance, there are two regional chains that sell hoagies--Lee's Hoagie House and Wawa, the region's dominant convenience-store chain. Even though both have won local "Best of" awards, if popular conversation is any guide, Wawa's are considered quite good--surprisingly so for convenience-store fare (note what Wawa features on its home page)--while Lee's, though quite satisfactory, don't quite earn that same level of praise, perhaps because they are judged against such hoagie specialists as Primo's and Sarcone's. (OTOH, to be fair, both chains are better than Subway or Blimpie.)

And while I'm thinking of it, Jones is also a "chain" operation. However, it's one of those other types of "chain"--a collection of distinctive individual restaurants owned by the same company. In this case, it's a local outfit, the Starr Restaurant Organization, which has a reputation for operating stylish, theatrical restaurants that offer solid and occasionally great fare along with fun scenes.

I guess my point is this: Chain eateries are as varied as the independents are, united perhaps only in their consistency across locations within chains. (Yes, this statement even applies to an operator like Starr to the extent that the theatricality itself becomes a trademark that patrons can count on no matter what type of cuisine is being served or in what sort of setting it is being offered--and the two are usually married to each other in a Starr restaurant).

Sandy Smith, Exile on Oxford Circle, Philadelphia

"95% of success in life is showing up." --Woody Allen

My foodblogs: 1 | 2 | 3

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And that value proposition can't be dismissed either.  I was having dinner out tonight at Jones on Chestnut Street with my partner and a friend, and in the course of the conversation, the friend--who lives alone, does not cook and thus eats out most of the time--mentioned that he dined at the Olive Garden regularly.

"Why," I asked, "in a city with so many good Italian restaurants--at all price points, both red-gravy and fancy--would anyone want to eat at the Olive Garden?"

The friend replied, "Because they have a good veal parmesan special for $15.95."

The fact of the matter is, dining out at most of the good Italian restaurants in Center City Philadelphia will set you back more than that, and many of the Center City Italian restaurants in the Olive Garden's price range--including a local chain, the Italian Bistro--are not that much better than the Olive Garden.  I'd choose the Italian Bistro over the Olive Garden only because it's a hometown operation; otherwise, I'd avoid both.  The really good inexpensive Italian places are mainly in South Philadelphia, well away from where my friend lives--and me, for that matter.

I beg to differ - sort of. Chain restaurants like Olive Garden and Red Lobster lure you in with enticing, "specials," then blindside you with expensive drinks (ever notice the special drink menus have no prices?), mostly unnecessary appetizers (who needs that much food), and desserts. So that $15.95 "special" will cost you an extra $10-$20 when all is said and done. Sure, some can resist the marketing huckstering from the waitstaff, but I'm sure many don't. Of course, independant restaurants also have extras that one may order, but I'd rather pay a few bucks more for the veal parm at an independant than $15.95 for flavorless deep-fried shoe leather drenched in boil-in-bag sauces at Olive Garden. Truth be told, however, I'd never order veal parm in the first place because it's a sin to cover a presumably good piece of veal with all that gunk.

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What Brooks' post reminded me of

And yet, Popeyes turns out better fried chicken than I could ever make at home and what is arguably the best pizza in Chicago is produced by chain. :wink:

=R=

I make pretty good fried chicken, and I too "love that chicken from Popeyes." I'd say they're one of the best national fast-food chains, hands down. (Though I groan whenever I see that slogan on their signs: "We Do Good Ba-You.")

Ooh... I completely forgot about Popeye's in my "chains that I like" list! It is my guilty, guilty pleasure! Too bad my office is moving to Corporate Woods in April... I will be that much closer! :wink:

"Many people believe the names of In 'n Out and Steak 'n Shake perfectly describe the contrast in bedroom techniques between the coast and the heartland." ~Roger Ebert

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I suppose I would like Popeye's more if the ones here offered shrimp and crawfish. But they don't, so I only go on Mardi Gras to get chicken. A habit I picked up when I lived in New Orleans. It just wouldn't be Mardi Gras with out some Popeye's. THe perfect parade food.

It is good to be a BBQ Judge.  And now it is even gooder to be a Steak Cookoff Association Judge.  Life just got even better.  Woo Hoo!!!

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And that value proposition can't be dismissed either.  I was having dinner out tonight at Jones on Chestnut Street with my partner and a friend, and in the course of the conversation, the friend--who lives alone, does not cook and thus eats out most of the time--mentioned that he dined at the Olive Garden regularly.

"Why," I asked, "in a city with so many good Italian restaurants--at all price points, both red-gravy and fancy--would anyone want to eat at the Olive Garden?"

The friend replied, "Because they have a good veal parmesan special for $15.95."

The fact of the matter is, dining out at most of the good Italian restaurants in Center City Philadelphia will set you back more than that, and many of the Center City Italian restaurants in the Olive Garden's price range--including a local chain, the Italian Bistro--are not that much better than the Olive Garden.  I'd choose the Italian Bistro over the Olive Garden only because it's a hometown operation; otherwise, I'd avoid both.  The really good inexpensive Italian places are mainly in South Philadelphia, well away from where my friend lives--and me, for that matter.

On the other hand, we are talking about the Heartland. Even in most of the Chicago metro area, the small locals can be much more competitive price-wise than they could be in the middle of Philadelphia.

Agreed, there are no absolutes.

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I beg to differ - sort of.  Chain restaurants like Olive Garden and Red Lobster lure you in with enticing, "specials," then blindside you with expensive drinks (ever notice the special drink menus have no prices?), mostly unnecessary appetizers (who needs that much food), and desserts.  So that $15.95 "special" will cost you an extra $10-$20 when all is said and done.  Sure, some can resist the marketing huckstering from the waitstaff, but I'm sure many don't.  Of course, independant restaurants also have extras that one may order, but I'd rather pay a few bucks more for the veal parm at an independant than $15.95 for flavorless deep-fried shoe leather drenched in boil-in-bag sauces at Olive Garden.  Truth be told, however, I'd never order veal parm in the first place because it's a sin to cover a presumably good piece of veal with all that gunk.

That's a good point above. And I may have missed this earlier in the thread, but remember the "economies of scale" that a big chain like Olive Garden has. They're getting the world's cheapest price on (probably the cheapest quality) veal, buying thousands of pounds at a time. It's a little unfair to compare dollar for dollar, even though that's what almost everyone will do.

I've had decent chain food (I can't help but like PF Changs), I'll hit the occasional chain when I'm travelling and there's no other option, and I'm all for capitalism. But in all seriousness: chain restaurants are going to destroy what's left of our culinary society. Maybe that's too dramatic. But I don't want over-marketed, over-engineered food, grilled up and served by bored college kids. I don't want X-treme Chipotle Grilled Chicken Strips, only after three years of focus groups determine that Chipotle is the cool new flavor. I don't want to be stuck with whatever replaces spinach artichoke dip as the only new appetizer for 4 years at a time.

Predictable flavor can be good, but predictable options are stiffling.

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Predictable flavor can be good, but predictable options are stiffling.

How true, I think this statement pretty much covers the point of chain dining. I will stick with my local chefs who will take a risk and leave the chain dining to the masses who huddle near the doors waiting for their name to be called out while I dine in comfort with a reservation that is honored.

It is good to be a BBQ Judge.  And now it is even gooder to be a Steak Cookoff Association Judge.  Life just got even better.  Woo Hoo!!!

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How true, I think this statement pretty much covers the point of chain dining.  I will stick with my local chefs who will take a risk and leave the chain dining to the masses who huddle near the doors waiting for their name to be called out while I dine in comfort with a reservation that is honored.

...yes, and no, i think...

...lest we forget that even "local/celebrity/high-end/haute" chefs ply their "predictable options" with gusto as well... remember the "molten chocolate" phase - with all the various, but predictable ooey-centered chocolate souffle cake? (i don't even like desserts and i know it was everywhere).

it may not be the "bloomin' onion," but even indies, in commune, dote on the same trends: remember when chilean sea bass was the new oceanic darling of the chefs? ... lest we forget the ubiquitous ahi tuna - even when offered five-ways to timbuktu on everyone's menu, there was predictably always one version that was just "seared rare" with some kind of wasabi-ginger-soy sauce... and so it goes.

i don't necessarily think that predictability is necessarily stiffling - i think that's the one thing that is actually the hallmark of chains. i think it's the lack of quality and care that annoys me more. i'm sure if some of your favorite local chefs started deep frying battered elephant onions, you'd try them too... i know i would! i'd just prefer eating theirs over the outback's 'cause at least i know the chef took the time to choose his produce source and actually care for the onion from cut-and-peel to dipping it in hand-mixed batter, as opposed to some assembly line worker in the backroom of a chain restaurant taking machine (inadequately) pre-washed, pre-cut onions and dredging it lovelessly through a vat of batter that was probably derived from some kind of pre-packaged powder-mix base.

u.e.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

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Who creates movement in dining? Is it the chain with the predictable menu with predictable foods that can be had in endless variations at other chain restaurants or is it the local chefs who will go out on a limb and experiment. If it weren't for the locals who will and can pick up on trends faster and easier than chains, then we would still be looking at food choices from the 60's.

I think it is the chains who overkill on any food trend. Those molten chocolate cakes, I did over 12 years ago when the trend was fresh and new but I could never personally eat one. the thougt of hot raw cake batter makes me gag for some reason, a personal thing.

As for the seafoods you mention, another example is Blackened redfish. It was Paul Prudhomme who first served the dish. It was picked up by enough chefs at local places to see what it was about. And now, you walk into ANY chain restaurant and it is rare that some sort of blackened something isn't on the menu. And pretty much all of the chain options are pretty awful and so far from what the original dish was all about. Plus, because of the chains, redfish is now an endangered species. The last time I ordered blackened anything was at Eskimo Joes in Stillwater and it was so awful, I could not finish the meal.

Chain restaurants with table service are successful because they are able to mass produce anything that will not offend anyone, thus predictablility. Are chain restaurants on the cutting edge of new food trends, no but they sure can wear out the welcome of any trend, thus stiffling.

It is good to be a BBQ Judge.  And now it is even gooder to be a Steak Cookoff Association Judge.  Life just got even better.  Woo Hoo!!!

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Chain restaurants with table service are successful because they are able to mass produce anything that will not offend anyone, thus predictablility.  Are chain restaurants on the cutting edge of new food trends, no but they sure can wear out the welcome of any trend, thus stiffling.

All great points well taken joiei!

Chains are also able to appeal the budget-minded masses by mass-sourcing their products...

U.E.

“Watermelon - it’s a good fruit. You eat, you drink, you wash your face.”

Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921)

ulteriorepicure.com

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If it wasn't for the independent restaurants "starting" the trend, I wonder where the chains would get their ideas. TGI Fridays' corporate chefs are not out experimenting with obscure Indian spices or tasting lesser known fish and vegetables. But independent chefs are. And when an idea hits, first it pops up on some other non-chains. Then you start seeing it on Food Network. Then, if there's sufficient buzz and positive focus group results, its makes it to Friday's and Applebees. And if it's a flavor easily applied to fast food (say chipotle), it ends up on a McChicken sandwich.

And in the eight years that it took to get there, that first chef and restaurant has tried 20 other new things, and delighted their customers along the way.

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There are those of us who like to think we are on the cutting edge of food trends. We enjoy finding new foods and trying them for the first time in out of the way places. Then there are out of the way places that are just trying to keep up. Last night, I had dinner in Joplin at Club 609. An interesting place with a movie theme in an old restored storefront in downtown Joplin. The menu reflected the location and the population of the area pretty much, but I was a little surprised to see ceviche as well as escargot on the menu. Cutting edge for a small mid-American city such as this one I would expect. And there was a surprising amount of seafood. A lot of the menu options read of an older time, but to see some new things on the menu that one would not find at any of the chain places out by the mall in Joplin was heartening. The food was well prepared and the portions were huge, a trend that chains started I would venture to guess.

Where did these oversized portions start showing up anyway? and when? Is it part of the supersizing of food portions that created this monster. Why must restaurants feel like they have to put an entire dinner for 4 on one plate? I ask these questions because I feel this is part of the phenomenen of chain restaurant dining that started in fast food dining. Am I mistaken on this point? And also, when are chain restaurants going to start offering chef's tasting menus. And will the portions there be too large also?

Edited by joiei (log)

It is good to be a BBQ Judge.  And now it is even gooder to be a Steak Cookoff Association Judge.  Life just got even better.  Woo Hoo!!!

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Where did these oversized portions start showing up anyway?  and when?  Is it part of the supersizing of food portions that created this monster.  Why must restaurants feel like they have to put an entire dinner for 4 on one plate?  I ask these questions because I feel this is part of the phenomenen of chain restaurant dining that started in fast food dining.  Am I mistaken on this point?  And also, when are chain restaurants going to start offering chef's tasting menus.  And will the portions there be too large also?

And when will they not look at you like you are an idiot for sharing with your partner?

I believe Applebee's and Ruby Tuesday's both offer a tasting menu, according to the commercials, but I'm sure it's all corporate chosen.

"Many people believe the names of In 'n Out and Steak 'n Shake perfectly describe the contrast in bedroom techniques between the coast and the heartland." ~Roger Ebert

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Last night, I had dinner in Joplin at Club 609.  An interesting place with a movie theme in an old restored storefront in downtown Joplin.  The menu reflected the location and the population of the area pretty much, but I was a little surprised to see ceviche as well as escargot on the menu.  Cutting edge for a small mid-American city such as this one I would expect.  And there was a surprising amount of seafood.  A lot of the menu options read of an older time, but to see some new things on the menu that one would not find at any of the chain places out by the mall in Joplin was heartening.  The food was well prepared and the portions were huge, a trend that chains started I would venture to guess. 

Wow, I hope they don't drive Fred & Red out of business with this new-fangled stuff! Very interesting to hear of such innovative food coming out of that town. Surprising, too. Has there been any shift in demographic to support it? Did you visit with the owner/chef at all? Are they new in town? Just curious. Probably another thread, if you have the time to go more in-depth on what you tried there.

Judy Jones aka "moosnsqrl"

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

M.F.K. Fisher

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Last night, I had dinner in Joplin at Club 609.  An interesting place with a movie theme in an old restored storefront in downtown Joplin.  The menu reflected the location and the population of the area pretty much, but I was a little surprised to see ceviche as well as escargot on the menu.  Cutting edge for a small mid-American city such as this one I would expect.  And there was a surprising amount of seafood.   A lot of the menu options read of an older time, but to see some new things on the menu that one would not find at any of the chain places out by the mall in Joplin was heartening.  The food was well prepared and the portions were huge, a trend that chains started I would venture to guess. 

Actually it turns out that my s.o. was eating dinner there monthly a decade or so ago. He was glad to hear they're still going strong.

Edited to fix klugie quote

Edited by moosnsqrl (log)

Judy Jones aka "moosnsqrl"

Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.

M.F.K. Fisher

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Where did these oversized portions start showing up anyway?  and when?  Is it part of the supersizing of food portions that created this monster.  Why must restaurants feel like they have to put an entire dinner for 4 on one plate?  I ask these questions because I feel this is part of the phenomenen of chain restaurant dining that started in fast food dining.  Am I mistaken on this point?  And also, when are chain restaurants going to start offering chef's tasting menus.  And will the portions there be too large also?

A lot of marketing people trace supersizing back to movie theater popcorn, starting in the 70's. Easier to sell 10 cents worth of popcorn for $3, than to twice sell 5 cents worth for $1.50. Fast food grabbed a hold soon enough, and it seems like it's been a very gradual increase in portion sizes for sit down dining. I find it ridiculous, but people have come to expect it. I see people on eGullet complain about small portion size for the money, I'm sure we're all at least subconciously influenced by the chains.

It depresses me that we (as a society) are so easily impressed by more food or a bigger hamburger. Is the Cheesecake Factory a better place to eat, just because there's 3-5 portions of meat on the plate? Why is a One Pound Burger special?

I could cook you a 12 pound burger if you wanted one, or a hundred and twelve pounder, there's no culinary achievement there.

We'll never see true "tasting menus" at a true chain, never. They may use the phrase "tasting menu", but it won't be one. What they're doing now at Applebees is closer to a Prix Fixe menu, 3 courses, choose each from a list of lesser expensive options. A true tasting menu, or a good Prix Fixe for that matter, involves choosing seasonal and fresh ingredients and creating the best meal possible from what ingredients are at their peak. A chain could never pull it off, they'd have to give up centralized control or have a logistical nightmare. I doubt they have the talent at each restaurant to prepare food that changes that quickly. And the average chain dining customer wouldn't want a set menu without choices anyway.

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So the chains are just abusing the terminology instead of being truly creative. Why am I not surprised. Anything to make the guests feel like they are truly dining in an upscale fashion but still putting out the same old stuff. Oh, they gave them a choice. And after my little venture into Applebees recently, I am not heading back that way any time soon to check out what it is they are doing.

It is good to be a BBQ Judge.  And now it is even gooder to be a Steak Cookoff Association Judge.  Life just got even better.  Woo Hoo!!!

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?I truly miss the chain that used to be in that space…Too Jay's. It was a table service deli style restaurant based in Boca I believe. Matzoh ball soup, chopped liver, reubens, stuff you can never have too much of and is in short supply in this town. It was usually always busy, and I thought it was here to stay. Unfortunately, from what I understand the owner was also the owner of most of the local Hooter's and had to dump the Too Jay's lease because of legal difficulties. I do miss that "

I ate at Too Jay's a couple of years ago when I was back home in Ft. Lauderdale visiting. The Too Jay's I ate at was in Plantation. I actually thought it was vile. There are so many better independent jewish deli's in that area.

Now for other chain's. I live in Ontario, Canada, but I make frequent trips to Port Huron, MI( border town). That small town is litered with chains. Applebee's, OG, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday's and the newest addition Chili's.

When I lived in Cali, the only chain I would eat at was Cheesecake Factory because I enjoyed it. Other than that, and maybe CPK, I wouldnt chose a chain, but when I'm in MI, I basically have no choice. I suppose I could cook something after driving home 62 miles, but frankly I'd just rather go into Chili's, have a salad and be done with it.

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