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America’s Best 24-Hour Chain Restaurants

America’s Best 24-Hour Chain Restaurants

When you need to eat at 3 a.m., these places are here for you

Many IHOP locations are open around the clock.

Being hungry is never easy. For this reason, we’re very thankful that 24-hour chain restaurants exist, and these are the 10 best.

The 10 Best 24-Hour Chain Restaurants (Slideshow)

It can be tricky trying to track down a place to eat at, say, three in the morning. Driving through just about anywhere in America at that hour, the odds of finding anything that’s open are slim to none. Aside from some diners, very few independently owned restaurants remain open 24 hours a day, simply because it’s expensive to keep employees working through the night when there very well might be no customers to serve. But chain restaurants generally have deeper pockets than independent ones, so some of them go above and beyond the call of duty and remain open around the clock.

Unfortunately, only a couple of chain restaurants remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most chains do a cost-benefit analysis from location to location to see which ones are the least likely to lose money by remaining open all the time, so only a percentage of them will be open 24/7. Some outposts of chain restaurants are only open round the clock on the weekends, when the late-night crowd is decidedly larger.

To determine which 24-hour chains are the best, we used a couple factors. First, chains that were open 24/7 across the board at all locations definitely earned some extra points. Second, we paid special attention to full-service restaurants where you’ll get the same treatment (and the same menu) in the middle of the night as you would at 7 PM. Even if you’re the only customer, and it’s the wee small hours of the morning, you should have the reasonable expectation of a quality experience.

We note which chains keep all of their locations open 24/7, but as for the rest, make sure you call ahead to see if your nearest outpost will be open, because there’s nothing more disappointing than pulling up to get your late-night fix and learning that you can’t have it.


America’s Favorite Regional Food Chains, According to College Kids Around the U.S.

I asked and you answered. After polling several students at my school (Boston University), as well as asking around the Spoon network of members, a list of America’s best regional food chains has been compiled. Take a peek and see if your hometown favorite made the list.

*Not in any particular order.

Whataburger

Photo courtesy of @whataburger on Instagram

Located primarily in the southern half of the United States, Whataburger is a chain that started in the 1950’s that serves burgers, fries, shakes and the like.

In-N-Out

Photo courtesy of @stefgram17 on Instagram

In-N-Out’s spot on this list was sure to be expected. This west coast favorite serves burgers and fries that natives rave about (and that east coasters are definitely anxious to try).

Photo courtesy of @wawa on Instagram

Although Wawa isn’t exactly a restaurant, its name was submitted to my poll tons of times, and as a South Jersey native, I totally understand why. Located primarily in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Wawa serves hoagies (or what some of you weirdos might call ‘subs’), all kinds of snacks and candy, coffee and so much more.

Culver’s

Photo courtesy of @culvers on Instagram

Scattered around the Midwest, Culver’s is a fast-casual spot that serves burgers, chicken, fries, soups AND super yummy custard. Custard flavors change daily and you can order yours in the form of a concrete (which is basically like a super thick milkshake mixed with the topping of your choice) or a sundae.

J. P. Licks

J.P. Licks is a popular Boston-area chain that serves homemade ice cream and yogurt, and (bonus!) also serves coffee. They have twelve locations in and around Boston and change their flavors monthly. They always have the basics, but also serve unique flavors like Mint Irish Lace and Jameson’s Irish Coffee for the month of March.

Portillo’s

Photo courtesy of @portilloshotdogs on Instagram

Portillo’s is a Chicago-style favorite that serves burgers, fries, shakes, beef sandwiches and Chicago-style hot dogs. Although primarily located in Illinois, there are a couple scattered locations in Arizona, California and Indiana.

Rocco’s Tacos

Photo courtesy of @roccos_tacos on Instagram

Rocco’s Tacos is a fun Mexican-style chain restaurant with locations scattered around Florida. They serve awesome tacos, burritos, and a wide variety of fun drinks (including great margaritas), and is the perfect spot for Taco Tuesday.

Cava Grill

Photo courtesy of @cavagrill on Instagram

Cava Grill is a Mediterranean-style chain located in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia, LA area, and are expanding soon to NYC. They serve build-able bowls and pitas, with a variety of fillings in the categories of dips and spreads, proteins, fresh veggies and dressings.

Swenson’s Drive In

Photo courtesy of @swensonsdrivein on Instagram

Swenson’s Drive-In is a fast food joint that was first founded in Akron, Ohio in 1934. Now, several locations are scattered around Ohio, offering burgers, fries and tons of different flavored milkshakes.

Jack’s Urban Eats

Photo courtesy of @jacksurbaneats on Instagram

Jack’s Urban Eats is a hip “urban cafeteria” style restaurant with locations spread around California, particularly in the Sacramento area. They incorporate seasonal fruits and veggies and a California feel into all of their sandwiches, salads, and other entrees.

Giordano’s

Photo courtesy of @giordanospizza on Instagram

The first Giordano’s was opened in Chicago’s south side in 1974, serving Mama Giordano’s beloved double-crusted, cheese stuffed pizza (aka deep dish). The famous chain also serves regular thin crust pizza, salads and other Italian entrees. Giordano’s currently has locations all over Illinois, and even a few in Florida, Indiana and Minnesota.

Zippy’s

Photo courtesy of @ohhigabby on Instagram

Zippy’s calls itself a “neighborhood restaurant” in Hawaii, where people can enjoy local foods and spend time with friends and family. Their menu is extremely varied, and there are always daily specials. Some of their most well-known and loved dishes include the original recipe chili, golden fried chicken, and oxtail soup.

Rita’s

Photo courtesy of @ritasice

Rita’s is seasonal chain with locations scattered around the northeast. They serve Italian ice (or water ice), custard, gelatis (water ice layered with custards, sundaes and more. As a plus, most Rita’s locations typically open up for the season on the first day of spring and give out free water ice, reminding us all that warm weather isn’t to far away.

Bojangles’

Photo courtesy of @bojangles_1977 on Instagram

Bojangles’ is a chain that originated in North Carolina that specializes in Cajun fried chicken and fresh, buttermilk biscuits. Now they have locations spread out throughout the south and into the north as far as Pennsylvania, so you’re never too far from some yummy fried chicken.

Pollo Tropical

Photo courtesy of @pollotropical on Instagram

Pollo Tropical is a fast growing Florida-based chain that specializes in Caribbean style food. They offer platters, sandwiches and wraps, salads and more that boast chicken free of hormones and trans-fats. Pollo Tropical has spread quickly throughout Florida, Texas, Georgia and Tennessee, with intentions of opening twenty more locations throughout the area by the end of the year.


America’s Best 24-Hour Chain Restaurants

Being hungry is never easy. Sometimes in life you just need a dependable place where you know you can sit down and enjoy a decent meal at any hour of the day or night. For this reason, we’re very thankful that 24-hour chain restaurants exist, and these are the 10 best.

It can be tricky trying to track down a place to eat at, say, three in the morning. Driving through just about anywhere in America at that hour, the odds of finding anything that’s open are slim to none. Aside from some diners, very few independently owned restaurants remain open 24 hours a day, simply because it’s expensive to keep employees working through the night when there very well might be no customers to serve. But chain restaurants generally have deeper pockets than independent ones, so some of them go above and beyond the call of duty and remain open around the clock.

Unfortunately, only a couple of chain restaurants remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most chains do a cost-benefit analysis from location to location to see which ones are the least likely to lose money by remaining open all the time, so only a percentage of them will be open 24/7. Some outposts of chain restaurants are only open round the clock on the weekends, when the late-night crowd is decidedly larger.

To determine which 24-hour chains are the best, we used a couple factors. First, chains that were open 24/7 across the board at all locations definitely earned some extra points. Second, we paid special attention to full-service restaurants where you’ll get the same treatment (and the same menu) in the middle of the night as you would at 7 PM. Even if you’re the only customer, and it’s the wee small hours of the morning, you should have the reasonable expectation of a quality experience.

We note which chains keep all of their locations open 24/7, but as for the rest, make sure you call ahead to see if your nearest outpost will be open, because there’s nothing more disappointing than pulling up to get your late-night fix and learning that you can’t have it.


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The saddest meals of my entire year? Nothing can touch lunch and dinner at the sports bar that can't even get its signature dish right. I'm not sure which is more of a travesty, the scrawny wings (pick your poison: traditional or boneless) or the woody carrot sticks that accompany them. Sauces vary from fair (Caribbean jerk) to grim (Parmesan-garlic), and I can't help but think of them as masks rather than enhancements. Then again, the factory-issue fried boneless wings could use a lift as is, they taste like KFC sans every single one of those secret 11 herbs and spices, save for salt. It gets worse. "Street tacos" - tasteless soft flour tortillas encasing bland grilled erasers (chicken, per the menu) splashed with ranch dressing - do a disservice to food trucks everywhere. There are a lot of bad black bean burgers out there, but this place takes the trophy - for worst - for the crusty black puck that bends when you bite. The dozens of TVs, most turned to sports, force you to look away from the food, a good thing given whatever glop - mostly beige, mostly fried, don't even think of ordering a salad - is on the table. The only moment that gave me any relief during the endurance contest is the time I walk past a guy wearing an all-too-familiar red cap whose message takes me aback: "Make racists afraid again." Bottom line: Better to miss a meal than to find yourself in this loud, garish and thoroughly soulless restaurant-in-name-only.

Claim to fame: Sauces and seasonings offering endless customisation.

Best of the bunch: Getting the cheque.

Steer clear of: Everything but the beer.

Tidbit: The number of TVs varies by the size of the branch. Most are equipped with 50 or so.

Defining moment: Figuring out where to go for a real meal afterward.

9. IHOP​

A stack at the International House of Pancakes. Photo: Alamy

Probably the best that can be said about the food in one of the most generic backdrops around is that the pancakes are fluffy (if a dash salty) the vegetable omelet is as green with fresh spinach as it is yellow from eggs and marbled rye bread can turn even an unfortunate beef patty and barely melted cheese into a fair-enough sandwich.

Ultimately, the service leaves a better taste in my mouth, even though I once have to go outside to find my server to pay my cheque. (She was on a smoke break.) I salute the honesty, as on the night I ask about the day's soup and am told it is "potato, but we're at the end of it, and I wouldn't do that to you." And I admire a server who can read a table in a hurry, as the morning one pours "some nice hot coffee for you gentlemen. You look like you need to get back to the office." Two of us order enough for four, a cross-section of the plastic menu. "If you eat all that food," the server cracks, "I'm going to give you a hug." Ten minutes later, a companion and I are biting into a dry cheeseburger served in a cottony bun, hoisting a leathery soft tortilla crammed with fish that appeared to be fried in a straitjacket and trying to decide which was more of a salt bomb: the thin batter-fried steak or the cream gravy covering it. Our table, in other words, has turned into a minefield. No hugs for us!

Slogan: "Eat up every moment."

Best of the bunch: Patty melt, spinach-mushroom omelet (hold the flat hollandaise).

Steer clear of: Burgers, fried fish tacos, country-fried steak.

Tidbit: Four syrups (typically old-fashioned, butter pecan, blueberry and strawberry) are always offered. Franchisees can opt to swap in real maple syrup and boysenberry.

Defining moment: Eating pancakes and wishing I were enjoying them at Denny's.

8. Outback Steakhouse

Grade: D

Let me just get it out of the way: The piece de resistance here is one of the most vulgar creations any chain has ever whipped up. The Bloomin' Onion packs in more fat, more salt, more guilt than just about any single signature I can think of. So why is my party denuding the baseball-size vegetable of its greasy petals as if we're in a race, even though we know we're going to feel like beached whales afterward? Because Americans can't resist over-the-top fair food, even in their restaurants. Also because strips of hot onions dunked in something cool and creamy (imagine ketchup-tinted mayonnaise with a slight bite) is a pretty addictive combination.

People come here for steak. They shouldn't. While the beef looks the part of steak you want to slice in to, the cuts I try taste tame. The alternatives to beef here - bready crab cakes, arid pork ribs - are almost as sad. An exception to the rule is chicken, specifically the moist grilled chicken with an herbed Parmesan crust and a garnish of tomatoes and basil - everything fresher-tasting than the woody carrots riding shotgun. Don't let the menu or the outdoorsy decor fool you. Outback Steakhouse has as much in common with Australia as Olive Garden has with Italy. The single-best dish turns out to be dessert: spiced carrot cake with actual threads of carrot in each big slice and a veneer of icing.

Cuisine: Steak, and a pretend notion of what's cooking Down Under.

Claim to fame: The 1,950-calorie, enough-for-six Bloomin' Onion.

Best of the bunch: Wine by the glass poured from individual carafes, garlicky mashed potatoes, Parmesan-herbed chicken, spiced carrot cake.

Steer clear of: Crab cakes, fish tacos in leathery tortillas, pork ribs, not-so-hot and batter-heavy "volcano" shrimp.

Tidbit: The free-spirited Australian theme was chosen in part based on the success of the 1986 Hollywood splash "Crocodile Dundee."

Defining moment: Gratis brown bread shows up with a steak knife plunged into the vaguely caramelly loaf.

7. Red Lobster

Red Lobster Photo: Shutterstock

Red lobster makes for blue diners, at least here, where the headliner can be found scattered on a thin but doughy pizza with a binder of mozzarella, and steamed and split to reveal seafood that tastes like . . . not much without melted butter, lots of it. Clams make a poor impression, too, be they the few in a bowl of pasty chowder with mealy potatoes or offered as chewy fried strips. Salmon might just as well have swum in from a banquet. Sometimes, the most nautical part of my visits are the garnishes on the walls: paintings of lighthouses and framed signal flags. Maybe I'd feel differently in the company of Beyonce, who shouted out to the chain in "Formation."

Exceptions give me hope. If snow crab claws require some work to tackle, at least their yield is sweet. And Yucatan shrimp, among the chain's new "tasting" plates, benefit from diced caramelised pineapple and the heat of jalapenos. In the end, though, the choice parts of a meal are apt to be the warm and fluffy biscuits that launch every meal and the freshly creamy coleslaw you can request as a side. Anyone for a salad sandwich?

Claim to fame: Biscuits so popular their mix is for sale in supermarkets.

Slogan: "Now this is seafood."

Best of the bunch: Cheese biscuits, Yucatan shrimp, coconut shrimp, crab legs.

Steer clear of: Doughy lobster pizza, fried clams, maple-glazed chicken that tastes like an airline issue, steamed lobster, achingly sweet and dense Key lime pie.

Tidbit: The chain sells 395 million cheddar biscuits a year.

Defining moment: "Do you ever get tired of the biscuits?" I asked a veteran waiter who told me he danced on the side. "I don't," he replied, turning his hips. "Because I have to watch out for this!" he said, playfully slapping his backside.

6. Chili's Grill & Bar

If all you were to eat were the ribs that spawned one of the most popular restaurant jingles of all time (don't start singing it!), you would wonder what all the fuss is about. No amount of barbecue sauce hides the fact that the flesh is dry. (Like french fries, ribs are a dish that chains seem to have a hard time nailing.) As is true of a lot of restaurants higher up on the food chain, your best bet is to front-load, or focus on appetisers. Chili's makes it easy with its Triple Dipper, your choice of three snacks. Zero in on the tasty mini-burgers, the spiced onion rings and the kicky Southwestern egg rolls filled with corn and black beans.

Elsewhere on the menu, Chili's tries and fails to deliver on a few food fashions. The mushy ear of corn slathered with mayo and pops of harsh spices is a poor way to replicate the Mexican street food staple elote loco (crazy corn), and a cloying salted caramel molten cake in the shape of a volcano appears to use pancake batter in its base. As for the Cajun pasta, penne with chicken or shrimp in cream sauce is salty with Parmesan - a gummy bore. Simple is better. Rib-eye comes with a nice beefiness and a scoop of mashed potatoes loaded with bacon, cheese and scallions. Trying to eat healthfully lands you disappointments, including a "Caribbean" salad strewn with Mandarin oranges, pineapple and red bell peppers, along with a honey-lime dressing that tastes more like a dessert topping. I have to say, though, that the stinging citrus-chile sauce on the overcooked salmon, from the "Guiltless Grill" section of the menu, keeps the dish from being served DOA.

Cuisine: American with a Southwest touch.

Claim to fame: The earworm to promote Chili's baby back ribs.

Slogan: "Like no place else."

Best of the bunch: Southwestern egg rolls, mini-burgers, panko onion rings, rib-eye.

Steer clear of: Caribbean salad, Cajun pasta, salted caramel cake.

Tidbit: The creative director behind the chain's song (brought back this year) says he's never eaten Chili's ribs.

Defining moment: Ice-cold "tableside" guacamole is simply dropped off at, well, the side of our table.

5. Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar

Eat out in enough full-service chains, and the similarities become clear: None of them can cook broccoli right. Salmon is almost always overdone. Napkins are doled out like club passes on the Strip in Vegas. Bigger is often perceived as better. (When a friend's sangria, a ringer for spiked apple juice, shows up in a glass the size of a bird bath, I hear Miss Piggy in my head: Never eat anything bigger than your head, a rule that could also apply to drinks.) Also, if you don't feel like talking, you can often play games on the tabletop tablets, a distraction that also allows you to pay, even split bills, without interacting with your server.

All of the above is true at Applebee's, which nevertheless offers sufficient choices on its multiple plastic menus in its rec-room-dressed dining rooms to keep the brand interesting for discerning eaters. Skeptics can warm up to the mildly zesty Sriracha shrimp presented on tortilla strips and agreeable chicken tacos, the filling tucked into its wonton shells with a light slaw. Forget the arid ribs with their vaguely sweet glaze and the whiskey-bacon burger, best for its fried onion ringlets. Better than you might expect are the juicy-enough steak on the surf-and-turf combo and slices of lemony grilled chicken arranged on quinoa jazzed up with dried cranberries. The latter is a rarity among the chains: something relatively healthful that you could imagine actually finishing.

Claim to fame: $1 margaritas (Dollaritas) and Long Island Iced Teas.

Slogan: "Eatin' good in the neighborhood."

Best of the bunch: Sriracha shrimp, crunchy-spicy chicken wings, steak quesadillas, skin-on mashed potatoes, grilled chicken with quinoa and cranberries.

Steer clear of: Ribs, salmon, apple chimicheesecake (caramel apples and cheesecake wrapped in a tortilla and fried).

Tidbit: The original 1980 menu included quiche and quail.

Defining moment: A server says he won't charge us for playing games on our table screen, but then adds the cost ($1.99) to our bill.

4. Olive Garden

Unlike some of its competition, Olive Garden smells as if actual cooking is going on: The scents of Parmesan and garlic hang in the air when I walk in. I'm further charmed by the honesty of the bartender when I ask her for the best white wine, and she says, "I'm supposed to say Porto Vita, our house white," then suggests an unoaked chardonnay, Seven Suns, is superior. Of all the chain restaurants I surveyed, this one aspires to a modicum of sophistication servers are more than happy to proffer tastes of wines.

Brick arches and sepia photographs play up an Italian theme, but the popular breadsticks - pillowy wands seasoned with garlic salt, brushed with margarine and palatable only when warm - are wholly American, as is the kitchen's tendency to overcook its pastas. Steer clear of the three-dishes-on-one-platter Tour of Italy, whose chicken parmigiana and gloppy fettuccine Alfredo taste like nothing I've encountered in the Old World. (The herbed lasagna on the plate makes a better port of call.) A new item, citrus-glazed salmon served on "creamy citrus" Alfredo sauce, is by turns sweet and dull. You don't have to be a vegetarian to appreciate the fresh-tasting minestrone, thick with beans and tomato, and serious comfort can be found on a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, a "create your own pasta" selection. "More salad? More soup?" the friendly severs repeatedly ask. What the restaurant lacks in finesse it makes up with generosity.

Claim to fame: Unlimited breadsticks and bottomless salad bowls.

Slogan: "We're all family here."

Best of the bunch: Gratis wine tastes, minestrone, spaghetti with meatballs, tiramisu.

Steer clear of: Sangria that tastes like Kool-Aid for adults, Tour of Italy (not!).

Tidbit: The first restaurant was opened in 1982 by General Mills.

Defining moment: The menu suggests you wash back fried lasagna bites with Blue Moon on draft.

3. Texas Roadhouse

Texas Roadhouse Photo: Shutterstock

Talk about a howdy! Country music welcomes customers even from the outside. En route to a table, diners pass a scarlet display of raw meat that primes carnivores for lunch or dinner. Buckets of in-their-shell peanuts help stave off hunger while you peruse the menu. Like a number of chains, this one makes some noise for birthday celebrants, but this pine-walled roadhouse is the only brand I know that invites them to sit on a saddle-on-wheels while they're being feted with staff-led cheering and clapping. Beef is your friend here, be it in a bowl of zippy chili, chopped steak under a cover of cheese and caramelised onions or an agreeable rib-eye cooked the colour you ask and best paired with mashed potatoes cratered with cream gravy.

The initial bear hug of hospitality, which includes a drop-off of fresh-baked, butter-brushed, slightly sweet rolls, can't mask some flaws, among them stiff catfish and dry pulled pork, the mass humiliated with a sweet barbecue sauce. (And my sticky plastic menu makes me wish more chains wiped their lists down, along with booths, after every use. No one wants to feel a stranger's fingerprints.) But this establishment does enough well to become your choice between like brands. Indeed, the most pleasant surprise is the Cactus Blossom, a whole deep-fried onion, each bronzed slice crunchy, peppery - and far less greasy - than the bloomin' draw at the place that pretends to take you Down Under.

Cuisine: Steaks with a Western theme.

Claim to fame: Steaks cut by hand and fresh-baked bread.

Slogan: "Legendary food, legendary service."

Best of the bunch: Most anything starring beef, mashed potatoes, Cactus Blossom.

Steer clear of: Pulled pork (dry) and catfish (stiff).

Tidbit: Each branch employs a butcher and a baker.

Defining moment: Looking for the restroom, I'm pointed to the "outhouse" sign.

2. Denny's

Breakfast at Denny's Photo: Alamy

The cheeseburger? It's a whopper. Bite down on the construction, built with a bun that's freckled with sesame seeds, and the crusty patty might squirt juices - you know, like a decent hamburger might. The piping-hot fries are memorable more for their churro-like ridges than any potato flavour, but that means you might have room for the brownielike chocolate lava cake, a knockoff of the molten chocolate cake made famous decades ago by the esteemed Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York. (Chains are good at identifying fancy food trends and rethinking them for the masses.)

Breakfast is a 'round-the-clock option. I'm partial to the fluffy pancakes with their lacy edges, and I'd like the "loaded" breakfast sandwich more if its shaved ham was less salty and the swollen package was easier to tackle my scrambled eggs slipped out when I chomped down. My go-to entree is spaghetti and meatballs, offered with a sauce that bridges sweetness and tang, and a buttery cushion of garlic toast. Lighter options include a pleasing chicken soup, sweet with carrots, and a dish of fresh fruit that brought together strawberries, apples and grapes. "Lemon for your water?" a server asks, just as waiters do in more upscale settings. My Uber driver asks for my review when he picks me up at what he said was his favourite location in Washington. Turns out he likes to go on Sundays, when gospel music is part of the mix. Then and there, he tells me, "It feels like my grandfather's." Proof, in other words, that chains can be personal.

Claim to fame: The Grand Slam, starring pancakes, eggs, bacon strips and sausage links.

Slogan: "America's diner is always open."

Best of the bunch: Pancakes, hash browns, spaghetti and meatballs, warm chocolate lava cake.

Steer clear of: Seasonal specials such as pancakes smothered in what tastes like white chocolate with orange zest.

Tidbit: The chain made a special menu for several Hobbit movies.

Defining moment: Getting a Value Menu, with meals for as little as $4.

1. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Especially after eating a lot of food that tasted as if it came from a factory rather than a kitchen, it was clear: No other chain restaurant in my months-long survey comes as close to home cooking as this operation. If the chicken dumplings are a little doughy and the corn bread muffins prove a tad salty, just about everything else that crossed my lips in this barn-size dining room dressed with lanterns and license plates is something I'd be happy to try again. Seconds, please, of the tasty meatloaf streaked with vegetables, tender roast beef with peppery brown gravy, and lemony, skin-on trout fillets, a weekly special. You don't have to eat rich here a side of fruit brims with fresh pineapple, blackberries and blueberries, although the not-too-sweet pecan pie is worth the detour from any diet.

The all-American food is only part of Cracker Barrel's charm. To reach the restaurant proper, you cross a porch set with rocking chairs (they're for sale) and pass through a folksy retail store peddling candy, regional sodas, clothing, toys and Gwen Stefani's Christmas release. Country music and a crackling fire - you read that right, the restaurant comes with a hearth - right any wrong you may have suffered that day, and the service couldn't be more personable. Is the welcome mat out for everyone? An unfortunate history of corporate racism and discrimination has been addressed in recent years with inclusive declarations on the company's website. An imbiber's regret: no wine or beer to enjoy with my meals. Soda glasses are refilled without your having to ask, requests are met with "yes, sir" or "ma'am," and should staff members see you struggling with a bag of leftovers, they rush over to help. Yes, I take what I can't finish home with me. And every bite of those thin, well-seasoned pork chops, part of a "country boy" platter with fried apples and cheesy hash browns, makes me think of my grandmother - a feat matched by no other chain in my survey.

Cuisine: Southern-focused comfort food.

Claim to fame: Shopping and dining under one roof, and firing Brad's wife that time.

Slogan: "Pleasing People" reads the company's mission statement.

Best of the bunch: Meatloaf, pork chops, trout, macaroni and cheese, pecan pie.

Steer clear of: Pasty chicken and dumplings.

Tidbit: Every branch has an ox yoke and a horseshoe over the door and a traffic light over the restrooms.


Fast food worth a stop: America's best regional chains

With first-rate barbecue joints opening from Brooklyn to Southern California, you no longer have to go to Texas to get great smoked brisket. Once the monopoly of coastal New England seafood shacks, you can now find specialist Maine lobster roll shops from Manhattan to the Las Vegas Strip. Thanks to an increasingly nationalized food scene, what were once obscure local specialties have proliferated and many formerly regional chains like the South's beloved Chick-fil-A and the Middle Atlantic's Five Guys have gone national. But there are still plenty of regionally limited standout chains with avid fans, local flair and authentic fare, and they are well worth seeking out - part of the discovery that makes travel special.

"Especially in the South and West, if you go beyond the big five national chains, you can find some interesting choices," said Andrew Knowlton, restaurant editor for Bon Appetit magazine. Now based in New York, Knowlton grew up in the South eating at chains like Bojangles', and just worked a 24-hour shift cooking and waiting tables at his personal favorite, Waffle House, for a feature for the magazine. "If you go to Whataburger in Texas or Waffle House anywhere, you get a feel you won't find anyplace else, a fast food terroir."

Whether it's St. Louis' unique style of pizza or Chicago's oddly loaded hot dogs, folks feel very strongly about their local foods and chains, as Knowlton pointed out. "The defensiveness that comes with regional food is second only to that of local sports teams. A lot of them are inexplicably delicious – but only if you are from there."

Knowlton and several other experts on American regional cuisine chimed in to help select the best regional chains across America. All agreed there are some delicious and unique tastes out there, but no one could quite agree how to define region or chain or even fast food. For instance, the favorites of Colman Andrews, editorial director of website TheDailyMeal.com, ranged from Midwestern-born sandwich specialist Jimmy John's, with over 2,000 outlets in 43 states, to The Varsity, with just seven locations – all in Georgia. Some are big and some are tiny, but all are worth trying for their unique spin on road food.

Waffle House

The biggest chain on our list, with over 2,000 outlets, Knowlton's beloved 24-7 Georgia-based Waffle House now reaches as far north as New York, but clings to its Southern flair and hospitality. "I've got nothing against a good Belgian waffle, but the plague of dense, doughy ones is an increasingly troublesome black mark on American breakfast. That is why I treasure thin-tread Waffle House waffles, especially when loaded with butter and drenched with syrup and maybe doubled-up with double bacon on the side," said Michael Stern, co-author of the Roadfood series of books and Roadfood.com, devoted to the best eats along American motorways. While famous for breakfast, which includes regional options like grits and biscuits with sausage gravy, lunch and dinner options such as chili, patty melts and even T-bone steaks are extremely popular. The very first Waffle House, in Decatur, Ga., is now a full-blown museum.

White Castle

Bon Appetit's Knowlton doesn't get why people feel so strongly that its fans have their own nickname ("cravers"), but many other experts do. Said Stern, "It is the aroma at least as much as the taste that makes White Castle so endearing – that distinctive mix of greasy beef and sizzling-soft onion, with a bit of pickle tang and a hint of yeast from the itty-bitty bun." Adam Sachs, editor in chief of Saveur magazine, picked it as his single favorite regional chain, explaining that, "You have to give credit to White Castle for their unwavering commitment to manufacturing a very mushy burger (VMB). I mean, they invented technology – 'steam-grilling' atop a bed of onions - to ensure that the meat of the aptly-named slider stays as consistently sodden as the damp bun on which it is served (and from which it is, in taste and texture, nearly indistinguishable)." One of America's oldest restaurant chains, the place that invented the "slider" is found in a dozen rather randomly separated states across the Northeast, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and South, all of which consider it their local institution. Most recently, in 2015 White Castle opened by far its westernmost outpost – smack in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip. Nevada is the first new state the chain has ventured into in many years.

Lou Malnati's

"There are so many bad and bogus Chicago-style, deep-dish pizzas, it is a special pleasure to eat the real thing at Lou Malnati's. I believe this is as good as it gets – pizza redefined as a whole new food group," said Stern. There is only one truly national deep-dish chain and three more major players in the Chicago area, but of these, Lou Malnati's is the best, set apart by its superior crust, rich and decadent yet light. Buttery and flaky, it's more like pie crust than traditional pizza dough. Its popularity has led to about 45 restaurants, all in Illinois, plus a thriving mail order business for frozen pizzas. While pepperoni is the bestselling topping nationwide, here the two most popular pizzas are the Chicago Classic, with ground patty-style sausage and cheese, and the Lou, a surprising four-cheese blend of mozzarella, cheddar, parmesan and romano with spinach and mushrooms.

Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q & Moe's Original Bar B Que

These two consensus best barbecue chains have a lot in common – both are homespun products of Alabama with a significant presence in mountainous Colorado. Jim 'N Nick's was launched by a father and son team in a former dry cleaning shop in Birmingham, Ala., three decades ago. The restaurants are big, sit-down, full-service eateries, more fast casual than fast food, but many have drive-throughs as well. Quality is high, they even have their own heritage pig breeding program in development. Bon Appetit's Knowlton said: "The meat is good and it comes from good places because they have great sources." The barbecue is good across the board, but what makes the chain stand out is its unique slate of Southern-flavored starters, from the signature and highly addictive cheese biscuits to Creamy Collard Green Dip with tortilla chips. There are about 30 locations in seven states clustered in the South and Rockies. Moe's was launched in Vail, Colo., by a trio of University of Alabama buddies turned ski bums, and their folksy growth strategy has been to help more recent alums of their alma mater open branches. The Alabama-centric menu is large and varied, including exceptional fried shrimp po' boys, a trademark of the state's Gulf Coast, along with decadent one-of-a-kind boneless rib sandwiches. Moe's has been growing by leaps and bounds and recently added Maine and California, with its next locations in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Bozeman, Mont. That will give them more than 45 locations across 13 states.


Best chain restaurants in America

1. Shake Shack

It may be easy to make a burger, but it&rsquos not always easy to make a great burger. Shake Shack, however, has tender, juicy patties on lock&mdashat 60-plus locations worldwide (with hundreds more to come). With professional, lightning-fast service and an always-tasty menu that also includes killer loaded dogs and house-made frozen custard, the answer to the question &ldquoWanna go to Shake Shack?&rdquo is always a resounding yes.

Signature dish: Shackburger, with single or double patties, cheese, lettuce, tomato and Shacksauce.

2. Tender Greens

If you live on the Best Coast, the wildly inventive Tender Greens is yet another reason to feel pretty darn content about your life. With 20-plus locations in L.A., San Diego and Orange County as well as the Bay Area, the fast-casual spot serves up hearty, veggie-heavy soups, salads and sandwiches whose creation is overseen by trained executive chefs. Think small-batch salami served over kale with crispy garbanzos and roasted garlic vinaigrette, or rare, herb-brushed tuna steaks with mashed yukon golds. So California.

Signature dish: Chipotle barbecue chicken salad with avocado, queso fresco, crispy tortillas and cilantro-lime dressing.

3. Umami Burger

Serving up juicy burgers inspired by fine-dining flavors, this Cali-born chain focuses on the chef-lauded &ldquofifth taste,&rdquo that assertive, mouth-filling flavor found in tomatoes, aged cheeses and soy sauce. With comfortable table seating, waiter service and a full bar, Umami sets itself apart from other burger chains, promising a full-on restaurant experience&mdashnot just a great sandwich. There aren&rsquot as many locations as with other burger chains, but sometimes tasty things come in small packages.

Signature dish: Umami Burger with parmesan &ldquofrico,&rdquo roasted tomato, caramelized onions and Umami ketchup.

4. Five Guys

Speaking of burgers, this 1,000-plus strong chain puts out a delicious one: thin but moist and served up on a quintessential sesame-seed bun and loaded with your choice of as many of the Guys&rsquo 15 toppings and condiments as you want&mdashall for free. With exemplary house-cut fries and a welcoming but super-casual atmosphere, it&rsquos an obvious choice for a quick but exponentially satisfying meal.

Signature dish: Bacon cheeseburger and fries.

5. Chipotle

Serving super-craveable, Mexican-inspired burritos and bowls that are packed with flavor but sold at a low price, Chipotle is an obvious choice for one of the best chain restaurants in the country. Even better? This is food with a conscience: serving only non-GMO ingredients and pasture-raised meat, Chipotle has set a high bar for its competitors. Sure, the whole empire had to shut down in early 2016 after several E.Coli scares&mdashbut, let&rsquos face it, it&rsquos &ldquowe&rsquore sorry&rdquo free burrito offer in February lured us right back in.

Signature dish: Carnitas burrito with rice, beans and fajita veggies.

6. Texas Roadhouse

With 400-plus restaurants in 49 states, this meat-centric family restaurant is obviously doing something right. Plating up big, budget-friendly plates of steaks and ribs flanked by starchy sides like loaded baked potatoes and cheese- and bacon-studded mashers, the Roadhouse also emphasizes fun with its jukeboxes, occasional line-dance performances and solicitous waitstaff&mdashnot to mention a plethora of boozy draught cocktails such as frozen margaritas and potent punches.

Signature dish: &ldquoFall-Off-the-Bone&rdquo ribs with signature barbecue sauce.

7. Friendly’s

We&rsquod like to think that the unofficial motto of Friendly&rsquos&mdashever a highway-side beacon of hope during those long, cross-country drives&mdashis: &ldquoFriendly&rsquos: because with ice cream, what could possibly be bad?&rdquo With comfy booths, perky waitstaff and a comfort food-spanning menu of burgers, melts and fryer favorites, it&rsquos hard to feel anything but pure contentment when eating at a Friendly&rsquos. To add to the enjoyment, there&rsquos that extensive list of frozen delights: shakes, sundaes, floats. Just try leaving without something from the freezer&mdashwe dare you.

Signature dish: Original &ldquoBig Beef&rdquo burger with American and mayo.

8. Benihana

Showy teppanyaki-style cooking&mdashwherein a chef cooks Japanese-style dishes on a large hibachi flattop grill and presents them, with flair, to a crowd of diner-spectators&mdashwas introduced to the U.S. by this historic chain in 1962. While teppanyaki has faded as a dining trend&mdashfor a couple of decades there, it was the number one choice for special occasions like birthday parties&mdashit remains a fun and tasty choice for an unusual evening out. We&rsquoll take a round of flaming onion volcanoes&mdashstat, please.

Signature dish: Hibachi chicken breast with mushrooms, butter and sesame seeds.

9. The Cheesecake Factory

Foodies love to hate on this 188-location-strong chain of comfort-food restaurants, but the fact is: diners love it. The Cheesecake Factory regularly ranks at the top of nationwide customer satisfaction surveys for its attentive service, tasty food, and, of course value&mdashthe plates of burgers, ribs and grilled seafood here are huge. And with 36 varieties of genre-bending cheesecake available daily&mdashpeanut butter cup fudge ripple cheesecake, anyone?&mdashit&rsquos a craving-resolving destination for the sweet tooths among us.

Signature dish: Original cheesecake with graham cracker crust and sour cream topping (simple, but so good).

10. P.F. Chang’s

With its abundant portions of approachable, Americanized Chinese food&mdashthink sweet, soy-glazed Mongolian beef and Singapore-style rice noodles tossed with shrimp and cabbage&mdashit&rsquos easy to see why this chain, established in Arizona in 1993, has multiplied so quickly, with 260 locations around the world. For those in living in smaller towns, where more strictly authentic Asian fare is nonexistent, P.F. Chang&rsquos offers a welcome sampling of worldly flavors. For those in bigger towns with straight-from-China dishes at every turn, Chang&rsquos is still a solid guilty pleasure.

Signature dish: Chang&rsquos spicy chicken, with chili sauce, scallions and garlic.


No. 5: Schoop's Hamburgers

Residents of Indiana&rsquos Calumet Region southeast of Chicago have been enjoying Schoop&rsquos Hamburgers since 1948. The menu includes fresh, never frozen patties cooked to order on a grill and served on a toasted bun alongside fries, onion rings and classic soda shop beverages.

Photo courtesy of Skyline Chili


Courtesy of Burger King

The Whopper. Chicken fries. Onion rings. You know the classics at Burger King, but take a gander at the desserts. The Hershey's Sundae Pie starts with a chocolate cookie crust topped with chocolate and vanilla cream. It always comes slightly chilled to the point where it seems like ice cream.

And if you're wondering how Burger King's pies stack up to the competition, We Taste-Tested Fast-Food Pies, Cookies, & Ice Cream—These Were Our Favorites.


The Most-Popular Dishes at America's Top Chain Restaurants

Find out if your go-to order tops the menu at each of these tried-and-true chains.

Applebee's: Bourbon Street Chicken and Shrimp

For customers of this iconic and ever-evolving chain, nothing embodies "eatin' good in the neighborhood" quite like the Bourbon Street Chicken and Shrimp &mdash a heap of Cajun-seasoned chicken and blackened shrimp in garlic butter, served on a sizzling cast-iron platter along with sauteed mushrooms, onions and crispy red potatoes. Since December 2015, Applebee's has served more than 46 million of these dishes.

Red Lobster: Ultimate Feast

Come for the often-imitated, never-duplicated Cheddar Bay Biscuits. Stay for the Ultimate Feast, Red Lobster's fan-favorite entree. In this case, "feast" is not hyperbole: It's a platter heaped with tender Maine lobster tail, steamed North American snow crab legs and garlic shrimp scampi &mdash in addition to butterflied, hand-breaded, golden fried shrimp. Remember to save room for the parade of all-included salad, coleslaw and biscuits.

California Pizza Kitchen: Original BBQ Chicken Pizza

California Pizza Kitchen offers over 20 different pies on its menu &mdash four of them gluten-free! But the most popular, hands down, is the Original BBQ Chicken Pizza, invented at the chain's first location in Beverly Hills in 1985. The hand-tossed crust, made from a top-secret recipe, is a canvas for CPK's legendary BBQ sauce plus smoked Gouda, red onions and fresh cilantro.

LongHorn Steakhouse: Rib-Eye Steak

LongHorn serves more than 10 million fresh (and never-frozen) rib-eye steaks annually &mdash and this item's popularity is no surprise. Each location nationwide has a team of certified Grill Masters who specialize in selecting the right cut, pairing it with one of six signature seasoning blends and grilling it to each guest's taste. Diners can order the rib eye either of two ways: the hand-trimmed, 12-ounce rib eye or the signature fire-grilled Outlaw Ribeye &mdash an 18-ounce, perfectly marbled bone-in cut.

Carrabba's Italian Grill: Chicken Bryan

Carrabba's isn't your typical red-sauce Italian joint. First and foremost, it's a grill &mdash and each of the menu's meaty entrees, from steak and chops to chicken and veal, gets the wood-fired treatment. Take the Chicken Bryan, for example. This fan favorite is lightly brushed with Carrabba's signature grill baste made up of olive oil and 14 different herbs and spices. Once grilled, the rustic white meat is topped with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and a lemon butter sauce.

TGI Friday's: Cajun Shrimp and Chicken Pasta

TGI Friday's frequently refreshes its menu, so the most-popular entree changes with every rotation of brand-new dishes. Most recently, the Cajun Shrimp and Chicken Pasta has been dominating order slips according to a spokesperson, it's the most-commonly ordered dish per store, per day. This flavor bomb features sauteed, all-natural chicken, shrimp and red bell peppers tossed with fettuccine in a spicy Cajun Alfredo sauce.

P.F. Chang's: Mongolian Style Beef

The sheer volume of menu options at this Asian-themed casual-dining restaurant is dizzying, encompassing everything from sushi to street fare &mdash and let's not forget the separate Dim Sum menu featuring traditional Chinese-style rolls and dumplings. Still, P.F. Chang's patrons have managed to identify a clear favorite: the Mongolian Style Beef, garlicky soy-glazed flank steak topped with snipped green onions.

Golden Corral: A Blue-Plate Tie

It doesn't get much more "Sunday supper" than fried chicken, pot roast or meatloaf. It's no coincidence, then, that these quintessential blue plates are all tied for the most-popular spot on the menu at Golden Corral, a big American buffet chain known for its comforting, stick-to-your-ribs classics.

Arby's: Traditional Greek Gyro

With a slogan like "We have the meats," it's no surprise that the reigning No. 1 overall order at Arby's is the Classic Roast Beef &mdash with small fries and a fountain soda, of course. Recently, though, fans have been migrating toward the new Signature Sandwiches &mdash specifically, the Traditional Greek Gyro. This hearty newcomer features sliced gyro meat (a blend of ground beef, ground lamb and Mediterranean spices) in a warm flatbread along with lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, tzatziki sauce and Greek seasoning. After Arby's sold 6.5 million of them in April 2018, the fan favorite became a permanent menu item in May 2018.

Carl's Jr.: Famous Star with Cheese

What started in 1941 as a humble Los Angeles hot-dog cart, manned by husband-and-wife team Carl and Margaret Karcher, would ultimately grow into a multinational destination for charbroiled burgers and fries. Customers' favored dish is true to Carl's Jr.'s all-American roots: To date, the chain's most-frequently ordered menu item has been the Famous Star with Cheese, a beef patty and gooey American cheese with lettuce, tomato, onion, dill pickles, mayonnaise and special sauce on a seeded bun.

Cracker Barrel: Momma's Pancake Breakfast

At Cracker Barrel, all-day breakfast is more of a birthright than a lifestyle choice. It's also the reason why Momma's Pancake Breakfast is the restaurant chain's most-popular dish. This plate is nothing short of an ode to breakfast: Three hot-off-the-griddle buttermilk pancakes come outfitted with butter and syrup plus two eggs and thick-sliced bacon or sausage on the side.

Outback: Center-Cut Sirloin

The philosophy "Less is more" is anathema to devotees of Outback Steakhouse, a chain famous for big, meaty, over-the-top plates like its filet mignon and steamed lobster-tail entree. However &mdash and this may surprise you &mdash the most-popular main dish at this internationally known temple of red meat is none other than the simple, lean and seared Center-Cut Sirloin. Pair it with a house salad and Outback's signature baked potato and you've got yourself a well-rounded plate.

Olive Garden: Chicken Alfredo

With dozens of mix-and-match pasta possibilities (or, should we say, pastabilities), it's the big, creamy bowl of Olive Garden's Chicken Alfredo that continues to top the restaurant's list of most-popular entrees. Sliced grilled chicken is served over tender fettuccine pasta and doused in OG's signature homemade Alfredo sauce, which is made from scratch daily. We think that's exactly what the restaurant's iconic breadsticks are for &mdash mopping up all that rich cream sauce.

Chick-fil-A: Chicken Sandwich

In 1961, restaurateur and Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy set out to create a flawless chicken sandwich. After years of experimentation, he cracked the code to what would ultimately become the No. 1-selling entree at the nation's largest chicken-restaurant chain. Five decades later, Cathy's cooking method hasn't changed &mdash and his Chicken Sandwich recipe is still a secret. All we know is that pressure-cooking boneless, hand-breaded chicken breast in refined peanut oil, and adorning it simply with dill pickle chips and a toasted, buttered bun, is central to the magic.

Panera Bread: Broccoli Cheddar Soup

At Panera, the hands-down fan favorite is a no-brainer: Broccoli Cheddar Soup. The recipe features chopped broccoli and shredded carrots simmered in a velvety smooth cheese sauce with a top-secret blend of seasonings. The iconic soup is available in a cup, bowl or bread bowl. Let's face it &mdash you want the bread bowl. We all want the bread bowl.

Chipotle: Chicken Burrito Bowl

We were relatively surprised to discover that it's not the Burrito but rather its lower-carb alternative, the Burrito Bowl, that tops the popularity chart at Chipotle. Specifically, it's the Chicken Burrito Bowl &mdash a flavor festival of rice, beans, fajita veggies and other essentials, such as salsa and sour cream (and guac, if you're willing to cough up the extra $1.95), united around a foundation of smoky, spicy adobo grilled chicken that's deliciously charred for subtle caramel flavor.

McDonald's: McNuggets

When McDonald's introduced the Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Tenders in October 2017, many people speculated that the good old-fashioned McNugget eventually would go the way of the dinosaur. However, according to a McDonald's spokesperson, the golden-crusted nuggets we all pined for as youngsters continue to shine as customers' favored meal, regardless of their age. Made with 100 percent white meat and no artificial preservatives, the nuggets have more in common with their healthier-seeming cousins than you might have imagined.

The Cheesecake Factory: Chicken Madeira

With a menu that boasts more than 250 items, it's unbelievable that The Cheesecake Factory has been able to identify a definitive favorite. And yet, somehow, a clear winner has emerged: The Chicken Madeira, according to a Cheesecake Factory spokesperson, is the most-frequently ordered entree on the menu. Smothered with fresh mushroom Madeira sauce and melted mozzarella, the tender chicken breasts come topped with fresh asparagus and a side of fluffy mashed potatoes.

KFC: Original Recipe Fried Chicken

It seems as if KFC customers around the globe live by the old mantra "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." According to a KFC spokesperson, despite the regular introduction of new menu items, the Colonel's most-prized offering is the Original Recipe fried chicken, seasoned with an oh-so-secret signature blend of 11 herbs and spices. Despite operating roughly 21,000 locations worldwide, the megachain prides itself on the fact that its cooks meticulously inspect each individual piece of chicken before it is seasoned, floured and pressure-cooked.

Burger King: The Whopper

True, at Burger King you can "have it your way." But it seems as though customers are more than happy sticking to the fast-food chain's tried-and-true Whopper formula. This straightforward quarter-pounder comes with all the classic fixins: juicy tomatoes, fresh lettuce, creamy mayonnaise, ketchup, crunchy pickles and sliced white onions on a soft sesame-seed bun.

Denny's: Build Your Own Grand Slam

It turns out the breakfast-all-day crowd spans far and wide. At Denny's, where the most-popular menu item is the Build Your Own Grand Slam, diners customize their plates around the clock with a choice of two fluffy buttermilk pancakes, two eggs cooked to order, two sizzling bacon strips and two sausage links. No wonder it's been said that all the best things in life come in twos.

Taco Bell: Crunchy Taco

Of the roughly 2 billion tacos ordered at Taco Bell each year, the most-popular item is the Crunchy Taco, which can be ordered a la carte and famously cost just 19 cents on the original menu in 1962. Though it's been served the same way since then (a basic trio of seasoned ground beef, shredded cheddar and chopped lettuce), it has spawned countless variations, such as the Doritos Locos Tacos, which launched in 2012.

Wendy's: Dave's Single

Dave's Single is Wendy's most-popular main, not to mention an all-around classic and menu staple. Just as Wendy's founder, Dave Thomas, intended, Dave's Single is made with a juicy quarter-pound of fresh beef. The burger is dressed with crinkle-cut pickles, sliced tomatoes, sweet onions, lettuce, melted American cheese, and ketchup and mayonnaise, all on a warm toasted bun &mdash the same way it's been served since its introduction in 1969.


America's Best Chain Restaurants

Choosing your favorite casual-dining chain restaurant is serious business. The options are plentiful and there’s much to consider from food quality to value for money. Endless choice, super-sized portions, and friendly faces can be very persuasive. It’s no big surprise then that The Cheesecake Factory is the nation’s favorite casual-dining restaurant according to an annual survey conducted by Market Force Information, a customer experience management firm.

This is the second consecutive year that the popular chain, known for its extensive menu and cheesecake options, has landed in the survey’s top spot. With a selection of more than 200 items, including 50 desert options, and plates so generous almost everyone leaves with a doggie bag, The Cheesecake Factory ranked a clear first earning 7.3% of the vote share, more than double the 3.2% scored by runner-up Texas Roadhouse. Olive Garden came in at No. 3 spot with 2.8% of votes.

More than 4,500 consumers from the firm’s 300,000 strong stable of independent mystery shoppers voted for their favorite chain from a list of 51 casual-dining restaurants in the August survey. Votes were weighted against the number of restaurant locations per chain to account for the fact that certain brands are less prevalent than others. “A respondent’s ability to select a certain restaurant depends on whether there’s even an outlet in their area,” said Market Force’s Senior Vice President of Customer Knowledge, Cheryl Flink. “If they haven’t been, they can’t make a decision on how much they like that chain.”

To understand why a certain brand fared better than another, respondents rated them by the following attributes: quality of food, taste of food, speed of service, friendly service, cleanliness, overall value, atmosphere, child-friendliness, healthy choices, and green/sustainable practices.

When patronizing casual-dining restaurants, which fall in between fine-dining eateries and fast food joints, the taste and quality food is most important to the diner, according to restaurant and food industry consultant, Bob Sandelman. Notably, the top 3 favorites chains all scored very well in these categories. “Eating out is a considered purchase, often a special occasion, so people need to make sure the food is going to be worth it,” said Sandelman.

But good food isn’t always enough the menu needs to be innovative too. “A lot of consumers tire of restaurants when those chains fail to keep up with changing consumer preferences,” explained Sharon Zackfia, a restaurant analyst at William Blair & Company. By revising its menu and adding new dishes and concepts every six months, the Cheesecake Factory is a prime example of a chain that innovates to keep consumers coming back. “There are no inherent limitations in it’s concept,” said Zackfia, “they have to have cheesecake, but otherwise they can go anywhere with their food.”

Service is second most important in the mind of the diner, but it’s also inextricably linked to the food. According to Flink, “people are tolerant about speed of service if the food is very, very good. If they’ve waited 10 minutes more than they think they should have, and the food is bad, you’ve got a double whammy: bad food, bad service – no one’s happy.”

Then there’s atmosphere. Casual-dining eateries are popular choices for celebrations, so a lively environment makes all the difference between a mediocre meal and a great one. Decked out with jukeboxes, Wild West accoutrements and even line dancers, it’s no surprise that Texas Roadhouse was an extremely high-scorer in this category.

Though with an entirely different feel, Italian-American chain Olive Garden also wooed diners with its great atmosphere. According to Zackfia, the chain’s unique strength lies in creating a widely appealing experience. “It’s accessible to everybody,” she said, “white collar, blue collar, senior citizens, teenagers on date.”

Value however, didn’t appear to have much impact on how respondents voted. None of the top 3 favorite eateries featured among the top scorers for overall value.

“Value is often about lots and lots of food for few dollars,” said Flink. Logically, Golden Corral (which holds the No. 11 spot), a reasonably priced, all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant was the highest scorer in this category. But quantity says nothing about quality. Respondents were decidedly less enthusiastic about the taste and quality of Golden Corral’s seemingly boundless offerings.


4. Romano’s Macaroni Grill

Founded by Philip Romano near San Antonio in 1989, Macaroni Grill now has more than 200 locations nationwide and in countries including Egypt, Mexico, and Japan. The menu features a nice selection of antipasti, salads, flatbreads, a “create your own pasta” option, Italian-American classics, entrées including chicken Marsala and Calabrese steak, and “Braisers” including a giant pork shank with Marsala wine and mushrooms. While the menu is a bit more traditional red sauce Italian than its more outside-the-box competitors, they stay current with a ‘Lite’ menu of under 600 calorie items and rotating seasonal specials. They also offer catering, gift cards, and online ordering.


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