Every day, Americans spend about $1.7 billion at the nation’s 970,000 restaurants—close to the amount they spend each year on indigestion remedies. Clearly, diners deserve a sure thing: a clean place that provides tasty food and good value. To find the best bets, we surveyed 47,565 readers who ate a total of 110,517 meals at 102 table-service chain restaurants—a step (sometimes a leap) up from fast-food joints.
On one end are family-oriented, pot-roast-and-hash-brown restaurants such as Denny’s, IHOP, and Perkins, with simple décor, sturdy tableware, and a bill of about $10 per person for breakfast or lunch. On the other, white-tablecloth eateries such as The Capital Grille, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and Morton’s Steakhouse, where guests can sample carpaccio and ahi tuna on fine china, sip wine in clubby surroundings, and pay more than $40 per person for dinner and drinks.
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The rated restaurants serve cuisine for most palates: steaks and burgers, barbecue, seafood, Italian, Mexican, and Asian. Some chains have a niche: fondue at The Melting Pot; hibachi cooking at Benihana; Cajun fare at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen.
What we found
Nine chains earned high marks across the board for the four attributes in the Ratings—taste, value, service, and mood—plus praise in three other key areas: menu variety, cleanliness, and a lack of noise. They were: Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano, Black Angus Steakhouse, Bob Evans, Bravo Cucina Italiana, First Watch, J. Alexander’s, Le Peep, Elmer’s and Fatz Eatz & Drinkz.
Among the lower-rated were two family restaurants (“family” because they’re typically informal, cater to kids, are open long hours, and serve no liquor): Friendly’s, where “we are committed to quality in everything we do,” and Waffle House, where “we are not in the food business … we are in the People business.” Both drew relatively low marks for cleanliness and mood; Friendly’s was also criticized for lackluster service. The pub-style Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar was another laggard, criticized for value and noise.
On average, readers were very satisfied with roughly half of the 102 chains. But there’s room for improvement. Only Cheddar’s Casual Café, which touts “always-affordable food,” received a top mark for value, and just 19 chains got especially high marks for taste. On one-fourth of all visits, readers found their restaurant too noisy.
During one in 10 visits, the wait staff was slow, inattentive, pushy, messy, or mistake-prone. No surprise, perhaps, that there were a fair number of small tippers among our respondents. During about 20 percent of visits, guests left a tip of less than 15 percent; during 2 percent of visits, they left less than 10 percent. Chains with the highest percentage of tips below 15 percent were Applebee’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Cheddar’s, Country Kitchen, Don Pablo’s, El Torito, Joe’s Crab Shack, Logan’s Roadhouse, Lone Star Steakhouse, McGrath’s, Shari’s, and Shoney’s.
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Patrons singled out First Watch and Legal Seafoods as most likely to offer healthful dishes. Least likely to sell healthful fare were Buffalo Wild Wings, Quaker Steak & Lube, Waffle House, Hooters, and Johnny Rockets, according to respondents.
Spirited competition among the chains means that consumers can use a toolbox of tactics to find bargains. Here are some examples:
- Eat when others don’t. That’s a surefire way to save. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Red Lobster customers get a discount on some shrimp entrées. At Applebee’s, the reward for late-night dining is half-price appetizers.
- Eat at the bar. At Bravo Cucina Italiana, guests can sit at the bar and order off the Bar Bites menu for as little as $3.95. Until 7 p.m., Fleming’s offers five cocktails, glasses of wine, and appetizers at the bar, each for $6.
- Show your age. On Tuesdays at Fatz Eatz & Drinkz, guests 50 and older can order from a special menu ($6-to-$8 entrées) between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. For people 55 and older, Perkins has inexpensive lunches and dinners with two sides every day. Saltgrass Steak House and Chart House will take 10 percent off the bills of AARP members; at Denny’s, AARP members save 20 percent off their bill from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Revealing your age can net benefits even if you’re not over 50: At The Cheesecake Factory, the birthday celebrant gets a free scoop of ice cream.
- Eat with others. Applebee’s, Chili’s, and O’Charley’s have “two for” deals consisting of one shareable appetizer and two full-sized entrées for $20. P.F. Chang’s has a four-course Meal For Two for $40. Maggiano’s and Buca di Beppo serve heaping portions on large platters, family style, and Buca di Beppo also has smaller platters designed for two or four people. (Having seen those platters, we suspect they could easily feed more.)
- Check in on Facebook. That’s where many restaurants reveal their latest promotions. By “liking” the restaurant or just visiting the page, we found offers and clickable coupons for a free appetizer with a paid entrée (Chili’s), free dessert when buying the Italian dinner for two (Romano’s Macaroni Grill), and $10 off the purchase of two dinner entrées (Carrabba’s).
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