America's Best Chain Restaurants

Nadia Arumugam

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 dessert 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.

Here are the Top 7 of America's Best Chain Restaurants:

1. Cheesecake Factory

Tim Boyle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the second consecutive year diners rated the popular chain as their No. 1 favorite. Though it didn't excel on any one attribute, the chain fared very well across most of them, especially the significant areas of food taste and quality, friendliness of service, atmosphere, and cleanliness. It suffered lower scores for speed of service and overall value; but then its signature massive portions do promise two meals from one plate.

2. Texas Roadhouse

Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images

With very high scores in food, service and atmosphere, it's no surprise that the steak and ribs joint maintained its runner-up status for the second year in a row. But a couple of blips: in spite of the chain's claim that "We provide larger portions so you get more food for your dollar" it earned a below average score for overall value. And with a relatively low rating for cleanliness, clearly there's still some work to do.

3. Olive Garden

Richard B. Levine/Newscom

A high scorer in the atmosphere, green/sustainable practices, and healthy choices categories, the Italian chain famous for its Never Ending Pasta Bowl, and limitless salad and breadstick proposition crept up one spot from last year. It did quite well across the board on food quality, service and cleanliness, but came out a little lower on value. Maybe they should throw in limitless desserts, too?

4. P.F. Chang's China Bistro

Rick Gomez/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The Asian Bistro moved up from its 2010 No. 7 spot, but it performed poorly when rated by attributes compared to the other chains in the top 15. It ranked lowest in the overall value, cleanliness, friendly service, speed of the service and taste of food categories. When it came to quality of food, only Red Robin scored worse. PF Chang's was also considered the least kid-friendly eatery, and came in second to last for atmosphere.

5. Carrabba's Italian Grill

ZUMA Press/Newscom

The Mediterranean eatery known for its wood-fire grilled fare, and warm ambience didn't even feature in 2010's top 15 list of favorite casual dining chains. Yet, this year, it rated highest for atmosphere, scored second best in the overall value, and speed of service categories after Applebee's in both instances, and was highly placed for its friendly service too. Despite its excellent performance in those attributes, however, it scored slightly below average for quality and taste of food.

6. Red Lobster

ZUMA Press/Newscom

The nation's largest full-service seafood chain maintained its 2010 ranking in this year's Market Force survey. It may be on the outer peripheries of the top 5, but Red Lobster failed to excel in both food and service. PF Chang's, Red Robin and Outback Steakhouse were the only chains out of the top 15 that scored worse in quality and taste of food, speed of service, friendliness of service, and cleanliness. As for overall value, Red Lobster only fared better than PF Chang's and Red Robin.

7. Outback Steakhouse

Marianna Day Massey/ZUMA Press/Newscom

It climbed up two spots from last year and made it well into the top 10 list of favorites. Surprisingly though, the steakhouse rated well below average in most attributes when compared to the other chains in the shortlist. Only PF Chang's and Red Robin fared worse when it came to quality and taste of food, speed of service, friendly service, and cleanliness. It also performed relatively poorly in the atmosphere, kid-friendly and healthy choices categories.

Click here to see the full list of America's Best Chain Restaurants


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