Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Mid-Range Restaurant Chains

I read a lengthy Sunday NY Times article on mid-range price restaurant chains. The interesting lead to the article was the conclusion that many of them offer good meals at a good value. I am referring to restaurants like, Outback Steakhouse, PF Changs, Chili's, Applebees, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, etc.

A lot of food enthusiasts prefer not to eat at the chain restaurants and frequent the locally owned places. I agree in spirit, but in practice I think food quality is good, more dependable and often better at the chains, the food critics at the New York Times agreed.

For the next couple days I'll give my opinion on the local chains, starting today with the Mexican and Italian.

Mi Cocina's: I write about them often because the food is consistently good, the service is good and the serving sizes are enormous. One "tell" for a good restaurant: if you see the same waiters there year after year, something true at Mi Cocina's. Stay away from the $10 Mojito's.
Food taste score and value: 9 of 10

Gloria's: Not my favorite place. I understand many of you like it, but dollar for dollar I don't think they are close to Mi Cocina's. Technically, Gloria's is El Salvadoran with a touch of Tex-Mex. Their black beans are very good.
Food taste score and value: 6 of 10

Pappasito's: Great chips, good salsa, the best fajita's in town. One problem for me: it has a high energy buzz to it that I think is encouraged by the owners. I never get the feeling that I can relax and enjoy my meal. The decibel level is just too high.
Food taste and overall value: 7 of 10

Cantina Laredo: A little pricey, but it's an upscale kind of place and the food is very good.
Food taste and overall value: 8 of 10 (knocked down a little because of the price)

Uncle Julio's: Pappasito's lite. Good food, a local favorite, just too noisy for me.
Food taste and overall value: 7 of 10

The Olive Garden: Since I was raised in the back seat of an family-owned Italian restaurant I have a hard time eating at the Italian chains. I ate once at the Olive Garden 25 years ago and swore I'd never go back. People I trust say it's not bad these days.
Food taste and overall value: ? (you tell me)

Macaroni Grill: When they first opened they were very good. Now, I can't say much good about them. I have been twice in the last year and was disappointed both times.
Food taste and overall value: 6 of 10

In conclusion, you are not going to get a really bad meal in any of these restaurants. The better ones have established recipes that employees follow closely, which results in consistent quality, though sometimes boring selection. Because of the rigors of the corporate style they often are better than locally owned establishments. Yes, there are exceptions, like La Familia and Benitos. But -- at those two places the owner or manager is there and actively involved.

Next seafood and steaks.


Jake Good said...

I would agree with you on your conclusions... but I think there are bottom tier chain restaurants that I try to avoid unless I get desperate... like Apple Bees and fast food joints...

It surprises me that you placed The Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill in the same list as the others, to us "northerners" the others are slightly exciting as they are unknown to us... but Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill are well known... (Olive Garden's Zuppa Toscana is the only worthwhile thing there)

I'm a sucker for good food and I try to find the best thing that I can have at any place I'm at...

Francis Shivone said...

Actually Jake I have had some good meals at Applebee's. The decor makes me feel like I'm in a Seinfeld episode of 4:00 dinner special diners. But the food is not bad. The other chains you spoke of are really regional and not national, like Olive Garden.

Rambler said...

The soup, salad, and breadsticks meal on the lunch menu is the only thing worth the money at Olive Garden,. Sorry to hear about Macaroni Grill; it used to be my favorite, for the bread if nothing else.

Agreed about Pappasito's, and I feel the same way about Chilis, Bennegans, etc. I like Chilis food, so I try to hit it on the off hours. FYI - a friend says the new Pappas burger restaurant at 30 and University is good.

Black-eyed Pea used to be a favorite, but the portions went down and the prices up. Their vegetable plate was, for many years a ritual comfort meal for me.

Francis Shivone said...

Rambler --

Funny you mention B-E-Pea. That was the family's favorite for years until they sold and the quality went down. Loved that place. And, yes, the bread at Mac. Grill was great, no more. I have heard others say the bread sticks and salad bar are good at Olive Garden.
I didn't think the Pappas burger was worth the high cost, especially after adding a tip. I think I had a $13 burgers, fries, drink and tip. Too much for a burger that was not that good.

Rambler said...

Thanks for the heads-up on Pappas. I'll stick with the Old Neighborhood grill big burger.

If you are in East Dallas, there's a place in the Lakewoord Shopping Center called the Dixie House. It's related to the B.E.Peas (not the FW Dixie Houses), but good last time I was there. And they had jalepeno cornbread which I like.

Francis Shivone said...

Rambler -- I seem to remember somebody telling me the Dixie House in Dallas was the first B E Pea, or the restaurant that the concept came from. I have been there many times and loved it.
The fresh rolls served at the original BEPea were unbelievable as was the cornbread. When the new owners took over they kept the rolls but they were warmed up frozen types. Terrible.
Result: I never went back.
Moral: accountants make bad restaurant owners.

Rambler said...

I was told that the first BEPea was the one on Cedar Springs in Dallas, but it would make sense that they modeled after the Dixie House. Mother says it was there from World War II, although I don't remember it from the early 60s, when we were going to the Lakewood Theater and the library in that center. I was little, though, so that doesn't mean much. Have you eaten at the Fort Worth Dixie Houses? There were 3 at one time, but I think one closed.