You Are Not Too Good to Eat at a Chain Restaurant

Pretty much everyone grew up being familiar with chain restaurants whether they ate at them or not. When I was a kid growing up in a small Texas town in the '70s, it was a big deal for my family when we went for pizza at Mr. Gatti’s or Mexican food at Monterrey House. For a lot of us, chain restaurants were all we knew because it was all we had. Big cities had restaurant chains too, but they also had a lot of other restaurants to choose from. Too many people wrinkle their noses at the mere thought of eating at an Applebee’s, but a memorable restaurant experience is just as much about the people we dine with than what food is on the menu or who prepared it. Mr. Gatti’s and Monterey House have pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur and have been replaced by Uno’s and Chuy's. Whatever the chain restaurant is, it has a purpose and maybe it’s time to give credit where credit is due.

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There are reasons people like chain restaurants. They’re consistent. Whether you’re eating in Texas, California, or New York, you know you can open the menu and choose from the exact same items and they will come to your table looking and tasting the way it did the last time you ordered them. Going to a new restaurant presents challenges and if you only go out to eat once or twice a month, maybe it’s not worth the risk. If you know you love the Five Cheese Ziti al Forno at Olive Garden, why take the chance that a similar dish elsewhere else isn’t going to tickle the taste buds the same way? 

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Chain restaurants are also generally going to be more affordable than a one-off restaurant that has a select menu and daily specials crafted by the head chef. Most customers spend their dining dollars very carefully and no one wants to be disappointed after dropping a good portion of their paycheck for one meal. Gage and Tollner is a great place for a New York strip, but plenty of us are on a Longhorn Steakhouse budget and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some might consider the quality of the food to be better if it costs more, but a Salisbury steak can taste just as delicious as a bone-in ribeye if it’s served with the right company. 

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On a recent trip home to Texas, my brother made for me an incredible meal of homemade lasagna. I hadn’t had the opportunity to sit down for a meal with my family in over two years. The food was delicious, but the company was what made this meal so divine. My mom said  "This is just as good as something that came from Olive Garden,” and  I realized that we all love the food that we know. A dinner at Chili’s provides the exact same experience for some people as a dinner at Daniel or The French Laundry does for someone else. There’s no need to look down on anyone’s restaurant preferences. Whatever the reason, some of us quite enjoy the well-worn groove of a chain restaurant.

When I went to Monterey House as a kid, my favorite part of the night was rummaging through the tortilla chips to find the goat milk candy that was wrapped in wax paper and placed at the bottom of the red plastic basket. There were always three pieces, one for me and each of my brothers. I didn’t know I was eating at a chain restaurant, I just knew how much I loved it and it was always a special occasion to get to go there. Maybe that’s how some people feel when they go to Per Se and get to order the Oysters and Pearls. Either way, both restaurants are doing what they are meant to do: filling people with both food and love. Chain restaurants deserve a little respect.
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