Unchain Thyself

We all end up going to big chain restaurants sometimes. You know what I mean: the super chains. As you can probably tell from what and where I typically eat, it's not my favorite. In theory, a restaurant being successful enough to have multiple stores should mean that the place is (at least at some point) good. Why would a place open more stores if it didn't have success in its model? I would hope that some element of goodness would indicate success in the ultra-competitive restaurant industry. Given this assumption, it's the gradual deterioration over time and size that makes most of these restaurants rather abhorrent.

I find that there are several exceptions to the rule that chain restaurants are bad. Don't worry. Not for fast food. Not for any of the true super chains either. The real exceptions come in several areas.

Nice places: I'm sure by this time a few chains have probably popped into your head that are lovely counterexamples to my current claim. You would love to go to these places! Places like fancy steakhouses Ruth's Chris, Morton's and Capital Grille, seafood places like McCormick & Schmick's and Legal Seafood, or nicer novelty places like Benihana and Melting Pot. I have been to many of these places, and they are all quite enjoyable. Would I choose one of these over a smaller steak or seafood place with a possibly more unique, creative and/or personal vibe that I may not be able to get in every city, the answer is no. But all the same, I am not lumping these into the bleak abyss of the super chains, because at least these ones try.

Chef places: Celebrity chefs and chef-restaurateurs often create a brand of restaurant after themselves. While these are not always good, I don’t believe these deserve to fall into the Avoid-Me chains by face value alone because these are usually nicer places, and usually have a real person/chef/owner that cares about the reputation of, well, his or her OWN name. Not always. But as a rule of thumb, these places are worth trying.

Smaller places: By this I mean more localized chains. Usually when there is more than one of a local restaurant that is a good sign. It means it has done extremely well and is extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. This means it is just an expanded version of the original, rather than a completely corporate, profit-driven, stripped-down, boring and unhealthy option like most. You might be surprised by how good these places are. For now. How do you think some of the super chains got started?

In my quest to deride super chains without mentioning any specifically, I feel the need to shout out to a super chain I have just recently tried. And enjoyed. Quite a lot! We went twice! Don Pablo’s. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s okay. It’s not the hugest of super chains (if that makes any sense). But it does have $2 drafts, $3 margaritas; they also make their own fresh corn chips and freshly made tortillas to go along with their tasty, fresh entrees. That pretty much makes a Mexican place a winner for me, and strangely, most small, authentic Mexican places don’t even make their own chips/tortillas. It makes so much difference, plus the cheap drinks, that they have actually moved away from the realm of bad super chain restaurants into a full-fledged recommendation from me.

Armed with my rules of thumb, I imagine you’ll be all set to face the scary world of chain restaurant selection. Or if you get bored, go find a DP’s.

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