The Secret Shame of the Restaurant Chain

Categories: The Essay
chicken bryan.JPG
Photo courtesy of Carrabba's
Yes, I'll feel guilty about this. 

Sometime later this year, the Italian chain with two annoying Texans in its commercials, is expected to open a location on 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale. It'll appear among a mile strip of local favorites, places like Gilbert's, with its great burgers; and Grateful Palate, with its terrific everything. There's even the wildly popular Italian restaurant Bravo across the street and old mainstay pizza slinger Giorgio's a few doors down.

But yet, shortly after it opens, I'll slink into the new Carrabba's and, as usual, order the chicken Bryan. The wife will get the pasta Wesie. We won't check in on Facebook while we're there. We won't tweet photos. We'll be glad if nobody sees us walk out with a takeout bag, the telltale sign that we weren't just checking the place out. 

We'll do this covert dining trip because of chain guilt. You know, that underlying feeling you have that you're giving up on the local joints by hitting a megacorporation. 

There's probably a guilty chain pleasure on your regular dining rotation. I asked my 
friends about it recently, and a whole lot of them shared chain secrets as if they were admitting to cheating on a spouse. My friend Vanessa, responding to my question on Facebook, wrote that she's "ashamed" of her Macaroni Grill addiction. Megan said she hits Olive Garden for "ironic dining," although she likes the salad. David does Red Lobster, and not just for those cheese biscuits. 

bloominonion.jpg
Photo via KellyLee on Instagram
It's still bloomin'.
And Jenny wrote: "It's Chili's. Bottomless chips and salsa. I dream about it sometimes. They also never seem to get flustered by kids, and with my unpredictable twosome, this is a big plus. I've never been scolded or looked at with disdain in a Chili's. The same cannot be said for some locally owned restaurants."

That's the simple truth of it. There's something simply comforting in knowing you're going to get the exact same thing every time you go into a chain. A Chili's opened in my hometown in New Hampshire when I was in college 20 years ago and was immediately swamped with two-hour waits every night, putting local joints out of business all over town. What it succeeded at doing, where many local places failed, was putting out the same, identical, solid food for two decades. 

Take that chicken Bryan at Carrabba's. It has 12 simple ingredients you could pick up from a shelf at Winn-Dixie (even the bad Winn-Dixie). The recipe -- you can find it online everywhere -- will take ten minutes, with most of that dedicated to letting the sauce reduce. If you've ever seen a sauté pan, you can make this dish. 

But eating at a chain will probably not outwardly disappoint you either. It will be the same bloomin' onion with Thousand Island that you've been eating since college. It will bring you back to that first night at Friday's, an episode of Friends on the bar TV, Better Than Ezra on the sound system, and a server so friendly you considered exchanging beeper numbers. 

You will finish your meal, wash it down with two-for-one drinks, and eat the leftovers guiltily over the sink later. And it will be fairly good. Not as good as the local place across the street maybe, but so comfortably comfortable that you almost forget about the guilt. Almost.


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Eric Barton is editor of New Times Broward-Palm Beach. Email him here, or click here to follow him on Facebook.

Location Info

Giorgio's Brick Oven Pizza

1499 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale, FL

Category: Restaurant

Bravo Ristorante

1515 SE 17th St. Causeway, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Category: Restaurant


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20 comments
Bone Lee Tadpole
Bone Lee Tadpole

In my opinion,  Gourmet Hot Sauce helps when you are dining out ANYWHERE...!!!!!!!!!      (Unless you are into bland,  tasteless,  made for the masses,  boring entrees available at MOST restaurants)

Guest
Guest

I have no problem with chains as a concept; they're corporations turning a profit, which is what corporations do. 

The question, however, is whether you want your food prepared by an enterprise that views your meal as a revenue unit, or by a chef who wants to feed you a good meal. Having had the latter--consistently, all over the place, for cheap--I don't know how one could withstand the former, but for sheer laziness.

Every chain restaurant you know is within walking distance of a strong local chef, if only you look.

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freakerdude
freakerdude

You will NEVER catch me at a TGI Chilibee's! But you might find me once a year at a Houston's or J. Alexanders. They both have very high standards for chains, even if salad comes out of a plastic bag. Don't almost all restos really buy big bags of greens anyway????

Fat Hand
Fat Hand

Fuck chain restaurants! With that said, I have been known to frequent J Alexander's.

Ps
Ps

2 words...cheesecake factory

Mvillarcpa
Mvillarcpa

There is nothing wrong with patronizing a chain and you shouldn't feel guilty.  I am a self-professed foodie and I would probably catch crap for going to the Pub Pembroke or Grand Lux, but I like those places.  I don't like them for the forbidden fruit aspect of it, but because the food is pretty good.  Is it mind-blowingly great?  No, but I can't have every meal at Scarpetta, Michy's or Michael's, so these chains fill a niche in my rotation.

Tricia Woolfenden
Tricia Woolfenden

I thought Olive Garden's bottomless breadsticks were a gift from the gods when I was in college. But eventually, I realized that every time I would eat food from a sit-down chain -- like OG, Bennigan's, Chili's, whatever -- I would suffer greatly for that choice later. Must be all the sodium, hydrogenated soybean oil and boiled-in-a-bag deliciousness that John L. mentioned. 

ted anthony inserra
ted anthony inserra

these places do not have Chef's. they have kitchen managers, once, once, i worked for a national corporate chain, and i was fired for==INSUBORDINATION==the dist. mgr did a pop in, and realized i was not following the "corp receipes" 100%, they were really bland, i was using fresh herbs, making real stock instead of base, etc.....he told me=="when someone orders a dish here, it is not going to taste the same in Atlanta!1", to which i said=="your welcome", to which he said==YOUR FIRED!!!

John L
John L

Same experience, because the food came out of the same plastic bag. The wizards at every major restaurant chain be it McDonald's or Carrabba's have all figured out how to make sodium, hydrogenated soybean oil, and (most importantly) corn taste craveable to the human palate. Even chicken nuggets can taste comforting. But I wouldn't eat one. Nor should you.  

ErinHilburn
ErinHilburn

Wait...aren't they *ALL* the bad Winn-Dixie?I really only eat at chains if someone else is paying (or I've scored a gift card). The one thing I love is the skillet queso from Chili's. I doubt it's made from anything real. Queso Fundido from T-Mex is so much better, but sometimes all you want is that nasty "cheese" from Chili's. 

Eric Barton
Eric Barton

I wish it was just the big bag of greens. It was the entire salad, chopped chicken and all, poured directly in the bowl. I have to say, it was still quite good. But I also didn't feel like going back to a Houston's anytime soon. 

John L
John L

Food-like substances!

michaelinmiami
michaelinmiami

Stepping foot into these places make me feel dirty!!!

It is not that they are dirty, it just the way I feel about the Bastardization of their food conceptions they aspire..

    ONLY WHEN  it is the last opportunity to get something to eat, will the thought of entering their doors crosses my mind...

It was 10-maybe 12 years since I have been to one of these places and the other day I took my College-aged kid to lunch there, I was shocked. The portions were smaller than anything I have ever been a custom from my youth and the taste was like eating stouffers out of the freezer.

     This is why this article should be read and not followed by all.

The term restaurant should be loosely applied to these places. The public has had such a dumbing-down over the past decade, they don't even know the difference. Your newspaper should not support them with any articles other than ones that will discourage their use.

Try writing articles covering the struggling independent operator that has little capital and media resources but, aspires to do better than these places -- (the term-restaurant - should not be used here).MiM

Eric Barton
Eric Barton

You're right about the food coming out of a plastic bag. I ordered a salad once at Houston's, only to watch a sous-chef dump it out of a plastic bag. He sprinkled on fried wontons, and done. I'm not saying I want my food prepared from start to end right when I order it (few places do that), but dumping it from a bag just doesn't make a salad seem fresh. 

Eric Barton
Eric Barton

OK, Ted, I have to ask: Is there a chain that chefs secretly hit? Do you have one you'll occasionally sneak into? 

miss_sassafras
miss_sassafras

It was in a bag probably because it was already weighed out exactly to the proportion they give to each patron. I've worked at restaurants that have done that.

freakerdude
freakerdude

 Chopped chicken and all? Ok, that is much different. I was at the Boca Houston's last week for lunch and was impressed by their open kitchen and it's activity.

From what I have been told, they do grind their own hamburger meat each day and use fresh cut potatoes for their fries.

NJ R
NJ R

"the taste was like eating stouffers out of the freezer."

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