Every day, Americans spend about $1.7 billion at the nation’s 970,000 restaurants—close to the amount they spend each year on indigestion remedies. Clearly, diners deserve a sure thing: a clean place that provides tasty food and good value. To find the best bets, we surveyed 47,565 readers who ate a total of 110,517 meals at 102 table-service chain restaurants—a step (sometimes a leap) up from fast-food joints.
On one end are family-oriented, pot-roast-and-hash-brown restaurants such as Denny’s, IHOP, and Perkins, with simple décor, sturdy tableware, and a bill of about $10 per person for breakfast or lunch. On the other, white-tablecloth eateries such as The Capital Grille, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and Morton’s Steakhouse, where guests can sample carpaccio and ahi tuna on fine china, sip wine in clubby surroundings, and pay more than $40 per person for dinner and drinks.
The rated restaurants serve cuisine for most palates: steaks and burgers, barbecue, seafood, Italian, Mexican, and Asian. Some chains have a niche: fondue at The Melting Pot; hibachi cooking at Benihana; Cajun fare at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen.
What we found
Nine chains earned especially high marks across the board for all of the attributes in our Ratings—taste, value, service, mood, menu variety, cleanliness, and a lack of noise.
Among the lower-rated were two family restaurants (“family” because they’re typically informal, cater to kids, are open long hours, and serve no liquor): Friendly’s, where “we are committed to quality in everything we do,” and Waffle House, where “we are not in the food business … we are in the People business.” Both drew relatively low marks for cleanliness and mood; Friendly’s was also criticized for lackluster service. The pub-style Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar was another laggard, criticized for value and noise.
On average, readers were very satisfied with roughly half of the 102 chains. But there’s room for improvement. Only Cheddar’s Casual Café, which touts “always-affordable food,” received a top mark for value, and just 19 chains got especially high marks for taste. On one-fourth of all visits, readers found their restaurant too noisy.
During one in 10 visits, the wait staff was slow, inattentive, pushy, messy, or mistake-prone. No surprise, perhaps, that there were a fair number of small tippers among our respondents. During about 20 percent of visits, guests left a tip of less than 15 percent; during 2 percent of visits, they left less than 10 percent. Chains with the highest percentage of tips below 15 percent were Applebee’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Cheddar’s, Country Kitchen, Don Pablo’s, El Torito, Joe’s Crab Shack, Logan’s Roadhouse, Lone Star Steakhouse, McGrath’s, Shari’s, and Shoney’s.