America's best restaurant chains

We rate 102 of the biggest eateries to help you win at restaurant roulette

Consumer Reports magazine: August 2012

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. They were:

  • Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano, focusing on big portions and personal attention.
  • Black Angus Steakhouse, for flame-grilled steaks with an "over-the-campfire flavor."
  • Bob Evans, for breakfast and homey fare.
  • Bravo Cucina Italiana, for "upscale affordable dining" in a "Roman ruin" décor.
  • First Watch, for eggs, pancakes, and sandwiches.
  • J. Alexander's, for American classics, sandwiches, salads, and specialties such as grilled fish with mango papaya salsa.
  • Le Peep, for eggs, crepes, and salads.
  • Elmer's, for pancakes and comfort food.
  • Fatz Eatz & Drinkz, for grilled or fried sandwiches, entrées, and finger foods.

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.

On average, though, tips were 18 percent for dinner at the casual chains and 17 percent for breakfast or lunch at a family restaurant. Women tended to be slightly more generous than men. The Capital Grille and Morton's lay claim to the most generous tippers, with patrons leaving 20 percent or more on more than 60 percent of all visits. At family restaurants, the staff at TooJay's, First Watch, The Original Pancake House, and Friendly's received the biggest tips.

Although value, taste, and service still mattered most to respondents, they're not the only attributes that help restaurants stand apart. Many cultivate a particular mood. At the Hard Rock Cafe, live music blares, and guitars, jumpsuits, and other memorabilia fill almost every inch of space. For a taste of the old West, there's Saltgrass Steak House, where food is served in informal surroundings that might conjure thoughts of a cattle drive. Mimi's Cafe? It's reminiscent of a quaint French bistro. Then there's Quaker Steak & Lube, which grew from its origin in an abandoned gas station and is a monument to muscle cars, motorcycles, and cheap gas. Cars hang from the ceiling.

Chains earning raves for mood weren't the gimmicky ones but mostly staid, pricey spots such as McCormick & Schmick's, Ruth's Chris, and Chart House (usually on a waterfront) and less-expensive, laid-back places including Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy and Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano.

Trends that matter

During 54% of visits to Islands Fine Burgers & Drinks, diners noticed nutrition numbers on the menu, the highest of any restaurant in our survey.

More Americans are ordering chain-restaurant food to go. Applebee's, BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse, The Cheesecake Factory, and Max & Erma's, among many others, let you order online and pick up curbside. Imitating fast feeders, Shoney's has added drive-through windows. Even Morton's has a "Prime To Go" menu.

More restaurants let you call ahead for quick seating. At Hard Rock Cafe, Texas Roadhouse, The Old Spaghetti Factory, and others, you'll get your name on the waiting list and save some time in line once you arrive.

Consumers are being given more info about ingredients, including allergens such as gluten and peanuts, the source of foods, whether sustainable farming and fishing practices have been followed, and how animals have been treated. Red Lobster, for instance, says it won't serve endangered or over-fished species. Outback Steakhouse requires beef suppliers to have a written and monitored humane-handling policy that meets or exceeds Department of Agriculture requirements.

Some chains are going green. Ted's Montana Grill (co-founded by Ted Turner) promises to be "99 percent plastic free." It has paper straws, menus on recycled stock, and to-go drinks in cornstarch cups.

There may be more healthful choices for vegetarians and diners looking to restrict sodium, calories, and fat or simply to eat less. Even The Cheesecake Factory, known for gargantuan portions, acknowledges the changing landscape with its new Small Plates and SkinnyLicious entrées with fewer than 590 calories.

Readers singled out First Watch and Legal Seafoods as most likely to offer healthful dishes. "Consumers' focus on health when dining out continues to increase, and we believe it is a long-term trend vs. a fad," says First Watch chief marketing officer Chris Tomasso. Least likely to sell healthful fare are Buffalo Wild Wings, Quaker Steak & Lube, Waffle House, Hooters, and Johnny Rockets, according to survey respondents.

The five chains readers cited in our 2008 survey for serving "too much food" again topped that list: Maggiano's Little Italy, The Cheesecake Factory, Black Bear Diner, Buca di Beppo, and Claim Jumper. But the percentage of readers who said they were overfed at each of those restaurants has dropped. For example, in 2008, 51 percent of respondents felt Maggiano's served them too much to eat, compared with 40 percent this time around.

Concern over obesity and health isn't the only reason for smaller servings. Food prices are coming off one of their biggest one-year rises in decades. But restaurants are loath to raise prices in tough times, so many are offering smaller portions and charging the same or slightly less.

Providing nutrition numbers is to become mandatory as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. Food establishments with 20 or more locations will have to post calories "in a clear and conspicuous manner" on menus and menu boards. They'll also have to make available written information such as calories from fat, sodium, protein, and carbohydrates. The numbers won't have to appear until six months after the Food and Drug Administration publishes the final rule, which had yet to happen as of early June.

Some chains already reveal nutrition stats online or at the restaurant, but the message doesn't seem to be getting across. Our survey respondents noticed printed numbers on just 14 percent of their visits. Forty-five percent of the time, respondents weren't sure whether the info was available or not, suggesting that they weren't looking for it or that it wasn't posted prominently. Once observed, it prompted respondents to order healthier fare during 43 percent of their visits—and had no effect 57 percent of the time.

How to save

Spirited competition among the chains means that you can use a toolbox of tactics to find bargains. Here's how:

Sniff out specials. Visit the chains' websites to find standing and rotating offers. Outback, for example, recently featured a three-course steak dinner for $11.99; IHOP, seven meals for $7; Denny's, all the pancakes you could eat for $4; Red Robin, a double-patty burger with endless fries for $6.99. Even Morton's has deals: for instance, steak, seafood, and dessert for $59.99 a person—a bargain, by the chain's standards. If you're dining with children, look for specials like the one at TooJay's Deli that let a kid eat free in April and May after 4 p.m. with the purchase of an adult meal.

Eat when others don't. That's a surefire way to save. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Red Lobster customers get a discount on some shrimp entrées. At Applebee's, the reward for late-night dining is half-price appetizers.

Eat at the bar. At Bravo Cucina Italiana, guests can sit at the bar and order off the Bar Bites menu for as little as $3.95. Until 7 p.m., Fleming's offers five cocktails, glasses of wine, and appetizers at the bar, each for $6.

Show your age. On Tuesdays at Fatz Eatz & Drinkz, guests 50 and older can order from a special menu ($6-to-$8 entrées) between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. For people 55 and older, Perkins has inexpensive lunches and dinners with two sides every day. Saltgrass Steak House and Chart House will take 10 percent off the bills of AARP members; at Denny's, AARP members save 20 percent off their bill from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Revealing your age can net benefits even if you're not over 50: At The Cheesecake Factory, the birthday celebrant gets a free scoop of ice cream.

Join an e-club. Almost every chain offers freebies if you're willing to share your e-mail address. You'll usually get something simply for signing up for alerts (at Maggiano's it's $10 off your next visit; at Don Pablo's it's a dip sampler). At some chains, the more you spend the more you save. Red Robin will give Red Royalty Club members their 10th burger free after they've bought nine and $20 off their sixth visit if they eat at the chain five times during their first five weeks of membership. T.G.I. Friday's Give Me More Stripes program lets customers accrue points toward free food with each dollar spent and tosses in one "jump the line" pass to let them avoid waiting for a table. Enticements to join Carrabba's Amici club include special prix-fixe dinners and invitations to cooking demos and wine tastings.

Eat with others. Applebee's, Chili's, and O'Charley's have "two for" deals consisting of one shareable appetizer and two full-sized entrées for $20. P.F. Chang's has a four-course Meal For Two for $40. Maggiano's and Buca di Beppo serve heaping portions on large platters, family style, and Buca di Beppo also has smaller platters designed for two or four people. (Having seen those platters, we suspect they could easily feed more.)

Clip coupons. "A decade ago, there was a stigma to using coupons," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of industry consultant Technomic. "Today sites like Groupon and Living Social have helped couponing go mainstream. Consumers don't have to worry about getting funny looks anymore." Some chains, particularly casual ones, distribute coupons in the mail or via newspaper inserts. (If you've signed up for e-mail alerts, you might receive coupons that way, too.)

Sometimes a gift card can be as valuable as a coupon. A recent promo at Bonefish Grill gave a $10 bonus card to people who bought $50 worth of gift cards.

Check in on Facebook. That's where many restaurants reveal their latest promotions. By "liking" the restaurant or just visiting the page, we found offers and clickable coupons for a free appetizer with a paid entrée (Chili's), free dessert when buying the Italian dinner for two (Romano's Macaroni Grill), and $10 off the purchase of two dinner entrées (Carrabba's).

Order to go. You can leave a smaller tip.

How to choose

With so many good options, your choice will depend on your budget, your taste buds, and the restaurant's location (many chains are regional).

For an inexpensive breakfast or lunch, the crepes at First Watch or house-special oven-baked apple pancakes at The Original Pancake House might do the trick.

For a dinner for less than $20, you might like the barbecue at Famous Dave's or Sonny's, the pasta at Carino's, the signature enchiladas at Abuelo's, or classic chicken platters at Cheddar's.

For a special occasion, consider the dry-aged porterhouse at The Capital Grille or the jumbo scallops at J. Alexander's.

For a kid-friendly place, good choices include Mellow Mushroom (mainly pizza), Benihana (where theatrical chefs prepare specialties tableside), and Red Robin (with a birthday club for kids and a feathered mascot visiting occasionally). Regardless of the restaurant, 96 percent of respondents accompanied by children said that the little ones enjoyed the experience.

If you're an omnivore, consider restaurants that readers praised for variety. A sampling: Mimi's Cafe, Biaggi's, Abuelo's, Cheddar's, Pappadeaux, The Capital Grille, P.F. Chang's, and First Watch.

Last, if you want a quiet place to unwind, think twice about places called "roadhouse,"  "bar," or  "brewery."

Eat out, but eat smart

We sent two reporters to an Applebee's for lunch. One ordered impulsively, the other intelligently, yet both enjoyed a steak, salad, and side dishes. Our impulsive diner ordered a couple of days' worth of calories (almost 4,500) and sodium (about 5,700 milligrams) and four days' worth of fat (258 grams). And no, he didn't eat all that food. Our sensible diner's tally? Less than 1,000 calories and far less fat and sodium than our glutton would have consumed. Tips that apply to any meal: Share and take some home. Here, other ways our smart diner minimized guilt and gluttony. (Nutrition numbers are from Applebee's.)

Beware of bread. Some diners could easily scarf down these harmless-looking garlic breadsticks. But a side order has more than 1,100 calories and 78 grams of fat.

Use dressings sparingly. Our indulgent diner got a house salad (which included shredded cheese) and added a hefty serving of blue cheese dressing. Our sensible diner ordered a small, bare Caesar salad and dipped greens in the side-ordered dressing.

Downsize slightly. Instead of the 9-ounce sirloin (shown here, 310 calories), our sensible diner chose a 7-ounce one.

Save on sides. Our smart diner skipped this  "loaded" baked potato stuffed with cheese and bacon bits (shown here, 400 calories and 23 grams of fat—more with butter and sour cream) and ate steamed herbed potatoes.

Choose smart sauces. The sauce and shrimp atop our indulgent diner's Shrimp ‘N Parmesan Sirloin (shown here) added about 360 calories and 30 grams of fat. Our smart diner's House Sirloin was topped with a light cabernet sauce, mushrooms, and onions.

Drink responsibly.  We're not talking alcohol. The frozen strawberry lemonade our impulsive diner ordered has 260 calories in 20 ounces, compared with 0 calories for iced tea with lemon.

Compromise on dessert. With 1,550 calories and 74 grams of fat, a cookie sundae was enough for a tableful of people. Our sensible diner ordered a bare cookie and shared.

Restaurant gripes

Survey respondents cited at least one problem during 36 percent of restaurant visits. On 8 percent of visits, there were two problems; on another 8 percent, three or more. Those numbers might seem high, but they're down from our 2008 survey.

What hasn't changed is the nature of the irritants. Noise (from other customers, music, TVs, or a loud kitchen staff) plagued almost a quarter of visits on average. Next-biggest complaints: dirt (on floors, tables, silverware, and condiment shakers, and in bathrooms) and poor service (inattentive, slow, sloppy, or mistake-prone). On 9 percent of visits, respondents complained about the food, especially over- or under-seasoning, unattractive presentation, and food served cold or too hot.

Most chains don't take reservations, and long waits were common. Guests were seated immediately 61 percent of the time and waited less than 10 minutes 26 percent of the time, but on 11 percent of visits, they waited 10 to 30 minutes. Customers of The Cheesecake Factory and Houston's had the longest waits.

The table here covers chains with an above-average number of complaints; restaurants appear in alphabetical order.

  Reader complaints about . . .
  Noise Dirt Bad service

Average, all chains

24%

8%

10%

Benihana

18

BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse

38

Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar

45

19

Cheddar's Casual Cafe

33

The Cheesecake Factory

38

Chevys Fresh Mex

33

19

Chili's

32

Denny's

17

Don Pablo's

21

El Torito

33

Elephant Bar Restaurant

39

Friendly's

21

Hard Rock Cafe

45

22

Hooters

40

18

IHOP Restaurant

16

Joe's Crab Shack

36

16

Johnny Rockets

33

Logan's Roadhouse

38

19

Mellow Mushroom

33

Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen

44

Quaker Steak & Lube

36

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers

39

Shoney's

19

Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q

18

T.G.I. Friday's

38

Texas Roadhouse

51

Waffle House

27

Flapjacks to flip over?

Just as many diners judge a fast-food restaurant by its burgers, patrons at family restaurants often consider pancakes the benchmark of breakfast. To see which stack stands tallest, we had trained tasters try buttermilk pancakes at five restaurants. We skipped strawberries, chocolate chips, whipped cream, and other extras that could mask defects. And to gauge consistency, we visited three restaurants from each chain at different times of day. Results are in taste order.

The claim. Buttermilk  "activates the mix so it rises higher for fluffier, more flavorful pancakes."

The results.
Very good overall. The pancakes—golden with crispy edges and a browned, buttery flavor—tasted made from scratch. They were tender yet chewy. Tasters detected grain notes and a pleasant, sour buttermilk taste. Pancakes bought in the morning were best; after noon, they'd picked up flavors from old oil and other griddle foods. Otherwise, we would have judged them excellent. This was the only chain that served syrup with some real maple (warm, to boot).

The claim. "Our world-famous pancakes are made-from-scratch with our own secret recipe batter."

The results.
Very good but inconsistent. Pancakes were light, fluffy, and golden brown, with crispy edges, and did taste as if made from scratch. They had a mild flavor with grain and egg notes, but tasters couldn't detect buttermilk flavor. At one location, the pancakes were excessively salty and had a metallic taste. The pancake "syrup" (typically a blend of corn syrup and maple flavoring) wasn't especially artificial-tasting, as these syrups go.

The claim.  "We are famous for our light and fluffy homemade pancakes. They are made fresh daily with buttermilk, eggs, and a hint of vanilla and sugar.

The results. Good. Although the pancakes were nicely browned with crispy edges and grain and egg tastes, the vanilla and vanillin (artificial vanilla) flavors were overpowering. There was no hint of buttermilk. Tasters compared the overall flavor to that of a cake made from a boxed mix. The pancakes did come with real butter, but the syrup tasted more like caramel than maple.

The claim.  "Award-winning buttermilk pancakes with authentic country flavor."

The results. Good. Uniformly golden, but they looked better than they tasted and did not taste homemade. Although they had a mild grain flavor with a bit of saltiness, they were starchy, lacked any hint of buttermilk, and had an odd texture. As tasters chewed, pancakes became a bit dense and mushy; and as pancakes cooled, they became slightly tough. The syrup was somewhat thick and lacked real maple flavor.

The claim. "Build a stack you'll be proud to call your own" (choose batter, mix-in, and topping).

The results.
Good. As with IHOP, pancakes looked better than they tasted. They were consistently golden brown, with slight egg, vanillin, and brown-spice flavors, but were starchy. They lacked buttermilk flavor and tasted as if from a boxed mix. They had a nice texture at first but became chewy and tough when cool. The syrup was thick and lacked real maple flavor.

Maple syrup vs. pancake syrup

Table syrup, the kind most chains serve, is to pure maple syrup as mushrooms are to truffles. And that may be an insult to mushrooms.

It takes 40 gallons of boiled-down tree sap to produce a gallon of maple syrup, according to New York's Upper Hudson Maple Producers Association, which explains why the price can be four or five times that of knockoffs. Water is boiled off, and sugar is concentrated and caramelized, resulting in nutty, buttery, and floral flavors and a light- to dark-amber color. (Generally, the darker the color the more intense the flavor.)

Table syrups (aka pancake syrups), on the other hand, are factory concoctions, often with lots of ingredients, including corn syrup, caramel color, gums, and artificial flavorings to make them more like the real deal. But chains know the difference and choose their words carefully. Bob Evans, Carrows, and Marie Callender's, for instance, offer "warm syrup"; Village Inn serves "maple-flavored" syrup. First Watch's menu makes no mention of the syrups that accompany its hotcakes, but the chain sells pure maple syrup as a side order, $1.29 for less than 2 ounces, a company spokeswoman said.

In blind tests pitting pure Grade A maple syrup against wannabes (all bought at a local store), our trained tasters said it was no contest: The complex flavors of nature can't be beat. Pure maple syrup was thin in texture, left no residue in the mouth, and had hints of caramel and vanilla. Table syrup was thicker, with corn syrup and artificial flavors. Light syrup (about 100 calories per quarter-cup instead of 200) was gummy and gelatinous; sugar-free syrup (20 calories) was sour and astringent.

Editor's Note:

A version of this article appeared in the August 2012 issue of Consumer Reports magazine with the headline "Restaurant Roulette."

 



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