Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Five Chain Restaurants I Honestly Like

So you've probably noticed that I can be a bit of a food snob. I love upscale, high-end restaurants. I also love funky little inexpensive restaurants. Basically, I like one-of-kind restaurants that you can only find in one location (or in several limited locations).

Needless to say, I spend a fair amount of time bad-mouthing low-to-mid-priced chain restaurants.

This isn't to say I won't eat at chain restaurants; I will. However, if you tell me I can pick anywhere in a certain radius to eat, and that radius contains a unique restaurant or bar found only in that radius, no way am I picking Applebee's (which I really don't like very much at all).

Anyway, after enduring a certain amount of eye-rolling over the years, I have decided to NOT complain about these places and instead put together a list (in no particular order) of low-to-mid-priced chain restaurants that not only will I eat at, but that I actually LIKE.

5. Noddles & Company
For a low-priced lunch spot, you can't beat Noodles. I love everything I have had there. It's quick, it's cheap, and the ingredients taste fresh even if they're not. I have enjoyed pasta dishes from Noodles much more than I enjoy pasta dishes at mid-priced chains that do not specialize in pasta (pasta at TGI Friday's is not worth it. Trust me.) I even enjoy it more than I enjoy pasta from some more upscale places I've tried. My favorite dish on the menu: Pasta Fresca with grilled chicken and extra feta.

Pasta Fresca: this one has parmesan but I prefer the feta option.

4. Chipotle
I first encountered Chipotle when I needed to grab a quick lunch in Chicago. I had never seen one before - we didn't have them in Michigan. I soon wished we did because Chipotle is awesome. Football-sized burritos with your choice of beans, meat, and salsas; quesadillas stuffed to the brim with grilled chicken or steak; decent guacamole...I realize there are other fast-casual Mexican options, but Chipotle blows Qdoba out of the water. Plus, even though it's corporate fast-food, they seem to have a commitment to quality, using smaller free-range farms as meat suppliers instead of factory farms like other fast food outlets. My favorite dish on the menu: Grilled chicken burrito with black beans and medium salsa.
3. Max & Erma's
I am sure if Eric Schultz were reading this blog, his jaw would drop in disbelief, because about eight years ago I professed an intense hatred for this chain. I have no idea what I ate there that inspired this hatred. I started going back to Max & Erma's several years ago when one was opened in the parking lot of the Canton Meijer. My parents enjoy it, so Kristen and I would tag along. I found that Max & Erma's has the best tortilla soup on any restaurant menu anywhere and pretty good burgers to boot. The Third Street Salad/Village Salad with the bleu cheese crumbles, bacon pieces, crunchy almonds and and slightly tangy dressing is awesome, too. My favorite dish on the menu: Cup of Tortilla Soup and Village Salad.

Tortilla Soup at Max & Erma's. This pic does not do it justice.

I was addicted to Zoup when I was contracting at the Ann Arbor Pfizer site. Zoup is a midwestern chain - almost all the locations are in Michigan and Ohio with a few in Pennsylvania. Every day Zoup offers ten different rotating varieties of soup along with fresh-baked bread and a selection of salads and sandwiches. The soups range from hearty, stick-to-your-ribs varieties such as twice baked stuffed potato and chicken pot pie (with crusty pastry crumbles on top) to lighter, broth-based offerings such as vegetable with orzo and herbs and chicken noodle. I very much miss the days when I could walk across the street (although crossing Plymouth Road always was a little treacherous) and get a steaming hot bowl of soup for lunch.
My favorite dish on the menu: Macaroni and Cheese soup or Chicken Pot Pie soup.

I miss you, Zoup.

1. Olive Garden
I have a weird and unnatural love for Olive Garden. It begins with their salad and breadsticks and continues through to the chicken fettuccine alfredo or the portobello ravioli. Olive Garden is hands-down my favorite chain restaurant. The aforementioned ravioli is as plump and flavorful as many ravioli I have sampled in more upscale restaurants. Their wine list is pretty crappy, I'll admit, but at least there is more of a selection than at other similarly-priced chains. Olive Garden can, in a pinch, pass as a "nice" restaurant. But only in a pinch - I do still have certain standards to uphold!
My favorite dish on the menu: Portabello Ravioli (but I get it with alfredo sauce instead of the sun dried tomato sauce!)

I don't even like salad dressing but I like Olive Garden's.

Which chain restaurants do it for you?


Bobby G said...

Nice topic

I like
Great Wraps
Max & Ernmas

Amy W. said...

Actually, there are a few things at Chilis that I like as well.

Jessica Watkins said...

I LOVE Chipotle. (Vegetarian Burrito, or Chicken burrito with black beans and guacamole) My other acceptable chain restaurants include Olive Garden, Chili's and Bertuccis (east coast italian chain, some locations in PA and VA). I disagree about Red Robin. I have always liked that place, but it's probably because I liked the first thing I ordered, so I always get the same thing. (Guacamole Bacon Burger) I have also enjoyed this burger sans bacon and substituting a veggie patty. Occasionally I will refuse to eat meat. Come to think of it, I did order the salmon there once, and I do NOT recommend it.

Have you ever tried Chicken Out? It's a higher quality Boston Market and it's fabulous.

Alison said...

My favorite chain of all time is Potbellys -- hands-down the best hot sub sandwiches on earth! I also like Bennigan's and the occasional Max & Erma's french onion soup and club sandwich lunch.

I like Chipotle and agree with you about it being leagues ahead of Qdoba (Brad swears he can't tell the difference).

I disagree about Olive Garden, though. Their salad and breadsticks are great, but I think most of their meals and their pizza are mediocre at best. What gets me every time is their terrible wine selection! I've never had a good glass of wine at the OG...and who eats a good Italian meal without a good glass of wine! :)

Jessica Watkins said...

Ooh, forgot about Potbelly. I do like Potbelly. Alison has a point about Olive Garden and the wine list. It really is the salad that I like. Their tiramisu is darn good for being frozen. Olive Garden is credited with my first experience with tiramisu...and though I have moved on to bigger and better tiramisu purveyors, I will always be grateful to the OG.