Most of us foodies look down upon chains. Believe me, there are plenty that I dislike. Is anyone else EXTREMELY confused by the worldwide fascination with Olive Garden’s soup, salad, and breadsticks? Please tell me there are some haters out there.
But there’s also a fair share of chains that I really do enjoy. I can find tasty choices that aren’t too heavy and that I can’t always make on my own. There’s a nice variety of dishes so that I don’t have to get the same thing every time (unless of course I want to) – and variety is also good for flexibility in dining partners (if anyone you ask to join you at a restaurant can find something that they’ll like there, that’s golden). You also always want to have a few go-to chains for the times when you are travelling and have no idea where to eat. Of course nowadays, Yelp and the blogging world can help us find great local spots, so there’s less risk in hitting up a hole-in-the-wall because you often know the place’s rep. Still, chains are the good old dependables.
So I thought I’d share some of my favorite chains (we are talking more than five restaurants – sorry J. Gilbert’s) and also my favorite things that I’ve ordered so far at those places.
Carrabba’s Italian Grill
Growing up in Florida, my family loved this restaurant. I first went with my Girl Scout troop and enjoyed a tasty bowl of penne pasta with butter (remember I used to like…well, nothing). My family was intrigued when I came back raving about the best bread I’d ever had, so intrigued that we went for dinner shortly after so my parents could see for themselves.
The rest is history (forgive the cliche) and we went all the time, including an epic event where we waited over two hours for a table once. TWO HOURS! That is dedication. Every Carrabba’s in Florida was packed on the weekends, and for good reason. Their bread (and olive oil, once I later opened up to new things) is amazing. The crust is perfect and it always arrives piping-hot. Once I started trying new things, I fell in love with the Chicken Marsala (no mushrooms). They even offer a couple of skinny cocktails now!
Enjoying a skinny cosmo this past summer! Yay glasses.
It’s really so difficult to determine my favorite dish here, but if I had to call it (and well I have to, given how I set up this post), I’d say it’s the Chicken Bryan: grilled chicken topped with goat cheese, sundried tomatoes, and basil lemon butter sauce. They have great veggie sides, so I love to get the broccoli and asparagus! I load up on my carbs pre-meal thanks to that bread Another healthy tip: ask for the sauce on the side instead of on the chicken. They usually put too much on, and you only need a little to taste the flavor, it’s so rich!
Many friends know about my love for Ruby’s. Their salad bar, their sides, their fish, their burgers, their drinks, their plentiful COUPONS! Honestly, I think that this chain has some of the best food for the price you pay for it. I’ve had many good times at many different Ruby’s locations and even spent my 21st birthday dinner there – where they comped my drinks, and let me use my free birthday burger coupon too!
First sip of my first legal drink – a Ruby's margarita! SO strong!
Ruby Tuesday’s offers something for everyone, whether you’re in the mood for the perfect greasy lunch on a hungover Sunday, or in the mood for a night light dinner that won’t leave you wanting to pass out after. It is rare that I can go to Ruby’s and not order their salad bar. I am a huge fan of salads, and they are one of the few places that has enough ingredients to make a salad that I would classify as a salad beast/Hugh Jass salad/etc. Their veggie sides are also plentiful – once I even ordered the Vegetarian Combo and was able to choose three sides, plus the salad bar, as my meal. It was more than enough food! How many restaurants can you find that offer spaghetti squash as a side all the time?!
Of course, sometimes at Ruby's I just like to eat the whipped cream off Lidia's smoothies.
I also highly recommend the zuchinni patties, two veggie patty sliders made of zuchinni, feta, and all sorts of other goodies. These are fresh-made veggie burgers, definitely not frozen, and they are so satisfying! Finally, Ruby’s offers quality seafood. My favorite seafood dish has to be the New Orleans Special: spicy, broiled tilapia topped with sautéed shrimp and rich Parmesan cream sauce. Served with your choice of TWO sides! I love that this dish comes with both tilapia and shrimp (I’m all about having to make as few choices as possible at restaurants, so it’s great that I get both). I recommend asking for their mango salsa instead of the cream sauce. You won’t miss it, and the sweet mango salsa goes great with the Cajun kick of the tilapia!
I know there is really not much in terms of light options at this place. I’ve ordered my burgers protein-style before (lettuce instead of bun) and you know, it’s just not worth it. But this place has to go on the list because they serve the holy grail of french fries, my favorite fries of all time, the garlic parmesan steak fries. They are bottomless. They are garlicky. They are buttery. Think the child of the steak fry and garlic bread, and you have these fries. I could eat 10 baskets. Not a joke.
My 22nd birthday dinner: the beloved fries and a Whiskey River BBQ burger. Ice cream sundae…is unpictured.
If you really want to go all out, and I kinda don’t go to Red Robin unless I plan to, you can get a milkshake and dip those fries in it. Vanilla milkshake preferably. Go ahead, I dare you. This is what I call BALANCE! And no, the garlic doesn’t taste weird with the shake.
The remainder of the above meal…or no remainder.
I don’t think this chain is as wide-spread geographically as the others I’ve mentioned, but they are another place where you can really expect high-quality food when you go to any location. Their rolls are my second-favorite at any restaurant (Carrabba’s wins). It is just so easy to eat a ton of them! But you wouldn’t want to because the entrees are just as wonderful. They don’t offer quite as many veggie sides as Ruby’s, but there are still some great options like roasted veggies or asparagus. The pizza is wonderful – wheat dough available at no extra charge, it tastes great, and the crust is thin, just the way I like it. Also, any chain that has goat cheese is okay by me.
Tortas, AKA wheat dough filled with various delicious things. The roasted veg and grilled chicken torta at the bottom, with goat cheese, is amazing.
This is also one of the few restaurants where I will order a salad, because they offer all my favorite things: goat cheese, spinach, lots of veggies including roasted olives, and SALMON! The salmon in their salads is a bit pricey to add on, but with the huge portion you get, it is completely worth it.
My go-to order back in high school was simply the polpette, or straight-up meatballs smothered in cheese. And that is damn good too.
Thanks to the Bertucci’s website for the above image.
Ah, nostalgia. Chili’s will always have a special place in my heart. I spent countless lunches and dinners there in high school, and my go-to order was queso, plain burger with french fries, and a molten chocolate lava cake. That molten cake is still one of my top favorite desserts of all time, and Chili’s really does have great burgers. Honestly, almost everything at Chili’s tastes amazing. This was my go-to birthday spot back in high school.
Taken back in senior year of high school, during a time of white puffy jackets, jeans with obnoxious holes, and slippers used as shoes.
Now for a lighter option, I love to order their grilled shrimp tacos, with no cheese and no ranch. There aren’t too many veggies in there, but if you get black beans as a side instead of rice, you can pile them in and get a hearty and satisfying meal. The shrimp actually comes fried, but any Chili’s I’ve been to has been glad to accommodate with tasty lime-grilled shrimp, since they have it for other dishes. Since the tacos come with two sides, I also like to get them with corn on the cob, sans butter. Chili’s actually has great corn and it is so flavorful that you won’t miss the butter, I promise!
Celebrating my 18th birthday at Chili's, with an 18th-birthday-appropriate gift.
But keeping balance in mind, every now and then I like to share some queso or a molten cake with a friend. You really can’t miss out on this molten cake. Seriously.
Seriously. Take it from 10th grade me and my abercrombie corduroy jacket.
Enough from me – I want to hear from other people.
Are you as picky about chains as me? What are your favorites?