Not all chains are created equal. That's why I spent several months grazing through the menus of the 10 casual, full-service restaurant chains that have the highest sales, according to Nation's Restaurant News. (For the record, Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar is No. 1, with $4.4 billion in annual domestic sales, although its parent company's profits have been slipping.) Just as I would for a star-rated critique, I visited each chain multiple times.
Here's how I ranked the chains, in order from least favorite to most, along with letter grades.
10: Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar
The saddest meals of my entire year? Nothing can touch lunch and dinner at the sports bar that can't even get its signature dish right. I'm not sure which is more of a travesty, the scrawny wings (pick your poison: traditional or boneless) or the woody carrot sticks that accompany them. Sauces vary from fair (Caribbean jerk) to grim (Parmesan-garlic), and I can't help but think of them as masks rather than enhancements. Bottom line: Better to miss a meal than to find yourself in this loud, garish and thoroughly soulless restaurant-in-name-only.
Cuisine: Wings and beer.
Claim to fame: Sauces and seasonings offering endless customization.
Best of the bunch: Getting the check.
Steer clear of: Everything but the beer.
Probably the best that can be said about the food in one of the most generic backdrops around is that the pancakes are fluffy (if a dash salty); the vegetable omelet is as green with fresh spinach as it is yellow from eggs; and marbled rye bread can turn even an unfortunate beef patty and barely melted cheese into a fair-enough sandwich.
Ultimately, the service leaves a better taste in my mouth, even though I once have to go outside to find my server to pay my check. (She was on a smoke break.) And I admire a server who can read a table in a hurry, as the morning one pours "some nice hot coffee for you gentlemen. You look like you need to get back to the office."
Claim to fame: Open 24/7.
Best of the bunch: Patty melt, spinach-mushroom omelet (hold the flat hollandaise).
Steer clear of: Burgers, fried fish tacos, country-fried steak.
8: Outback Steakhouse
The piece de resistance here is one of the most vulgar creations any chain has ever whipped up. The Bloomin' Onion packs in more fat, more salt, more guilt than just about any single signature I can think of. So why is my party denuding the baseball-size vegetable of its greasy petals as if we're in a race, even though we know we're going to feel like beached whales afterward? Because Americans can't resist over-the-top fair food, even in their restaurants. Also because strips of hot onions dunked in something cool and creamy (imagine ketchup-tinted mayonnaise with a slight bite) is a pretty addictive combination.
People come here for steak. They shouldn't.
Cuisine: Steak, and a pretend notion of what's cooking Down Under.
Claim to fame: The 1,950-calorie, enough-for-six Bloomin' Onion.
Best of the bunch: Wine by the glass poured from individual carafes, garlicky mashed potatoes, Parmesan-herbed chicken, spiced carrot cake.
Steer clear of: Crab cakes, fish tacos in leathery tortillas, pork ribs, not-so-hot and batter-heavy "volcano" shrimp.
7: Red Lobster
Red lobster makes for blue diners, at least here, where the headliner can be found scattered on a thin but doughy pizza with a binder of mozzarella, and steamed and split to reveal seafood that tastes like . . . not much without melted butter, lots of it. Clams make a poor impression, too, be they the few in a bowl of pasty chowder with mealy potatoes or offered as chewy fried strips. Salmon might just as well have swum in from a banquet. Sometimes, the most nautical part of my visits are the garnishes on the walls: paintings of lighthouses and framed signal flags.
Claim to fame: Biscuits so popular their mix is for sale in supermarkets.
Best of the bunch: Cheese biscuits, Yucatan shrimp, coconut shrimp, crab legs.
Steer clear of: Doughy lobster pizza, fried clams, maple-glazed chicken that tastes like an airline issue, steamed lobster, achingly sweet and dense Key lime pie.
6: Chili's Grill & Bar
If all you were to eat were the ribs that spawned one of the most popular restaurant jingles of all time (don't start singing it!), you would wonder what all the fuss is about. No amount of barbecue sauce hides the fact that the flesh is dry. As is true of a lot of restaurants higher up on the food chain, your best bet is to front-load, or focus on appetizers. Chili's makes it easy with its Triple Dipper, your choice of three snacks.
Cuisine: American with a Southwest touch.
Claim to fame: The earworm to promote Chili's baby back ribs.
Best of the bunch: Southwestern egg rolls, mini-burgers, panko onion rings, rib-eye.
Steer clear of: Caribbean salad, Cajun pasta, salted caramel cake.
5: Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar
Applebee's offers sufficient choices on its multiple plastic menus in its rec-room-dressed dining rooms to keep the brand interesting for discerning eaters. Skeptics can warm up to the mildly zesty Sriracha shrimp presented on tortilla strips and agreeable chicken tacos, the filling tucked into its wonton shells with a light slaw. Forget the arid ribs with their vaguely sweet glaze and the whiskey-bacon burger, best for its fried onion ringlets. Better than you might expect are the juicy-enough steak on the surf-and-turf combo and slices of lemony grilled chicken arranged on quinoa jazzed up with dried cranberries. The latter is a rarity among the chains: something relatively healthful that you could imagine actually finishing.
Claim to fame: $1 margaritas (Dollaritas) and Long Island Iced Teas.
Best of the bunch: Sriracha shrimp, crunchy-spicy chicken wings, steak quesadillas, skin-on mashed potatoes, grilled chicken with quinoa and cranberries.
Steer clear of: Ribs, salmon, apple chimicheesecake (caramel apples and cheesecake wrapped in a tortilla and fried).
4: Olive Garden
Brick arches and sepia photographs play up an Italian theme, but the popular breadsticks — pillowy wands seasoned with garlic salt, brushed with margarine and palatable only when warm — are wholly American, as is the kitchen's tendency to overcook its pastas. Steer clear of the three-dishes-on-one-platter Tour of Italy, whose chicken parmigiana and gloppy fettuccine Alfredo taste like nothing I've encountered in the Old World. (The herbed lasagna on the plate makes a better port of call.) A new item, citrus-glazed salmon served on "creamy citrus" Alfredo sauce, is by turns sweet and dull. You don't have to be a vegetarian to appreciate the fresh-tasting minestrone, thick with beans and tomato, and serious comfort can be found on a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, a "create your own pasta" selection. "More salad? More soup?" the friendly severs repeatedly ask. What the restaurant lacks in finesse it makes up with generosity.
Claim to fame: Unlimited breadsticks and bottomless salad bowls.
Best of the bunch: Gratis wine tastes, minestrone, spaghetti with meatballs, tiramisu.
Steer clear of: Sangria that tastes like Kool-Aid for adults, Tour of Italy (not!).
3: Texas Roadhouse
Talk about a howdy! Country music welcomes customers even from the outside. En route to a table, diners pass a scarlet display of raw meat that primes carnivores for lunch or dinner. Buckets of in-their-shell peanuts help stave off hunger while you peruse the menu. Like a number of chains, this one makes some noise for birthday celebrants, but this pine-walled roadhouse is the only brand I know that invites them to sit on a saddle-on-wheels while they're being feted with staff-led cheering and clapping. Beef is your friend here, be it in a bowl of zippy chili, chopped steak under a cover of cheese and caramelized onions or an agreeable rib-eye cooked the color you ask and best paired with mashed potatoes cratered with cream gravy.
Cuisine: Steaks with a Western theme.
Claim to fame: Steaks cut by hand and fresh-baked bread.
Best of the bunch: Most anything starring beef, mashed potatoes, Cactus Blossom.
Steer clear of: Pulled pork (dry) and catfish (stiff).
Breakfast is a 'round-the-clock option. I'm partial to the fluffy pancakes with their lacy edges, and I'd like the "loaded" breakfast sandwich more if its shaved ham was less salty and the swollen package was easier to tackle; my scrambled eggs slipped out when I chomped down. My go-to entree is spaghetti and meatballs, offered with a sauce that bridges sweetness and tang, and a buttery cushion of garlic toast. Lighter options include a pleasing chicken soup, sweet with carrots, and a dish of fresh fruit that brought together strawberries, apples and grapes. "Lemon for your water?" a server asks, just as waiters do in more upscale settings. My Uber driver asks for my review when he picks me up at what he said was his favorite location in Washington. Turns out he likes to go on Sundays, when gospel music is part of the mix. Then and there, he tells me, "It feels like my grandfather's." Proof, in other words, that chains can be personal.
Claim to fame: The Grand Slam, starring pancakes, eggs, bacon strips and sausage links.
Best of the bunch: Pancakes, hash browns, spaghetti and meatballs, warm chocolate lava cake.
Steer clear of: Seasonal specials such as pancakes smothered in what tastes like white chocolate with orange zest.
1: Cracker Barrel Old Country Store
Especially after eating a lot of food that tasted as if it came from a factory rather than a kitchen, it was clear: No other chain restaurant in my months-long survey comes as close to home cooking as this operation. If the chicken dumplings are a little doughy and the corn bread muffins prove a tad salty, just about everything else that crossed my lips in this barn-size dining room dressed with lanterns and license plates is something I'd be happy to try again. Seconds, please, of the tasty meatloaf streaked with vegetables, tender roast beef with peppery brown gravy, and lemony, skin-on trout fillets, a weekly special.
Cuisine: Southern-focused comfort food.
Claim to fame: Shopping and dining under one roof, and firing Brad's wife that time.
Best of the bunch: Meatloaf, pork chops, trout, macaroni and cheese, pecan pie.
Steer clear of: Pasty chicken and dumplings.