Whether you're traveling the interstate, looking for a sumptuous supper, or just want to get away from the kitchen this summer, Consumer Reports surveyed 47,565 diners to help find the best meals and best deals at 102 of the nation's biggest sit-down chain restaurants.
"Americans spend about $1.7 billion per year at restaurants. That's close to the amount they spend each year on indigestion remedies. Clearly, diners deserve a sure thing: a clean place that provides tasty food, good value, and solicitous service" said senior projects editor Tod Marks.
Consumer Reports survey, which was based on more than 110,500 restaurant visits, offers something for just about every palate: steaks and burgers, barbecue, seafood, Italian, Mexican, and Asian. It also includes chains that offer more specialized fare, for example fondue at The Melting Pot; Japanese hibachi cooking at Benihana; Cajun treats at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen.
Nine chains earned high marks across the board for the four attributes in the Ratings-taste, value, service, and mood-plus praise in three other key areas: menu variety, cleanliness, and a lack of noise. They were: Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano, Black Angus Steakhouse, Bob Evans, Bravo Cucina Italiana, First Watch, J. Alexander's, Le Peep, Elmer's and Fatz Eatz & Drinkz.
Among the lower-rated chains were two family restaurants ("family" because they're typically informal, cater to kids, are open long hours, and don't serve liquor): Friendly's and Waffle House. Both drew 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.
Complete restaurant ratings on all 102 popular chains, tips to save, more trends and survey results are available in Consumer Reports August issue or online at www.ConsumerReports.org starting June 28, 2012.
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 top marks for value, and just 19 chains got especially high marks for flavorful food. On one-fourth of all visits, readers found their restaurant too noisy. Among the chains more prone to noise complaints were Texas Roadhouse, Hard Rock Café, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar and Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen. Bad service was another complaint, especially at Hard Rock Café, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, Chevys Fresh Mex and Benihana.
"Since our previous restaurant report, we see that many more chains are providing detailed nutritional information about the food they serve, more healthful menu choices, and details about where their ingredients come from," Marks said.
Patrons singled out First Watch and Legal Seafoods as most likely to offer healthful dishes. Least likely to sell healthful fare were Buffalo Wild Wings, Quaker Steak & Lube, Waffle House, Hooters, and Johnny Rockets, according to respondents.
Spirited competition among the chains means that consumers can use a toolbox of tactics to find bargains. Here are some examples:
• 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.
• 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.)
• 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).