Most people at Eater HQ are aware that I am a fan of chain restaurants. A child of Orange County (before quickly moving up to Los Angeles), I spent my days going to Coco's, Hof's Hut, Cracker Barrel (there used to be one in Orange County!) before graduating to the likes of Houston's, The Cheesecake Factory, and Maggiano's by the time I hit college.
So here are my top ten chain restaurants around the country, based on my experience. To qualify, a chain must have at least 10 locations and standardized fare across all of them (though they don't have to have the exact same menus at every location). Also, they must be either full-service or semi-service restaurants, meaning something you can at least order at the counter and have delivered to your table.
1. Houston's/Hillstone: The gold standard for high quality dining that's remarkably consistent across all its brands. I'm not exactly sure why but I think they use different names because they don't want to adhere to the whole calorie count thing required for chains with a certain number of outlets. The ribs and burger are really solid, and the no corkage policy (at least in California) is a huge plus.
2. Sugarfish: Easily the best sushi chain ever, with growth only limited to the availability of fresh fish. I hear that's what's hampering their growth to cities outside of L.A. But Sugarfish is the whole package for sushi fanatics: affordable, accessible (no omakase or interaction with sushi chef required), and nearly ubiquitous in Los Angeles. The strong vinegared rice is a little offsetting for some purists, but the high sweetness/vinegar content is something that immediately appeals to sushi-obsessed Angelenos.
3. The Cheesecake Factory: Plenty of chefs, from David Chang to Roy Choi, have words of praise for this immense chain. They make everything except two things in house: bread and ice cream. That means, in house veal stock, daily sauces, etc. Their sales are absolutely insane and they singlehandedly have the ability to re-direct the average American palate. I wish they made smaller portions, but hey, this is America, right? Average check here is south of $20 per person and they still average $10M in annual sales per store.
4. Tender Greens: This budding salad/sandwich/hot plate chain knows how to incorporate healthy, affordable fare with a chef-driven mentality. They actually encourage all chefs at each location to create specials using market-driven ingredients. And sometimes they take chef products and actually invest in them, like a salumi project one corporate chef pursued in San Diego. Yes, they're salads, but they're really creative and well-executed.
5. Morton's Steakhouse: Still the gold-standard for chain steakhouses in my mind, though there are plenty of contenders. The tableside meat presentation is pretty fantastic, while the ambiance is always classy.
6. Ruth's Chris: Their filet mignon is legendary. I still have amazing service at every Ruth's Chris I go to (though it's admittedly been a few years since I've been to one).
7. Chevy's Fresh Mex: This is pure Americanized Mexican, but the flavors are great and the place always have a fun atmosphere. Sad they closed in my hometown (which then gave way to a BJ's), but I still dream about their fajitas.
8. Benihana: I celebrated plenty of birthdays here. The experience is amazingly consistent despite any location, and they made eating at a bar fun before anyone else did.
9. The Palm: I recently tried some of their Italian-American offerings like the chicken parmigiana. The steaks are very solid on the whole, along with their whole lobsters.
10. Maggiano's: I rank this slightly higher than Buca di Beppo, with a very good selection of Italian American classics in an environment that feels pretty darn classy.
Fringe: Yardhouse (great beer selection, fun late night happy hour), Fleming's Steakhouse, Marie Calendar's, Umami Burger