Love them, hate them, or simply scratch your head at them, chain restaurants are one of America’s defining contributions to food. To discuss the past, present, and future of mid-level restaurant chains, Eater recently took five people — representing four generations — to a Portland, Oregon-area Red Lobster for a weekday lunch.
Around the table are Jenny Tien, Seiji Nanbu, Derecus Slade, George Marquez, and Morgan Kearns, who are aged 19, 25, 38, 59, and 72, respectively. Only Tien and Nanbu are Portland natives, and they are also the only two people to have met before (Tien’s mother also happens to own a Portland pho restaurant, Pho Kim). Slade grew up in North Carolina and has a military background, and he works as a small business advisor; Marquez, a California native, manages a local printing company; and Kearns hails from a military family in Virginia and is retired after a career in development for museums.
The result of their conversation? Nostalgic flashbacks, revulsive memories of meals gone wrong, and a curious probing of the plates on a deeply shellacked table. It all begins with the golden-tinged memories of when the concept of a chain restaurant first entered their lives.
Kearns: I ate at the world’s very first [automated] restaurant, Horn & Hardart, when I was in Philadelphia in the 1950s. The food was on conveyor belts and you took your tray along the side. There were little glass windows that you took food out of. Today, a part of the conveyor is in the Smithsonian [National Museum of American History].
Marquez: I ate at chains more in college than now. I was in Fresno in the late ’70s. You know, the Denny’s Grand Slam at 2 in the morning — always perfect, always the same. And Bob’s Big Boy. You remember that? They used to have this ham and Swiss sandwich that I think the Portland food carts are still trying to equal.
Slade: I remember, on Sundays back home in North Carolina, we would go to the Golden Corral after church.
Nanbu: I’ve eaten here [at Red Lobster] multiple, multiple times, because I live out in Gresham [a suburb of Portland] and that’s all there is. Our options were just so limited, and my dad used to take us there at least once a month. We don’t eat there much anymore because a) I don’t like Red Lobster, and b) I think my parents have weaned off the whole eating out at Red Lobster thing.
Everyone agrees they probably eat at chain restaurants less now than they once did.
Kearns: When we lived in LA, we would take my daughters to California Pizza Kitchen, P.F. Chang’s, and Boston Market. The thing about chains is that you’d find one dish you like and order it over and over. It was reliable. The Thai chicken pizza was it for me. And in the ’70s, when I was a quasi-hippie, I ate at a lot of Howard Johnson’s.
Marquez: My son loves to cook and go out to eat. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and he’s really frustrated, because the chains have taken over. It’s too expensive to eat anywhere else.
Slade: You know, it was really when I moved to Portland and I found all these little places making good food for competitive prices that I never wanted to eat at a chain again. Now I want to get a feel for what’s here. I’m like, “Let’s find something unique.” So when I’m traveling, I’m always asking people where I should eat.
Marquez: There are so many resources out there for finding restaurants today. Yelp might not find the really great place that’s hidden, but it doesn’t steer you wrong.
Nanbu: I’m trying to think of the last chain restaurant I ate at. I mean, what really qualifies as a chain? Is it just a restaurant with multiple locations? If it’s a restaurant that operates locations in multiple cities, then Din Tai Fung is a chain. And I love it. It’s a Taiwanese dim sum/dumpling place, and they’re really well known, because you can see into the kitchen through a glass window and see people making dumplings. If it’s a chain — and I think so — it’s an outlier. It’s incredible. I ate at the one in Seattle and Taiwan and they were exactly the same.
Slade: I used to love Buffalo Wild Wings.
Tien: What changed?
Slade: By the time they opened out here, they seemed too manufactured. The sauces are just too perfect. [Laughter]
Nanbu: I’m not going to lie, I still love Buffalo Wild Wings. One of the nice things about Buffalo Wild Wings is that they source local beers. They have Fat Head’s, Rogue, and other local IPAs and lagers.
Tien: Also, when I visited LA recently, I noticed Buffalo Wild Wings had local California beers. Do other people think about sourcing a lot?
Nanbu: I actually do. That’s why I don’t eat at Olive Garden and similar chains. I just don’t feel that confident.
Marquez: I ate at a restaurant on the Oregon Coast that said they had the best fish and chips. They used Atlantic cod. I was angry.
Slade: Everyone’s seen Portlandia: You just assume all of the restaurants here are looking out for the animals, you, and your health. So I just assume whatever I’m eating is reliably sourced.
There’s laughter around the table.
Nanbu: It definitely makes the food taste better. Especially veggies.
Marquez: I think it’d be smart if chains put a few local things on the menu. I saw tilapia on the menu here. Why not another local white fish, like lingcod?
Nanbu: I know a lot of people who, when they visit somewhere like San Francisco, will eat at the same chains as they do at home. At the end of the day, it’s because you want to play it safe. And it works great for them. But for me, part of the reason I’m going somewhere is to eat its food.
Marquez: The Old Spaghetti Factory is actually based here in Portland, and we used to go there quite a bit for special occasions. I always got the Mizithra combo with red sauce. It was good. It’s still good.
Nanbu: Izzy’s Pizza was a special-occasion restaurant for our family. I’d load up on pizza and ice cream. How many people here know about the Original Pancake House? I didn’t know it was a thing until I visited Japan and they were everywhere. The original location is right here in Portland.
Kearns: I didn’t know that restaurant was a chain.
Nanbu: It’s a massive, worldwide chain. It was weird to try it back in Portland. There are a lot of places with Original in the name here, like Original Taco House.
Marquez: I’m Mexican and I’m from California, and I have no idea what a “taco house” is.
Food arrives. The server asks Nanbu if he would like his lobster cracked open. He says yes, and she adeptly breaks down the crustacean. Nanbu regrets the choice.
Nanbu: I feel like I should have taken a picture.
Tien: It’s been a while since I’ve eaten at Red Lobster. I don’t remember what I had. All I remember is I didn’t love it.
Slade: Yeah, I think I was 13 the last time.
Kearns: My shrimp are crunchy. You want a critique? It’s super watery. It’s just as over-rich as I thought it would be. I kind of feel like I’ll be sick if I eat too much. At least they’re crunchy... I’ve been seeing a lot restaurant chain locations closing lately. We’ve talked about dozens today, so there’s clearly a lot to choose from. But one reason I’ve heard they’re closing is meal services like Blue Apron. Do that many people really use them?
Marquez: My son uses them in Los Gatos. The nice thing is you get veggies you can use all week. They come with recipes. He doesn’t typically use them, but they can be helpful.
Tien: I received one as a gift. I kept meaning to cancel it because I’d have all this stuff in my fridge but I’d never get to it. I guess it’s a good way to learn to cook a few things, though. It would obviously replace a couple of my meals a week, so it could replace eating out. I just didn’t love the recipes.
Nanbu: I don’t know anyone who uses one.
Slade: I know a couple of people who swear by it, and they keep telling me to sign up. I just don’t have an interest.
Kearns: I mean, malls are going out of business. It seems related. Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Papa Murphy’s were three of the places that closed a lot of locations in 2017. What’s different about those places?
Marquez: I don’t think people like a big plate of food anymore. They want a little bit of this and little bit of that. There’s the tapas thing, and some Asian restaurants are like that.
The waitress comes back to see if anyone would like to take food home (most of the plates have sizable portions remaining). No one does, except for the biscuits. Requests for dessert are turned down.
Nanbu: What did you think of those oysters? [A few grumbles] I’ve had thousands of oysters, and I think those were the worst oysters I’ve had in my life. [Laughter] They were watery.
Kearns: That’s what the shrimp were like.
Slade: This is bad, because this is what their specialty is supposed to be, right? Seafood.
Marquez: Is that why you ordered the steak?
Nanbu: Part of me wanted to be that guy who orders everything you’re not supposed to, like, “Pizza and the chicken, please.” But I couldn’t.
Marquez: The chowder was good.
Tien: I liked the butter better than the lobster itself.
A manager comes to the table to see if everything was all right. She strikes up friendly banter and tells a comical story about one of the chefs and her own singing voice, aka “noise pollution.” Everyone laughs and divvies up the biscuits.
Nanbu: What’s the future for chain restaurants? Where do you guys think it will go?
Marquez: The more expensive it gets, the harder it is for the little guys to open new restaurants. So chain restaurants could grow.
Nanbu: I actually feel like the restaurant industry itself is gravitating toward more healthy options and better foods, though. I feel like either chains will become more sustainable and have better sourcing and they’ll adapt, or they’ll wither out and die. Sort of like how some already are.
Several people at the table agree.
Nanbu: With the rise of the internet, people are becoming more socially conscious about where they’re spending their money and where brands are spending their money. It’s an opportunity for restaurants to say, “Look, we’re feeding you healthy things and we don’t feed you chickens that were raised in overcrowded cages.” It’s harder to hide things like that now.
Kearns: But that’s because you care. I don’t want to get into politics, but I think there are a bunch of people, foodies, who care about that. But mainstream people will always just want to grab a bite if they can afford it; whether it’s Foster Farms chicken or whatever, they don’t really care.
Nanbu: But I think that’s what’s changing with the internet. People are just more educated. It’s harder to hide the truth.
Slade: I felt the same way… until January.
Kearns: Okay, I read an article about people described as the “intentionally obtuse,” i.e. — and I hope we all voted the same.
Some at the table say they voted differently.
Kearns: Well, I don’t think people care about things like sourcing across the board.
Marquez: It comes to affordability, too. A lot of people aren’t thinking about where any of it came from. They’re just trying to put food on the table. That’s a huge part of it.
Nanbu: That’s always going to be there, and I’m not saying that’s going to disappear. But over time, I think people will shift. Revenues will change. Margins will change. Businesses will change.
Marquez: I would like to see large corporations get out of this cycle of big farming. I’d like to see more local ingredients. And it seems to be slowly happening. I mean, look at the New Seasons grocery stores’ victory over Whole Foods here in Portland?
Slade: I think, overall, the restaurant market will be fine. These chains aren’t going anywhere. They’ll decline until everyone wants them back, and, then, they’ll return. They’re flexible. They’ll be fine.
Nanbu: The only chain I’d be sad to see close is Din Tai Fung. I’d be very heartbroken. You guys need to go. I’m not usually the type to be super brand loyal, but Din Tai Fung is awesome.