I think about food a lot. An unreasonable amount, actually. There is, of course, my day job as a food writer, but also the countless hours spent browsing the New York Times cooking app for complicated new recipes to try and building an encyclopedic knowledge of local restaurant menus for when it comes time to make weekend dinner reservations. But when it comes to actually making the decision of where — and what — to eat in the moment, thinking about the mundane practicality of food can be seriously fucking exhausting.
When that feeling, a combination of frustration and despair and good old-fashioned “hanger,” strikes, there’s nothing more compelling than scoring a deal on a (slightly) overcooked steak and cheese-topped mashed potatoes from, of all places, Chili’s.
Admitting my obsession with Chili’s 2 for $25 promotion feels like revealing a secret shame. Snobbery is endemic in our culinary culture and I am certainly guilty of engaging in lots of shit-talk about mediocre chain restaurants like it. But Chili’s doesn’t care that it is patently uncool and doesn’t look good on Instagram — it eschews pretentiousness and trends in favor of a remarkable consistency that is nothing short of pure comfort in tumultuous times. Applebee’s may have gotten its very own hit country song, but the unsung hero of the mid-tier chain restaurant is the Chili’s 2 for $25.
For those who have not encountered the 2 for $25, the concept is simple and wonderful: for less than half the cost of the average dinner for two, Chili’s will serve you an appetizer, two entrees, and a dessert. You can upgrade those entrees if you’re feeling fancy — a 10-ounce sirloin instead of the 6-ounce that comes standard, for example — or add on cocktails to double down on the date night vibe. It’s available both in the restaurant and for curbside pick-up, for which a Chili’s employee will package your fajitas delicately enough that the juice from the meat and peppers doesn’t make the tortillas soggy on the drive home.
On its face, Chili’s 2 for $25 deal is an obvious marketing gimmick. It locks the buyer into a specific minimum purchase, one that might be higher than if that buyer just ordered the burger or ribs à la carte. It throws in incentives, like appetizers and desserts, that are inexpensive for the restaurant to make. There are only six or so entree options, and desserts are limited to either a slice of cheesecake or a large chocolate chip cookie that’s allegedly cooked in a skillet before it’s topped with a puck of pre-packaged vanilla ice cream.
To be sure, there is nothing jaw-dropping about the entrees at Chili’s, but therein lies their appeal; they are always familiar. The chicken crispers — Chili’s version of a tempura-style battered chicken tender — taste just like they did when I was 15 years old and skipping class with friends to share an order at the Chili’s that was a short walk away from my high school in small-town East Texas. The six-ounce sirloin won’t win any prizes at a steak cook-off, but it is always (basically) cooked to my preferred temperature. No one judges when I order two sides of mashed potatoes loaded down with cheese and bacon bits in lieu of broccoli, either.
Even though its social status has waned dramatically in recent years, it’s important to remember that Chili’s was once a tastemaker in middle American cuisine. Founded in Dallas, Texas, in 1975, it helped introduce the world outside of Texas to the compelling flavor profiles of Tex-Mex cuisine, and opened restaurants in far-flung locales like Morocco and Costa Rica. In the late 1990s, the chain commissioned one of the most iconic and infectious commercial jingles to ever enter the zeitgeist. Just a decade or so later, though, it was being lampooned (or celebrated?) by NBC sitcom The Office as bumbling boss Michael Scott’s favorite place to take a date or business clients or, in the case of one iconic episode, both. In the 2010s, pundits wrung their hands over whether or not the notoriously “foodie” millennial generation would “kill” Chili’s and restaurants of its ilk thanks to our supposed obsession with upscale dining.
But even as its status as a cultural heat point diminishes, Chili’s survives. In fact, the chain’s parent company actually did better economically during the pandemic, specifically citing increased sales in its dining rooms and via delivery apps. After enjoying a couple of 2 for $25s, the “why” is immediately obvious: What a meal like this lacks in glamour, it makes up for in utilitarian comfort. There’s appeal in shrinking down a world full of food options into a couple easy choices, like picking between chicken and steak at a wedding, but with Awesome Blossoms.
When the dizzying array of options on UberEats, Postmates, Grubhub, Caviar, Seamless, and all those other delivery apps is too overwhelming, Chili’s does some of the deciding for you. It sounds absurd, but being limited to those few options and being forced to operate inside a very specific rubric, feels like freedom from the inevitable decision paralysis that will inevitably strike when you live in a world where basically any food, from any cuisine, can be delivered to your door on demand.
We have, in a very real sense, over-glamorized the food that we eat. Food is, after all, the “new rock and roll,” and has been for a decade. Our constant pursuit of the world’s most epic, best-ever burger or a scientifically perfect steak has left us in a place where the perfectly edible, totally satiating steak at Chili’s just isn’t good enough because nobody’s going to be impressed when they see it on your Instagram feed. Considering that we have to eat food thrice per day just to stay alive, it’s probably time to consider making that process a little less complicated at least some of the time.
It’s perfectly okay to fall into the comfort of a Chili’s 2 for $25 whenever the craving strikes. Or maybe, for you, it’s downing three baskets of those perfect Cheddar Bay biscuits at Red Lobster before the entree even comes. Or picking up Olive Garden’s trusted soup and salad for lunch. Sometimes food can just be good enough, and sometimes good enough is actually preferable to good.
Whatever suits your fancy, now is the time to seek out the mid-tier chain restaurant meal that can become your ol’ reliable when the idea of scrolling through the same old boring (and expensive) options on UberEats just seems like a little too much to bear, or God forbid, you’re getting anxious over what to cook for dinner. Whenever that time comes for you, Chili’s will be there, waiting to welcome you with two scoops of loaded mashed potatoes that will, without fail, taste and cost the same pretty much everywhere.