Chain restaurants are somewhat of a polarizing topic. Millions of Americans obviously love them, as evident by just a casual drive down any business route anywhere in the country, or walk through any hotel parking lot. Millions (healthy estimate I just pulled out of my ass), also despise and deride them, viewing the regular chain restaurant customer as someone devoid of taste (pun intended) and culture, a corporate America sheep who says “Bazinga” unironically, and has a high probability of owning a “Make America Great Again” baseball hat.
I fall somewhere in between. I probably fall more on the side of being disdainful of chains, but understand their place in our ecosystem well enough to not immediately judge someone, who, for example unequivocally loves TGIFridays. I get that they are great options if you’re looking for some semblance of uniformity while away from home, and probably a safe haven for picky eaters. They’re extremely family friendly too, so if you’ve got young kids, or old kids, or just kids in general, then by all means chain away with no judgement. And there’s something to be said of the safety and non-pretentiousness chain restaurants more often then not afford. It’s nice to go somewhere you won’t be made to feel like an idiot because you can’t pronounce “gnocchi” properly or have to ask what “terrine” is. Plus, they’re usually pretty efficient, and always a safe bet if you want a quick, ok meal.
Sidenote: do you consider fast food to be under the “chain” umbrella or a different beast? I say different beast; McDonald’s doesn’t pretend to be more then McDonald’s!
I don’t think people should be judged for liking chains, and in fact, find that somewhat off-putting. They have their purposes. Plus, I’m usually of the mindset that if you’re with the right crowd, the setting is secondary. Last year my sister and I ended up spending an enjoyable afternoon at Uno’s while waiting for a movie to start. I got a nice buzz for a reasonable price, although, spoiler alert, I ended up subsequently weeping weeping when Han Solo died in The Force Awakens because of said buzz.
That being said, there’s something inherently hokey about chain restaurants that I’ll never be able to fully shake. I’m fascinated by the stupid names they give their menu items, the obscenely ludicrous drinks mixed up by bartenders they call “mixologists,” the vomit of Americana on their walls, and their pieces of flair. And I could never shake the feeling that there’s always going to be a better local Italian joint, with cheaper prices then the Olive Garden, or a corner bar with more character, and better wings then Friday’s. I get if you love one of these places for the nostalgia, or a specific dish, you know is shit, but just can’t quit, butis it anyone’s first choice going to be going to Chili’s for a 26 oz Coors Light draft? There’s a reason Pam Beasley has been the only person to ever feel God there.
This hokiness is the reason I was delighted to find the Doughboys podcast recently. The gist of the podcast is that the two hosts, along with the episode’s guests, visit and review a different chain restaurant every episode. They discuss their experiences, teach you a little bit about the history behind these chains (a lot of chains were started by very disturbed individuals), and dissect the meals they’ve eaten. It sounds very banal on paper (or rather, in post), but trust me, it’s hilarious. The podcast is a couple of years old at this point, so I’ve been filling up my work commutes catching up on all the madness and loving it. I highly recommend a listen, especially if, like myself, you aren’t the type of person who would never set foot in a Chipolte, but you realize the very specific absurdity these establishments serve up (pun intended, once again). I bought, in the very first episode, that these guys actually did like, and have fond memories of Chili’s. I also bought that they weren’t going to convince themselves that it was actual, quality food. And with all the very serious podcasts out there, it’s a great distraction. Forget a murder in Target’s parking lot, tell me about the sub-par service at the Ruby Tuesdays there! Maybe I’m biased a bit, just because I agree with them so often. In the first episode one of the hosts revealed that he does not think sweet and savory should mix, which is one of my cardinal food principles. Bacon doesn’t belong in dessert! And in the episode I’m currently listening to, which is Jimmy John’s themed, an establishment I’m not familiar with, they bemoan places that give items dumb names. Ordering a “fishmajig” or “sizzling fajita” will never not make me feel self-conscious as hell.
My recent obsession with this podcast, as well as Tuesdays “hot wing crawl” post, have me jonesing to do something I’ve talked about for years now, but never followed through-on: the chain restaurant bar crawl. Again, think of the absurdity of it. Think of the stories. Think of all the reasonably, but not really that reasonably priced 26 oz Coors Lights, and what’s best, think about the fact that it doesn’t matter where you are. If you have a free Saturday, and a nearby mall, this is an easy, and stupid way to kill an afternoon. The rules? Visit as many chain restaurants as possible, and if you’re really looking to experience them fully, order either signature drink or signature app. Take copious notes, and see where the night leads you.
Lest you think the brilliant idea was all mine, alas, it was not. This idea was actually championed and executed by two Buzzfeed writers, Joanna Borns, and Alexis Needs, who in the March of 2015 went to seven chain restaurants in the general Times Square vicinity, where they, in their own words, “spent one day in search of the grossest cocktail.” This piece is not only journalism of the highest order, but one of my favorite online articles ever. I revisit it every few months, and I have yet to not cackle like a jackass. The cocktail descriptions are hilarious (example,” The drink description on the menu includes the term “chillax,” which is probably all you need to know.”), but the real meat here is in the scene setting they do of these joints. The descriptor of a Manhattan Red Lobster in particular kills me, “the ambiance was kind of like a yacht club in Idaho, built by people who have only ever read about the sea in children’s library illustrated editions of Moby Dick. So, like, nautical but misinformed.” This is great literature people. Take some time and carefully read the entire thing. You will not regret it.
This, combined with my recent Doughboys find, might be the catalyst I need to finally tackle this classiest of barcrawls. Here’s hoping for a rainy Saturday afternoon soon. Stay tuned.