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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the weekend: What chain restaurant serves the worst food?

What chain restaurant serves the worst food?

One of the worst meals I’ve ever had in my life was in an Olive Garden. I generally try to avoid all fast food and chain restaurants, but I was traveling and I was hungry and options were limited. Now, I know better that sometimes, it’s preferrable to be hungry.

Come the Mad Max afterscape, Olive Gardens wll be low on my list of places to plunder.

You?

(This weekend’s question comes from the conversation-starting game Table Topics: Not Your Mom’s Dinner Party Edition [Amazon U.S.].)

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Dart

    Red Lobster

    Do you guys get this in the states? For 30 bucks you can get a tiny lobster tail, deep fried shrimp, deep fried scallops, and some greasy french fries. Or you can enjoy the salad as an appetizer, which is iceberg lettuce and dressing plopped on there as though from a container. The place smells delicious though.

  • THANK YOU. I’m glad there’s somebody else out there who is totally underwhelmed by Olive Garden. Every time I’ve eaten there, I’ve come away either sick or disappointed. My girlfriend loves it, though.

    I’m also pretty repulsed by Applebee’s as of late. I made the tragic mistake of getting their BBQ Pork sliders because they sounded good in theory. In practice, they were tiny and cold. If I’m going to eat at a restaurant like that, I prefer Bennigan’s, which has gone out of business at the national level but still has thriving franchisees near where I live.

    Normally, however, I don’t really have a problem with chain restaurants. Maybe my palate is not developed enough. I do tend to prefer more regional chains or local restaurants, however.

  • JoshDM

    I avoid the aforementioned Olive Garden (they used to be good) and Red Lobster.

    I don’t understand Red Lobster; I live in South Florida and the place is always freaking packed. I think the old people are deluded, that fish is not fresh.

    Our worst experience was at Chili’s, and I will never eat there again. Applebees and Fridays quality are depending on their locations. Ditto for Dennys and IHop.

    Wafflehouse is always grungy but the food is always excellent. Get the scattered smothered covered topped chunked diced.

  • JoshDM

    Bennigans used to be great, but now they’re either gone or terrible.

  • Isobel

    La Tasca is awful. It’s a chain that sells ‘Spanish’ tapas that tastes like it comes from a tin or a freezer. Ick.

    I do like Wagamammas, even though it’s probably not actually remotely authentic Japanese it tastes great and is really fresh and the kitchen is visible from the restaurant so you know the food is being made exactly to order.

  • mortadella

    Sonic, billed as “America’s Drive-In.” Pfft. The way they advertise their shakes, you’d think they were giving you the Second Coming of ice-cream…but no, all their flavors taste the same. The burgers? Positively anemic.

    The upside of chain burgers? Five Guys. They made the hamburger actual food again….and their French fries (which are cooked lovingly in peanut oil)rock.

  • Brian

    The whole range of middlebrow, kitschy-junk-on-the-walls, we-can’t-cook-anything-below-medium, American chain restaurants is so undifferentiated that this is a very tough choice.

    I think the winner has to be Chili’s, though, because somehow, they manage to make everything on their menu taste exactly the same. Whether you’ve ordered a burger, queso dip, or buffalo wings . . . exactly. the. same.

    I do find it gratifying, though, that the Americanized chain Mexican restaurants are losing ground near where I live (Indianapolis), because people have begun to realize that there are plenty of actual Mexicans in the area who run delicious (and less expensive!) restaurants.

  • Drave

    I’ve eaten at a couple different Red Lobsters in California, and always had a good experience. Then again, I don’t actually get lobster at Red Lobster. I just eat a ton of those shrimp stock cheddar biscuits, and their fried sampler of doom. Olive Garden has been very hit and miss. The one in the town where I grew up had the best soup ever. Really, the only reason to go there is when they have the bottomless pasta deal going on.

    I’m trying to think if there is any chain I have consistently had a bad experience with. I don’t think fast food counts, because you deserve whatever experience you get at fast food. Fresh Choice has been uniformly terrible, now that I think about it. You wouldn’t think there would be a way to mess up a giant salad bar, but you’d be wrong.

    Mortadella, you are dead right about Five Guys. We’ve got one up here, and they are absolutely the go-to place for burger cravings.

  • Rob

    I actually like some Olive Gardens. The one in Times Square tends to be quite good, IMHO. I always have had good Red Lobster experiences, as well. My two worst chain restaurant experiences are (1) Arby’s, where I got food poisoning from on a very long car trip from NYC to Miami, Florida. Not amusing. And (2) TGIFriday’s, which never fails to be absolutely awful. The worst one is also in Times Square heh, where I got spaghetti that tasted like over-cooked rubber covered in the thinnest sauce ever, and burnt chicken.

  • Rob

    I actually like some Olive Gardens. The one in Times Square tends to be quite good, IMHO. I always have had good Red Lobster experiences, as well. My two worst chain restaurant experiences are (1) Arby’s, where I got food poisoning from on a very long car trip from NYC to Miami, Florida. Not amusing. And (2) TGIFriday’s, which never fails to be absolutely awful. The worst one is also in Times Square heh, where I got spaghetti that tasted like over-cooked rubber covered in the thinnest sauce ever, and burnt chicken.

  • David

    The general guideline that I use (not a rule but guideline) is that avoid places with cooks in favor of places with chefs.

    For a more specific complaint I went to a “Texas Steakhouse” and a friend with me who doesn’t eat red meat ordered the grilled chicken breast, the grill marks were clearly ‘painted’ on, the cut was so tiny, the veggi mix clearly came out of a frozen bag, so did the chicken for that matter. They didn’t even bother to heat it up all the way, still frozen in the center (pre-cooked no less). The wine was oxidized and the steaks were not much better.

    I have had similar experiences in many chain steakhouses.

  • If there is one place I’ll never eat again it is Jimmy Dean’s restaurant. They suck so bad. Service is slow, the food is terrifyingly bad and unhealthy and the prices suck.

    As for drive-through Wendy’s has the slowest drive-through anywhere. You try to order 1 burger and small fries and it takes them 20 minutes. I use drive through as snacks on long commutes, but they make that impossible. By the time I get my food, the urge has passed.

  • RogerBW

    My experience eating in the UK and USA is that the best cheap food is – sorry, David – at places with cooks, but not chain places. Once a nice little eating-house becomes part of a chain, its spark goes and the people working there are doing a job rather than doing what they enjoy. There’s a nice little cafe round the side of Smithfield Market that simply serves good cheap nosh, and I’ll take that over faux-fancy cuisine any day…

    What, no hate for the big Mc? Certainly the place with the biggest distance between “beef” and “labelled as beef”.

  • David

    @RogerBW: I suppose what I was trying to get across was that I wanted the person cooking my food to have some sort of connection to the creation of the dish, someone who cares. Not someone who is just heating a package and following a flowchart. And yes, singly owned little places fall on the good side of my equation. ^_^

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Olive Garden – check
    Applebee’s – check
    Red Lobster – check
    IHOP – check
    TGIFriday’s – check
    Chili’s – check and mate.

    Five Guys is tastey if overpriced, but it’s no In-n-Out.

  • Been awhile since I’ve been to Olive Garden, but last I went they were pretty good.

    If there was a terrible restaurant experience it was at the tourist trap South of the Border (I-95 between SC and NC) about… 13 years ago. Mexican-themed place with shops, a few rides for the kids, a handful of eateries. The nice-looking sit-in restaurant served a burrito that was honestly something taken out of a wrapper and microwaved. No extras. No salsa or queso sause. with a side dish of lukewarm spanish rice and uncooked refried beans. I suggest eating in Lumberton from now on. ;)

  • Josh C.

    The only time I have ever been in a Waffle House, on a family drive from West Palm (home) to Disney World, the entire place smelled like how the bathroom probably did.

  • There was a Thai place in Kansas. I asked for their spiciest dish, the waitress said it was probably too spicy, but if I ordered the second spiciest she’d also bring me the spice sprinkler so I could add more.

    I shouldn’t have let her talk me down a level. It was almost cold. So I kept liberally sprinkling it with spices to make it eatable while the waitress just stared, a little dumbfounded. So from now on, when I want it spicy, I stick to my guns.

  • Eric

    Three words: Steak and Shake. Vastly overrated and incredibly disgusting, in my humble opinion. The shakes are OK, but not anything to write home about, the burgers are bland and flavorless, and the fries are downright inedible. They’re skimpy and sliced way too thin. They’re quite possibly the worst french fries I’ve ever had from any establishment (which is saying a lot), but the way some people I know talk about them, you’d think they were the food of the gods. I guess my finger just isn’t on the pulse of America.

  • There’s a West Coast restaurant chain here called Shari’s. They literally brought my wife a glass of water with a dead fly in it.

    The end.

  • RyanT

    You know what’s awesome though? Cheesecake Factory. In.Cre.Di.Ble.

  • Bill

    Bob Evans. Bleh. And White Tower. You’re no White Castle, you. I don’t think I’m a huge fan of any chain joints, but I don’t remember that many bad experiences. And most places have a safe dish or two.

  • Lenina

    Top of the list is Pizza Hut. The pizza is doughy and everything is uber-bland, if that’s possible. Not cheap enough for what you’re getting and the types that go there can be described similarly. On the opposing end, a good pizza chain restaurant (in the UK) is Pizza Express which is always tasty and not too expensive.

    And burgers-type places? Awful = Frankie & Benny’s, which does about a hundred dishes but none of them very well. Yumtastic = Gourmet Burger Kitchen. While a little expensive and probably artery-clogging, the food is always LUSH.

    Mmm … I’m hungry now.

  • Althea

    I have to put in a bid for CiCi’s Pizza. I go there about once a year or so, having paid attention to a commercial, thinking, “Well, it’s cheap and I can have as much as I want even if it isn’t primo.” And I get there and there’s barely even one pizza made that I want and that one’s cold, and the salad is barely edible, and the cinnamon things are fine but not if you haven’t had enough pizza for a meal. It’s a sad, sad place.

  • CS

    Olive Gardens are hit and miss, but I would only go if there’s no better option and the bottomless pasta bowl is on.

    I’ve never had a good meal at an Applebee’s, ever. That’s probably the worst I can name.

  • MaryAnn

    I actually like some Olive Gardens. The one in Times Square tends to be quite good

    That there is an Olive Garden in Times Square infuriates and mystifies me. NYC is one of the great cities for great food. Why would anyone eat in an Olive Garden in NYC? I just don’t get it at all.

  • RogerBW

    Why would anyone eat in an Olive Garden in NYC?

    Because all those new and different names are scary, and they want something familiar.

    This is how McD’s became so successful: you can be in a new and strange town, but at least there’s one place where you know exactly what you’ll be getting.

    (Or are you suggesting that – unlike say Leicester Square in London – Times Square is a place that locals do not try to avoid at all costs because it’s such a tourist trap?)

  • And White Tower. You’re no White Castle, you.

    I would have thought that was a good thing.

    One of my cousins used to stop at White Castle for–ahem–hangover preventatives and even he had little good to say about the place.

    The only thing that prevents me from saying more is that I have relatives who grew up so poor even that place seems like luxurious dining. (Then again, they cooked at home, and I have yet to eat a restaurant whose food tasted as good as their food so they were in an odd way lucky.)

    What, no hate for the big Mc? Certainly the place with the biggest distance between “beef” and “labelled as beef”.

    They used to serve decent fish sandwiches but lately their fish tastes of freezer burn to the point where I wonder sometimes whether they didn’t just scrape off the inside of their freezer and stick the scrapings on a piece of fish-flavored cardboard. It’s enough to make one tempted to give up fish sandwiches for Lent.

  • misterb

    Since my kids have grown up, I haven’t eaten in a chain other than Carl’s/MacDonald’s. Even so, as the previous comments indicate, all instances of a chain are not the same. A good manager/owner can make even corporate food taste good, and a bad owner can mess up the best recipes (just watch Kitchen Nightmares!)
    Wherever you are, whether it’s Italian, Mexican or Asian, you can find a great inexpensive restaurant with a few clicks of the mouse – support local businesspeople!

  • Actually, what mystifies me are the western restuarants in China. I have never had a decent steak in China in four and a half years. You’d think it would be a simple thing, wouldn’t you? They make all these complicated, spicy dishes and yet can’t get a steak right. The German owned, operated, non-chain restuarant came pretty close, for a price high enough to feed seven people good Chinese food. I’m better off just waiting to go home and ask my Dad to grill one.

    But the Chinese who open restuarants in the western style are also copying the business model, which means most of the food is recooked instead of fresh, and since most Chinese don’t know any better, they eat the stuff. As do the sort of homesick westerners who would also be the sort of people who eat at the Olive Garden in NYC, I imagine.

  • MaryAnn

    Because all those new and different names are scary, and they want something familiar.

    Well, I’ve never understood why people travel if they want everything to be just like it is at home!

  • e

    I think we can all agree that in order to do their style of business, most of these places are putting together a middle of the road experience. Not terrible generally, but not fantastic either. And like most food in America that isn’t home-cooked or non-franchised, too much fat, salt and sugar.

    I have a relative who works at a Red Robin, and he really is an assembly line worker. Though on his off time he tends to concoct some interesting/delicious food out of the ingredients on hand there, so it makes you wonder the point sometimes.

    As for speed at drive-thrus. It really seems that its location more than anything. Here Burger Kings take forever, with no one in line inside or out, but Wendy’s and especially McDonald’s have you out in 45 seconds flat.

  • Isobel

    Because all those new and different names are scary, and they want something familiar. . . you can be in a new and strange town, but at least there’s one place where you know exactly what you’ll be getting.

    Tell me about it! I work in Westminster so there are always loads of tourists. I’m stopped by Americans fairly frequently asking directions to the nearest Starbucks. I tell them, it’s only polite, but also point out that there are Pret’s and Caffe Nero’s (who do better coffee, in my opinion) as well as lots of little independant cafes all around.

    I also agree re: Pizza Hut – it’s filthy stuff. The bases are nearly deep fried they’re so greasy. Pizza Express is good though, nice thin traditional bases and lovely fresh toppings (and no pineapple in sight! My housemate is Italian and the idea of pineapple on pizza nearly reduces her to tears).

  • Jim Mann

    Bob Evans.

    Maybe it depends upon what you got to Bob Evans for. Their breakfasts are pretty good. They have a very nice breakfast sausage, and some breakfast items that are hard to get in many parts of the country (for example, fried cornmeal mush, which I really like but which is hard to find in our area).

    For lunch and dinner, though, Bob Evans is pretty generic. Not bad, but I generally don’t bother.

  • Kate

    My vote is for Cheesecake Factory. (Sorry RyanT!) I’ve been there three or four times, mostly because there was one right near my old office that became the birthday-lunch spot. And although the food tasted all right at the time, I INVARIABLY got ill each night I ate there. Never again.

  • Kenny

    I think the golden arches are just too obvious a target. They are shite, and we all know it, so we can move on.

    I was interested in the TGI Friday votes. I have eaten in TGI exactly twice.
    Once in Glasgow, where I live, and the second time in Time Square.
    In the UK, I feel like TGI Friday is perceived as a relatively upmarket place… but it’s definitely a place to eat “the foods of America!” and drink quite expensive alcohol as part of an ‘event’ evening. The food was decent, the service was good and I enjoyed the experience.

    Time Square was a different story entirely. The food was cold and disgusting, there was two very long blond hairs and something black and floaty in my beer, the server didn’t apparently speak a single word of English… which would have been fine, but I didn’t know the Spanish for “Somebody has moulted in my beer.” Also the standards of cleanliness were really poor.
    I couldn’t understand how there could be such a badly run place in such an expensive plot of land. I don’t know how they drag in enough custom to pay the rent.

  • Kenny

    *were two hairs* I wish we could edit posts.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    I don’t eat at a lot of chain restaurants myself, because they are all so bland and similar. I figure if I’m going to spend more than $10 for a meal, then I may as well get something good.

    Fast food though: Burger King, Greco’s and Taco Bell are all complete no-go’s for me, to the point where I will actually turn down free food when hungry from these places. I’ve just never had a good food experience there.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Oh actually, come to think of it; Ponderosa/Bonanza Steak House. Yeah. Fond memories as a little kid, then I went there when my taste buds had grown in. Bleah.

  • Victor Plenty

    The worst chain restaurant food ever?

    It’s at the Pizza Hut.

    It’s at the Taco Bell.

    It’s at the *combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell*.

    (Sorry. I’ll stop now.)

  • I don’t eat at a lot of chain restaurants myself, because they are all so bland and similar. I figure if I’m going to spend more than $10 for a meal, then I may as well get something good.

  • I don’t eat at a lot of chain restaurants myself, because they are all so bland and similar. I figure if I’m going to spend more than $10 for a meal, then I may as well get something good. –Left-Wing Fox

    I don’t eat at a lot of chain restaurants myself, because they are all so bland and similar. I figure if I’m going to spend more than $10 for a meal, then I may as well get something good.–Pizza King

    I’m not sure whether to see this as another sign that great minds think alive or just ascribe it to deja vu…

  • Correction:

    I don’t eat at a lot of chain restaurants myself, because they are all so bland and similar. I figure if I’m going to spend more than $10 for a meal, then I may as well get something good. –Left-Wing Fox

    I don’t eat at a lot of chain restaurants myself, because they are all so bland and similar. I figure if I’m going to spend more than $10 for a meal, then I may as well get something good.–Pizza King

    I’m not sure whether to see this as another sign that great minds think alike or just ascribe it to deja vu…

  • JoshDM

    Chili’s.

  • Victor Plenty

    Well, I’ve never understood why people travel if they want everything to be just like it is at home!

    MaryAnn, you have a good reason not to understand this. It’s because you like to travel, and you welcome genuinely new and different experiences in life.

    This makes you far more fortunate than those poor lost souls who hate traveling, but do it anyway, because bragging about how terrible everything was, and how stoically they endured the bizarre and frightening habits of the big city slickers and/or the filthy foreigners, gives them a shallow way to impress their shallow friends.

  • Nate

    It’s a cliche now to say that chain restaurants serve bad food. I think a more interesting question would be what chain serves the best food?

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    I’m not sure whether to see this as another sign that great minds think alike or just ascribe it to deja vu…

    Or perhaps plagiarism via spam-bot? =/

    In answer to Nate’s question, my personal favorite chain restaurant is Boston Pizza, a Canadian chain founded in my hometown of Edmonton. It’s my reference pizza. :) Unfortunately, it’s also pretty expensive, so I rarely eat there anymore, preferring local fare.

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