Omnivore - The chains we love, the chains we don't

What makes a restaurant chain great?


In last week's Cheap Eats, I reviewed Atlanta's Another Broken Egg Cafe, the latest addition to a small chain of brunch joints. In the end, I felt that despite the built-in name recognition they have as part of the chain, they suffered a bit from the shackles of being a franchisee, in their menu and in their ingredient choices. While I'm all in favor of supporting local businesses, I have nothing against chains in principle - when done right, they can be great. But it seems to be a minority that are really able to take a core concept and replicate it well over and over again.

The problems seem to multiply when you know a place as a great independent, standalone restaurant, and then see the original idea watered down as they expand and multiply. Flying Biscuit comes to mind, as do several barbecue chains I've seen come and go over the years. The chains I really appreciate tend to have a very strong sense of who they are and what they do best, and have a kitchen that can turn that out really well - I love Waffle House for doing simple things right, I have been known to down large quantities of Popeyes' spicy fried chicken, and I have often been amazed at the quality food Houston's can deliver, from a straightforward pan-seared mountain trout to a classic thick and juicy burger.

My chain-aversion picks up with those chains who may generally stick to one theme, but simply don't do it very well or become a mockery of the cuisine they are trying to emulate - Olive Garden? Applebee's? Chili's? There are so many better local options for Italian or vaguely Tex-Mex-ish Southwestern in most towns, yet these restaurants seem to be taking over the American landscape. There's a good chance that when you order something, they will be back in the kitchen squeezing some pre-mixed, pre-portioned, pre-prepared concoction out of a bag before it ends up on your plate.

So cheers to the chains that do things right. Who's your pick for the place that does the word "chain" proud?