Looking back, now-Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Chili’s last July was a non-event snowed under by a mountain of other bombshells. At the time, though, it freaked the internet out, partially because of mirror angles, but moreso because if there is anything you cannot do, it’s admit that you eat at a chain restaurant. It’s uncool.
Well, here we are, to admit how uncool we are. The Big Lead Staff ranked their Top Ten Chain Restaurants, and then all the results were combined (10 points for 1st place, down to 1 point assigned for 10th). First, we should explain what qualified. This does not include fast food restaurant chains. No drive-thrus, pizza deliveries. It had to be the type of place where you might leave a tip (i.e., not McDonald’s, who would do that?). At the upper end, we wanted some limit on places that can be chains, so we went with a general “could you get a meal for one there for $20 or less if you wanted” factor.
With all that said, let’s get to the list of locations that no self-respecting writer on the Internet would admit they frequent. Votes contributed by Tully Corcoran, Stephen Douglas, Ty Duffy, Ryan Glasspiegel, Kyle Koster, Jason Lisk, and Ryan Phillips. Thirty-two different chains got at least one vote from one of our writers; here are the Top Ten. Chili’s did not make it, despite appearing on five of seven ballots, because it was in no one’s top five.
#1 Waffle House (35 points, appeared on 5 ballots)
Koster: While I don’t remember many details of my dining experiences at Waffle House for a variety of reasons, it’s always been the least regretful part of night. They do breakfast as well as they do dinner. Like a casino, it’s tough to tell what time it is while bathing in the WH atmosphere. It’s dragon-chasing in all its fatty, salty goodness.
Glasspiegel: Perhaps it’s because of its relative scarcity – I’ve lived my entire life north of the Mason-Dixon line – but Waffle House is crack. There have been times where I’ve considered driving 160 miles from Chicago to the closest Waffle House, in Indiana. No, I’ve never actually wound up doing it, but there’s no other that would even enter that consideration.
Lisk: If you’ve ever been on a road trip with college friends across the South, or want to re-live the late night diner college sensation, this is the place. You can’t go more than a couple of exits on I-10 without hitting one. Waffles, eggs, hash browns and grits, and a jukebox that features a variety of songs, including songs about Waffle House. I may or may not have loaded the jukebox with quarters to repeatedly play the song included below on my way out.
Phillips: If you’ve never been to the Waffle House I’m truly sorry. What are you doing with your life…other than living a clean, pure, healthy existence? Want to know the joy of a Waffle House trip at 2 a.m.? Watch Anthony Bourdain first introduction to the goodness.
#2 P.F. Chang’s (33 points, appeared on 4 ballots)
Duffy: American Chinese food is a guilty pleasure. Tarting it up like you’re going out to dinner and having cocktails makes it feel less guilty.
Koster: Great option for first dates back in the day. Enormous statues outside of front door screams excellence and the food delivers.
Lisk: Lettuce wraps, before everyone else started making wraps with lettuce.
Phillips: Who doesn’t love fake Chinese food with just a sousant of California snobbishness?
#3T Buffalo Wild Wings (30 points, appeared on 6 ballots)
Duffy: The facilities are spacious. The TVs are large and numerous. The wings are quite decent.
Koster: Sometimes I’ll intentionally get into a fight with my wife on Sunday morning so the rest of the day can be spent with the gang, rooting for nondescript teams and just generally rooting for overtime. Great place to escape reality, get messy fingers.
Glasspiegel: Do yourself a favor and never look up their nutrition information. It is better to go through life in blissful ignorance.
Lisk: I’m meh on the wings, but the franchise is ever-present and a good rallying spot on youth sport weekends to find spacious tables and get out of the heat and chill.
Phillips: Everything you could possibly want in a perfect sports bar…except good wings oddly enough.
#3T Outback Steakhouse (30 points, appeared on 4 ballots)
Lisk: This ties with Buffalo Wild Wings for best chain sponsoring a bowl game. A good place to get a steak (I’m at a stage in life where I need to avoid Bloomin’ Onions), though on the higher end if I have to take along the whole family.
Phillips: For a chain the quality of the food is insanely high. Excellent steaks, sides and even fresh vegetables and salads.
Koster: No rules, just right. Nothing to add.
#5 Cheesecake Factory (23 points, appeared on 3 ballots)
Koster: Criminally overrated but menu serves as an impressive #longread.
Glasspiegel: True story: When Cheesecake Factory opened in West Hartford, CT, wait times were upwards of 2-3 hours.
#6T TGI Friday’s (18 points, appeared on 3 ballots)
Duffy: There’s nothing inherently wrong with appetizers and a crazed, varied menu. Wave to the 28-year-old blogger not talking to anyone and crafting a 3,000-word tableau of America.
Glasspiegel: When I studied abroad in London about a decade ago, the deep fried mac and cheese bites at Friday’s in Piccadilly Circus were a comforting reminder of home. Yes, I consumed them there more than once.
[Note: the above clip is from a fictional movie and is NOT TGI Friday’s]
#6T Carrabba’s (18 points, appeared on 2 ballots)
Lisk: The kids always want to go here, and it’s better than Olive Garden. If memory serves (and it is hazy), I think we revealed the sex of our first child to the grandparents there. Good times.
#8 Original Pancake House (17 points, appeared on 2 ballots)
Duffy: IHOP, but better.
#9 Cracker Barrel (15 points, appeared on 4 ballots)
Phillips: Want to have dinner at a place where the average age of the customers is 73.4 and you feel awful about yourself afterwards? Cracker Barrel is your place. There are also rocking chairs, mindless “mind games” and a general store you’ll completely ignore.
Lisk: There’s not much diversity in the crowd at the Cracker Barrel, but I love getting country vegetables and some blackened catfish or meat loaf, and the kids tear up pancakes. By the way, I rate restaurant choices on whether the kids will eat the food, get drinks with the meal, and get entertained by things like the peg game on the table.
Glasspiegel: Have you or anyone you’ve known ever bought anything at the general store that accompanies these restaurants? I’ve never even thought about doing that.
Lisk: Yes. I’ll refer all other questions to my lawyer.
#10 California Pizza Kitchen (15 points, appeared on 2 ballots)
Duffy: How did this slip in ahead of Denny’s? I demand a recount.
Koster: Proud of CPK for outperforming expectations. It’s pizza for people with an imagination. Plus a fine assortment of salads for those pretending to care about their health. Score one for the little guys.
Phillips: As a dual Italian-American citizen I felt awful voting for CPK. My great grandmother is rolling over in her grave because this is not “pizza.” Doesn’t mean it’s not tasty though.