Casual Dining, #Ranked
A few years back, a writer by the name of Caity Weaver wrote this story on Gawker. Basically, she sat in a TGI Friday’s for 14 hours trying to find the “end” of their “endless” appetizers (she went with the mozz sticks). While you could not pay me enough Harriet Tubmans to complete such an austere task (I got a couple past due baby pounds, won’t get specific), I would be delighted to accompany you to our local casual dining change for any combination of appetizers and novelty beverages you could dream up.
My taste buds have certainly evolved, but my pride has not. If offered the luxury of a choice, I’ll usually go with Zagat-rated spot under the guise of “hip foodie millennial.” But some nights, I just want some deep fried comfort food with extra ranch.
Don’t get it twisted: not all casual dining chains are created equal. Should you find yourself with a 9pm craving that baked brie and LaCroix cannot (and should not!) satisfy, I’ve made it easy for you. Here are my top 5 casual dining restaurant chains, #ranked.
5. Ruby Tuesday.
I’ll be honest, I haven’t had too much experience with Ruby, so perhaps this isn’t a fair judgment. Making it even less fair is my completely subjective filter. I think I went here while 8 weeks pregnant with Ollie, and the loaded baked potato soup did me not a single favor. But on any non-pregnant day when I happened to be craving assorted greens and a fountain beverage, I could see partaking in and potentially enjoying their ridiculously humongous salad bar. Maybe next time, Ruby Tuesday.
4. Red Robin.
I want to like Red Robin. Come on! Clucks and fries. (Bottomless fries!) And that freckled lemonade. The only thing keeping the Robin (we’re on a nickname basis) from clinching the number 3 spot is that in my memory (it’s been a few years), their service is a little slow, the clucks made me a little sick, and the salad menu was nothing special (who orders salad, though?) I’d give it another chance.
3. TGI Friday’s.
This is the type of place my in-laws will take me to and splurge on appetizers. And I’m not mad about it. The potato skins feel especially visceral to me: crunchy little fried boats filled with bacon, cheese, chives, and, duh, extra sour cream. I think I even stocked my college fridge with the grocery store rendition of those bad boys.
The only thing I don’t love about TGI Friday’s is that the food just tastes frozen, always. Sometimes it actually is still frozen. I’m pretty sure I got mozzarella sticks once that were still cold on the inside. Ew. Check please.
In the absence of farm-to-table, small plate dining options, Applebee’s will forever be my standby. It all started freshman year of college. When my suburban university offered me few choices in the way of dining or cash, half price apps at Applebee’s became a habit. We’d often make grandiose plans to ice skate at the rink by City Hall or hit the big city for Thai food, but for some reason, our plans were always foiled and we ended up at Applebee’s. My signature order was honey BBQ boneless wings with ranch (never blue cheese). I’d always eat the whole thing, and I’d never gain a pound. (Sadly, my metabolism has changed, but my taste hasn’t).
Here’s a thing about me that might disappoint you: I’m a Diet Coke drinker. At this point, along with my penchant for Ann Taylor Loft (those curvy jeans tho! Need them after all those trips to the Bees!) it’s gone beyond irony into straight up love. And Applebee’s, to my frustration, only serves Pepsi products. Don’t get me wrong. There’s something nice about an ice cold Pepsi with, say, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch (we’ll save T-Bell for another confusing conversation.) But I want DC with my honey BBQ wings. And I will forever petition for the appetizer sampler to be half off, dangit.
What is Chili’s? A Tex-Mex restaurant with handsome artisan tile and authentic imagery of early 1990s cook-offs? A tapas joint? A purveyor of comfort food so soul-stirring you might believe for a second it didn’t come from a freezer?
I’d argue all of the above, and more, simply because Chili’s, much like the Packers and green bean casserole, is a shining relic of my childhood I still indulge in. My local Chili’s (shout out to Chili’s on Casaloma!) has long been a place of respite for me, a recovering picky eater. After a loved one’s funeral, I decompressed with 2-for-1 margs (still the best deal in town, IMHO. The margs, not the funeral). And a dear friend in elementary school taught me about the Chili’s “secret menu,” which has forever changed how I order. Ready for this? Croutons and honey mustard. YUP. It’s like your own personal appetizer, except the teen server doesn’t know how to ring it up so he shrugs and gives it to you for free.
When I go to Chili’s, you can find me posted at my signature corner booth with some crouts & HM, a kid’s chicken crispers with a couple of margs (don’t worried, they’re watered down), and, if I’m feeling wild, perhaps the molten lava cake.