I’ve never been one to look down on chain restaurants. I genuinely enjoy them on a once or twice a year basis. People like to joke a lot about heading to a Chili’s, Applebee’s, or Olive Garden after a round of golf or a long day at work and those jokes usually kill. They make people laugh. But when you get right down to it, chain restaurants serve a specific purpose. They make a consistent product that will taste the same no matter where you get it from in the country, and on a road trip or inside an airport when you’ve got a few hours to kill before a flight, there is nothing like hitting up an Applebee’s and getting a two for twenty deal with a tall Michelob Ultra. This is in no way an attack on places like Denny’s or Outback Steakhouse. I’m simply saying there is a time and a place.
Now that I’ve made it clear that I am in no way trying to disparage the name of any large chains in this fine country, I feel it is my duty to say something regarding a huge problem I have with these places.
When I’m visiting a city I’ve never been to before, I like to do my research. I ask good friends who live there or I know have spent ample amount of time there for recommendations on which sights are worth seeing and which ones I can skip. I spend hours looking at user reviews and magazine articles of hole-in-the-wall bars where I can get a drink. And obviously, I do my homework when it comes to restaurants.
For me, a trip to a new city revolves almost exclusively around the food that I’ll be eating. I’ll try just about anything if a friend or a reputable food magazine tells me that it’s a must-try because I like eating dank food. Sue me. But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend whenever I visit giant cities for a weekend getaway. The chain restaurants I mentioned above – the ones that I said were great on a road trip or at an airport when you’re in need of a few beers and a halfway decent meal – all have large, almost amusement park-like venues set up all over America’s great cities. And one would think that with the seemingly endless number of Michelin rated restaurants, diners, drive-ins, and dives that make a city unique, a place like Ruby Tuesdays, Hooters, or Chili’s would have a lot of trouble staying in business. But you would be wrong.
Head to River North in downtown Chicago – a place teeming with independently owned, world-renowned restaurants – and you’ll be hard pressed to get a table at fucking P.F. Chang’s because every day people are jammed in their like sardines. Go to the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and you’ll experience the same phenomenon except instead of a P.F. Changs, it’s an Applebee’s.
Times Square in New York City (which is, admittedly, the most touristy spot you could possibly go to) has a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company in the heart of all of the action. And guess what? It’s usually full. These chain restaurants, situated in areas where you’d think people would want to step outside of their comfort zone, are always packed to the gills with people. So I guess my question isn’t why they’re packed.
I can understand, sort of, at the very heart of this conundrum why someone would go to a chain restaurant in a massive city with seemingly endless culinary possibilities. It’s familiar. Some people are very stuck in their ways when it comes to food and would never dare branch out from what they deem “good eats.” My question is pretty simple. Isn’t the whole point of being a tourist to try new things? To break from the norm? Who are these people that are waiting for 40 minutes or an hour to get a seat at the aforementioned P.F. Chang’s in downtown Chicago?
Who is visiting places like San Francisco, New York City, or Seattle and foregoing world-class local fare that you can only experience once in favor of a bloomin’ onion from Outback Steakhouse? Because make no mistake about it. Those chains that get situated in downtown areas in America are always crowded. I just fundamentally don’t understand why and it bothers me more than it should.
I walk past a TGI Fridays in downtown Chicago everyday after work and there’s always a line out the fucking door. I want to scream at the people inside – “Try something different! If you want a good cheeseburger, go try Au Cheval for Christ’s sake!” But no one would listen. Everyone who frequents these massive chains when they go to visit a large, sprawling metropolis just make me sick. And I simply don’t get it. To each their own, I guess. Just know that I don’t approve. .