Thursday, February 26, 2009

Why the chain disdain?

In the comments on my post about The Greek Wraps in Peoria, I got an excellent question from Sean of South Bend, Indiana. I think that answering a thoughtful question deserves a better fate than getting buried in a comment thread. Sean writes...

I wonder, though; do you have any favorable opinion of any of the chains? I've always thought that Chevy's did a servicable interpretation of TexMex and was a better experience overall than some of the local places and regional chains (ie Soranos in Mesa or Ajo Als). I still love Blue Nile Cafe any time I'm in town, and would tend to privilige an independtly owned, and especially chef driven, restaurant over a chain but chains (at least some of them) still have their virtues.

The main problem with most chain restaurants is that they are publicly held companies. Once a company does that, the big food decisions are no longer being made in the kitchen by the owners. They're being made by stockholders in boardrooms. The absolute best example is Cheesecake Factory. I still remember the first time I went to one. I got orange chicken, took a bite, and my very first thought of any food at Cheesecake Factory was "This used to taste better". You could just tell that anything someone might not like about the dish got tossed ("It's too spicy!" "It's too tart!"), and the end result was a pale ghost of what the dish could have been. Since the major decisions are now being made by marketing wonks who run focus groups, everything interesting about a dish gets tossed in favor of something safe. To me, it's a little bit like American Idol: The person who wins isn't necessarily the best singer, but the singer with the broadest mass appeal. Sure, the record may sound like every other pop record on the rack, but they know it's going to sell.

That right there is why massive chain restaurants are so popular: They're safe. You can walk into any Olive Garden in the country and know that the fettuccine Alfredo there is going to be exactly the same as the fettuccine Alfredo you have back home. The thing is, within ten minutes' driving time from each of these two Olive Garden locations on opposite sides of the country, the odds are good that there's going to be a mom-n-pop neighborhood red sauce joint that not only serves up Alfredo that's a million times better than the Alfredo at Olive Garden, but also happens to make a really mean veal scaloppine... or pizza quattro stagioni... or some other fabulous dish. And you know darn well that the mom and pop behind the restaurant can't believe that the line goes out the door at Olive Garden while there's always a table available at their place.

All this isn't to say that all chains suck... just the vast majority of them. There are some chains I do enjoy. In-N-Out Burger and Chik-Fil-A are both very good restaurants. Mimi's has been reliable for a great many years, especially at breakfast. This is one of the exceptions to publicly owned chains. This is because when Bob Evans bought them out, they didn't screw with the already successful formula very much. Moral of the story: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I've heard Mimi's is shooting for a more upscale angle lately, but I haven't been in to check it out yet. As long as they keep serving mimosas, I'll be a happy camper. I will readily admit that I enjoy the occasional late-night breakfast at Waffle House. Yes, Waffle House. I wouldn't be caught dead there during the day, but going at 2 AM, getting taken care of by the world-weary chain-smoking waitress with a hair color not known in the natural world, while you tuck into a double order of hash browns topped with chili, tomatoes, cheese, onions, and god knows what else... there ain't nothing like it.

Like Sean said, Chevy's is pretty good, certainly a step above most chains. The problem around here with Chevy's is that good Mexican restaurants in Phoenix are a dime a dozen. Why bother with imitations when the real deal is right around the corner? I will agree that Chevy's is better than Serrano's and Ajo Al's, but then, I've always thought that Serrano's was the redheaded stepchild to other local chains such as Mi Amigo's and Macayo. Ajo Al's is solamente para las turistas.