An esteemed food critic at one of the country’s largest newspapers spent the last few months eating at America’s most popular food chains.
The resulting assessment serves as a comprehensive ranking of the top 10 chains in the country, complete with the critic’s notes on his experiences.
Though casual restaurants like Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel and Denny’s are swimming upstream in some respects in a “culture increasingly bent on personal customization,” Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post writes, they provide familiarity and convenience no matter where in the country one patronizes them.
“The promises of speed and sameness can be downright welcome when you’re hungry and near a highway exit, on a business trip in a strange place or home for the holidays,” he wrote.
After visiting each of the 10 chains multiple times, Sietsema ranked each of them from best to worst.
Rounding out the bottom of the list were, from worst to best: Buffalo Wild Wings, IHOP, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster and Chili’s.
Buffalo Wild Wings was the only chain to receive an F grade from Sietsema for its travesty of “the scrawny wings (pick your poison: traditional or boneless) or the woody carrot sticks that accompany them.”
He also lamented the sauces, which range from fair to grim, he wrote.
Applebee’s, which recently closed three KC locations, came in fifth, earning a C and impressing the critic with its “better than you might expect” steak and slices of “lemony grilled chicken.”
“The latter is a rarity among the chains: something relatively healthful that you could imagine actually finishing,” Sietsema wrote.
Next comes Olive Garden, earning a C grade in part for its “wholly American,” “pillowy” breadsticks.
In third place, Texas Roadhouse impressed with a “bear hug of hospitality” and tasty beef, but the Western-themed joint disappointed with “stiff catfish” and “dry pulled pork.”
In second, Denny’s scored highly for a Value Menu with $4 meals and its fluffy pancakes.
And the best of America’s most popular chains?
Cracker Barrel, according to Sietsema, who gave the restaurant an A grade.
“Especially after eating a lot of food that tasted as if it came from a factory rather than a kitchen, it was clear: No other chain restaurant in my months-long survey comes as close to home cooking as this operation,” he wrote.
But, of course, not everyone thinks Cracker Barrel is something to write home about.
In a satirical review, Rob Noneman wrote in Delishably that Cracker Barrel’s food is reminiscent to some of food that “grandma makes, but I’d bet most would also say their grandma makes it better.”
But for Sietsema, the chain topped his list despite not having beer and wine and despite a history of “corporate racism and discrimination” that’s been “addressed in recent years with inclusive declarations on the company’s website.”
And though the restaurant’s chicken dumplings were doughy and their corn bread muffins a bit salty, Sietsema wrote, “just about everything else that crossed my lips in this barn-size dining room dressed with lanterns and license plates is something I’d be happy to try again.”