What are the best and worst most of the popular restaurants in America?

Edited: June 20, 2021, 3:46 PM

I am planning another big summer road trip, and I as look at what attractions I want to visit, I also am considering where to stay and where to eat.

That last consideration led me to an interesting (to me, at least) list of the most popular places to eat in America - Technomic's Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report. Looking at the top 50 highest-grossing restaurant chains in America, I realized that I must be a significant outlier, because I don't eat at many of these places very often.

Granted, the pandemic kept me away from a lot of restaurants in the past year. Many of these chains don't have locations near me (Pasadena, California), and I've been off the road up until this month. But, to be honest, few of these places tempt me even when I am looking to eat out. The only places on this list that I actually kinda like would be Culver's, Red Robin, Jersey Mike's, and In-N-Out - not counting the places I have not tried, of course.

Though I do have to admit that my list of places I've never eaten at is pretty much my answer to the challenge, "tell me you don't live in the south, without telling me you don't live in the south."

(The numbers below are each restaurant's spot on the Top 500 list.)

Never eaten at:
13. Sonic Drive-In
17. Panda Express
26. Texas Roadhouse
34. Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches
36. Zaxby's
37. LongHorn Steakhouse
42. Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers
45. Waffle House
47. Bojangles'

Haven't eaten at in 20+ years:
1. McDonald's
5. Burger King
21. Dairy Queen
24. Jack in the Box
27. Denny's
35. Hardee's

Haven't eaten at in 10+ years:
3. Chick-fil-A
7. Wendy's
16. Applebee's
20. Little Caesars
30. Whataburger
32. Cracker Barrel
43. Carl's Jr.

Haven't eaten at in the last year:
2. Starbucks
4. Taco Bell
6. Subway
8. Dunkin'
10. Panera Bread
11. Pizza Hut
14. KFC
15. Olive Garden
18. Arby's
19. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
22. Buffalo Wild Wings
23. Chili's Grill & Bar
25. IHOP
28. Papa John's
29. Outback Steakhouse
31. Red Lobster
33. The Cheesecake Factory
38. Culver's
39. Golden Corral
40. Five Guys Burgers and Fries
41. Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews
44. Wingstop
46. Jersey Mike's Subs
48. BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse
49. TGI Fridays

Have had in past year:
9. Domino's
12. Chipotle Mexican Grill
50. In-N-Out Burger

Anyway, I enjoyed clicking through the list (the top 250 restaurants are publicly available) and thought I would link to it here for anyone else who is curious.

What are your favorites places to eat - and places you avoid - when you are on the road?

Replies (8)

June 21, 2021, 8:14 AM

Whenever we travel, our first rule is that unless it's an emergency, we must eat at a restaurant that we can't have around our home (in Northern Virginia). Even if it's just a road trip to North Carolina or Pennsylvania, we always seek out places that don't have locations in our immediate vicinity. This is actually a lot easier than you think, because the DC Area is a pretty terrible region for fast food restaurants with predominantly just the major chains (McD's, Burger King, and Wendy's), with just one major regional fast food chain that emerged here and expanded world wide (Five Guys).

So on our upcoming trip to the Southeast US, we'll probably be grabbing some meals at Krystal, Raisin' Kane's, Hardee's, Cook Out, and more, as well as more one-off places like The Varsity.

June 21, 2021, 4:21 PM

I agree with Russel. I try to avoid chains I can go to at home. Because I know we are both in SoCal, I'd like to highlight a few places on your "never been to" list that were favorites when I was growing up in Georgia.
Waffle House - it holds a special place in the hearts many who grew up where they operate. To get a good understanding of what they are all about, seek out "Sean Brock And Anthony Bourdain Eat At The Waffle House". Bourdain pretty well sums up the experience. My call - "Scrambled cheese and eggs, bacon, hash-browns WELL in the ring, white toast with one extra jelly and coffee." HEAVEN.
Zaxby's vs. Raising Caine. Zaxby's was a fairly new entry to the market when I was just leaving the south, but it's great. Great bone-in wings, strips and grilled chicken. Raisin Caine is just strips and they are mighty
ty bland.
Something not on your list, but that Russell also mentioned is Georgia's The Varsity. The flagship location in downtown Atlanta is the largest fast-food restaurant in the world. I feel about their food how many folks raised in SoCal feel about In-N-Out. Some of the character of The Varsity has been lost over time, but it's still important to "Have your order in your mind and your money in your hand" when you step up to the counter. The food now gives me horrible heartburn, but their fried apple and peach pies are alone worth a visit. Be sure to ask for your free paper red soda jerk wedge cap.

Edited: June 22, 2021, 11:21 AM

My family tends to be careful when traveling with the restaurants we stop at simply because we've had a few incidents of intestinal distress due to less than stellar hygiene situations in the local restaurants or unusual ingredients in the house specialties. So, whether it is true or not, we tend to stick to the national chain brands because we believe they meet a higher standard of cleanliness.

Gotta agree with Russell and Rob though, the Varsity is an experience like Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs on Coney Island (on my bucket list) that everybody should experience at least once in their lifetime.

As far as great national/regional chain restaurants that are high on my list:
1. Waffle House - before the pandemic I would take a little bit of PTO once a month and have breakfast at Waffle House on my way in to work. Nobody does hash browns better.
2. Bob Evans - the best breakfast chain restaurant by far - better than Cracker Barrel - would top my love of Waffle House if they had one in my area.
3. Firehouse Subs - Best sub sandwiches in the Southeast and would be the best in the country if they expanded nationwide.
4. PF Chang's - I've never had a bad meal there - ever.
5. Bertucci's - If I'm on a trip to the DC area, I always try to eat at a Bertucci's. Unfortunately, they're not found south of Virginia, but maybe one day they can work their way down to Florida.

And if anybody is ever in NW Florida, you might want to try McGuire's Irish Pub in Destin or Pensacola. A bit overhyped, but the food is worth the wait, and the Senate Bean Soup is terrific.

Edited: July 9, 2021, 1:28 PM

WHY are "Chain Restaurants" interesting ???? At all ?
It's a ...
Big Ugly Mystery
...to me !
:-)
I want to walk in a whatever 100% independent family owned place, anywhere on earth. I want to be amased by finding it different and adventurous, and by definition : NO standardisation whatsoever.

Oh yes, sorry, I'm in Europe ....
:-)

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