I have a dirty little secret. I love chain restaurants. Looooove them.

I’m embarrassed to admit this because I’m actually a major food connoisseur. Besides those little round green peas, there is no food I dislike, no food ethnicity I don’t adore, and no show on the Food Network I don’t watch regularly. Thanks to a few former jobs with expense accounts and deep-pocketed parents/mother-in-law, I’ve eaten at nearly every foofy restaurant in Manhattan and can wax poetic about each and every one (my waistline, perhaps not so much).

I appreciate foods that much of the general public finds disgusting – caviar, octopus and even sweetbreads (yep, cow’s brains), and I am always trying to get my husband to branch out a bit more, as his idea of food adventurousness usually amounts to grabbing Chinese or Italian. I love the décor of great restaurants, and who can’t love the butt-smooching service? There’s really nothing I enjoy more than a five-star restaurant.

However, since moving to the ‘burbs and becoming a mom, I have found that despite my food snobbery, I have come to adore chain restaurants. I understand that this declaration may very well cause my food connoisseur card to be revoked, but if that means being able to continue eating copious quantities of The Cheesecake Factory’s White Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake, then take it, baby. Take it all the way to the South Pole and feed it to a polar bear.

While I recognize chain restaurants’ downsides – crowds, menus so excessively large they actually feature advertisements, calorie/fat laden menu options and mall locales (not that there’s anything wrong with the mall, mind you, but heading to the mall to dine doesn’t exactly ooze sophistication), I can’t keep myself away from them. Perhaps it’s the “you always know what you’re going to get” aspect; there’s comfort in consistency, you know? If you order the spinach-artichoke dip at Houston’s, regardless of whether you’re in Atlanta or New York City, it’s gonna taste the same: damn freakin’ good.

I also love that despite the sometimes obnoxiously large menus, there are generally a vast array of choices to suit whatever food mood you’re in. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, considering where I am in life, how can I not love a place that always has high chairs, and hardly ever minds that my kid leaves the contents of half a box of Cheerios on the floor after I leave?

My chain restaurant “scientific research” (read: repetitive dining) has resulted in a classification system. At the top of the “food chain” (pun intended), you’ve got your Upscale chain, where the atmosphere is inviting and the food is truly good (my beloved Houston’s falls into this category, as does, say, Morton’s Steakhouse). Next, you’ve got the Still Good, Yet Not Exactly “Upscale” chain, where the atmosphere is slightly corny and the food, despite having an assembly-line quality, is still quite tasty (we’re talking my equally exalted Cheesecake Factory, Bertucci’s Brick Oven Pizza and P.F. Chang’s). Finally, there’s the Really Not That Good, But In A Completely Disgusting Way, Actually Kinda chain, where you know their TV.

Jingle just as well as you know that their interiors are gonna be as cheese-tastically theme-y as their extensive appetizer list consisting of wings and loaded potato skins (Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s and Chili’s). My favorites are the first two categories, but, admittedly, I have been known to even find something at the latter that I really enjoyed (come on, who doesn’t like loaded potato skins, or anything topped with cheese, bacon and sour cream, for that matter? OK, kosher Jews, but you know what I mean….).

When I was pregnant, I went through a time when I HAD to have the Santa Fe Salad at The Cheesecake Factory at least 3 times a week, and their Oreo Cheesecake, nearly daily, the evidence of which I still carry around my midsection (this whole “nine months on nine months off” thing is crap, by the way). As much as I’d love to blame it on pregnancy cravings, it had nothing to do with my being knocked up.

Similarly, I can account for my continued patronage of The Factory by my need to go somewhere kid-friendly that won’t shoo me and the momtourage away when we arrive like the stroller brigade, requesting extra napkins by the truckload, but it would be a lie. Like a crack addict, I needed my fix then, and I still do now. The food is just that good. I’m Chelsea, and I don’t think I have any sort of problem; If lovin’ chain restaurants is wrong, then I don’t wanna be right.

While my regular visits to chain restaurants undoubtedly horrify my Manhattanite pals nearly as much as they do my food aficionado family members, I say they don’t know what they’re missing. Sure, chain restaurants are completely ‘burby and designed to appeal to the mass market, but so is Target, and how much does it totally rule? Seriously, the next time you’re at the mall, pop into P.F. Chang’s and hook yourself up with some Chang’s Spicy Chicken. I dare you not to love it, much less become addicted.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.