Each year, at the same time we ask industry insiders to name the best dishes they’ve had in the last year, we also ask the Restaurant Business staff the same question. There’s often a lively discussion between the desks that ends with someone drooling and someone else on a lunch run. This time around, as per usual, people named fancy foods and down-home favorites, apps and desserts. There was even a cocktail or two. But there was one thing clearly missing from the discussion—a mention of any dish from a chain restaurant.
Why is it that when we talk about our favorite foods, our minds always jump to that dish we had at an independent? In part, it’s likely because indies are nimble enough to keep up with current trends, according to some of the operators running the Top 100 Independents. But is there also something that makes us feel cooler because we went to some indie hot spot?
So I asked my colleagues: What’s the best thing you’ve eaten at a chain? The responses came in fast. More than one included phrases like, “I’m not ashamed to admit …” when referring to their guilty pleasures from places like McDonald’s or Arby’s. Others mentioned that they frequent chains more than anything else, because those are lunchtime destinations—and their choices come from chains they hit at least once a week.
Specifically, the responses mostly fell into two camps: healthy-ish-sounding entrees, and calorie-riddled sides and snacks. And, oddly enough, people often named one of each. Senior Editor Kelsey Nash, for example, named the falafel rice plate from Roti Modern Mediterranean and the Crack Fries (served with warm cheese sauce) from HopCat. Alaina “I’ll try anything once” Lancaster, associate editor, also named two dishes that struck that healthy-indulgent discord: Bojangles’ chicken biscuit, and the strawberry and goat cheese salad from Snap Kitchen.
But you know what did stand out? Not a single mention of a dish from a traditional casual-dining chain, aka classic dinner spots. So while chains are hotbeds for our craveable lunch traffic, indies really are winning at dinner—at least, according to our informal office poll.
And yes, now I want some Arby’s curly fries to go alongside a hummus bowl from Naf Naf Grill.
RB editors show love for QSRs and fast casuals
“Hot McDonald’s french fries are going to be served in heaven.”
—Mary Chapman, Director of Events Content and Special Projects
“The buttermilk herb mayo really seals the deal in Shake Shack’s Chick’n Shack.”
—Lisa White, Associate Editor
“TheThigh and Mighty sandwich from Nando’s has a ton of flavor and is really juicy—and I like that I can customize the heat. It’s kind of expensive, but it doesn’t feel like you’re eating fast food.”
—Kelly Killian, Director of Foodservice Content Group
“My guilty pleasure is a biscuit with egg and cheese from McD’s. Better than lots of ‘fancy’ breakfast sandwiches I’ve had. Pretty much perfection.”
—Heather Lalley, Editor