Back on the Chain Gang

I hate to say it (because I HATE chain restaurants), BUT… when you have a child, you learn to like (or even love) places that provide a place to eat that has an extensive menu, is noisy enough to overpower your toddler’s screams, has a sufficient number of high chairs, things to entertain your child with (such as crayons) and is cheap (since said toddler won’t eat any of his or her meal anyway). Chain restaurants fit the bill.

BC (before Chance) we never ate at chains. We loathed them… well at least I did. Dan has always been a Chili’s fan (ugh). I still hate them and I still refuse to eat at many of them. However, that said… I have come to realize that there are actually some chains out there that have decent food and keep the entire family happy.

This blog is dedicated to those of you with young children — who are dying to go out and who don’t want to feel like they are destroying everyone else’s meal. Chain restaurants are the perfect answer… everyone is there for the same reason… to let you kid be an animal, make a mess, and make noise — all while you enjoy a stiff Margherita or a bottle of beer. If you go to a chain restaurant and you don’t have a small child — all the power to you… and how stupid can you be?!

In the Boston area, as with really any town or city in the United States, we have an abundance of chains. I’m sure there are 1000’s and 1000’s of chains in this food-loving and overindulging country. I classify all of these into three different categories…

Level 1 — low-end: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, various sandwich shops, etc.
Level 2 — mid-end: TGI Friday’s, Bennigan’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s, moderately priced steak houses, etc.
Level 3 — high-end (sort of an oxymoron when paired with “chain restaurant”): Cheesecake Factory, PF Chang’s, Legal Seafood (I guess this is a chain now) etc.

I have my favorites and I have those I will never enjoy, no matter how many times I try. For example, I HATE TGI Friday’s, I HATE Cracker Barrel, I HATE Bennigan’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s, etc. Maybe it’s because I don’t eat meat; maybe it’s because I don’t like to feel like I’m going to vomit after I eat because I’ve digested so much saturated and trans fat. I don’t know… I just know that I NEVER leave any of those places thinking to myself… “Now that was a good meal!” or “That was such fun!”. Quite the opposite…

On the flip side, there are actually some chains in the Boston area that do a pretty good job at providing some decent food, decent atmosphere and decent kid-friendly attributes. Such as The Cheesecake Factory. I know many of you may sneer at this because the portions are so huge and I’m sure just as fattening as the rest of them; however, the food actually tastes good.. and let us know forget… the CHEESECAKE!!! I am a sucker for the Pumpkin Cheesecake and during the off-season, the Banana Cream Pie Cheesecake. And not all of the Cheesecake Factory’s menu is disgustingly fattening. We really enjoy the Vietnamese Shrimp Summer Rolls, the Thai Lettuce Wraps, the Spicy Ahi Tempura Rolls, and my personal favorite, the Sweet Corn Tamale Cakes. All of these are appetizers… that’s all you really need quantity-wise and they are less expensive than the entrees.

They also have some great salads and some very good pasta. If you are worried about portion sizes, go during lunch so you can order the “lunch size” of these items. They also now carry “weight management salads”. I particularly like the Pear and Endive Salad (with or without the chicken).

Another chain that is almost considered “up-scale” is one other high-end place I listed… PF Chang’s. If you haven’t been and you like Chinese food, this place is a must try. We have always had very good meals here… and their Chicken Lettuce Wraps appetizer is especially good… though packed with 510 calories! However, that is actually something I like about this place.. they provide the nutritional information for all their menu items on their website. That way, you can plan ahead to avoid the after-dinner bloat!

And my last high-end place was Legal Seafood… without question, well worth a visit for the seafood fanatic. Don’t get me wrong, they have beef, pork and chicken on the menu… but you need to go to this place for the fish and seafood. It’s what they are famous for. Not only are they a great place to visit, but check out their website to have items from their menu shipped to you almost anywhere!

As far as mid-level chains in the Boston area, I generally enjoy… Bertuccis, Papa Razzi, and (dare I say it) Vinny Testa’s are always decent Italian options. Bugaboo Creek Steak House is supposed to be pretty good (though I can’t testify personally) for the meat eaters.

The only low-end places I can kind of recommend are Boston Market — because their rotisserie chicken’s really are good. I especially like the Lemon Herb chicken… and like it even better because I can buy it from my local grocery store (Stop n Shop). And also Panera Bread — because even though everything is pretty fattening, it tastes pretty good.

I guess that’s it… while this may not have been entirely helpful, at least you have my take on these places.

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