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Consumer Reports ’ survey of chain restaurants finds best values

Posted Tuesday, June 6, 2006

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Some newer chains take top honors in survey: The Capital Grille and Carrabba’s Italian Grill


Yonkers, NY – Consumer Reports’ latest survey of restaurant chains shows that readers were especially happy with meals at some of the newer chains—and that casual restaurants usually offered the best bang for the buck.

Readers told Consumer Reports that they found the especially good value-$15 to $19 for a very good meal—at seven casual-dinner chains: Claim Jumper, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Johnny Carino’s Abuelo’s Mexican Food Embassy, Texas Roadhouse, Red Hot & Blue, and Famous Dave’s.

Romano's Macaroni Grill's Penne with Oven-Roasted Chicken

Conducted by Consumer Reports’ National Research Center, the survey results are based on information from 66,000 readers about 149,000 meals and 103 full-service restaurant chains between April 2004 and April 2005. Survey results are featured in the July issue of Consumer Reports, which goes on sale at newsstands June 6.

The survey suggests that readers were especially pleased with meals at chains so newly expanded that CR had never rated them before. On average, they were “very satisfied”—the highest praise earned by any chain—with 14 of the 20 newcomers. They also said that casual restaurants usually offered the best bang for the buck.

Even at the family restaurants that are the least expensive, where most readers paid less than $10 for dinner and service and aesthetics aren’t noteworthy, the fare at three of the 20 chains―Le Peep, the Original Pancake House, and Cracker Barrel―was rated as better than at most family restaurants. Cracker Barrel and Bob Evans were found to offer the best value to diners.

Not surprisingly, Consumer Reports’ readers said they found white-tablecloth chains such as The Capital Grille, Morton’s, and Ruth’s Chris typically serve the best food. Those chains also tended to earn top scores for service and ambiance.

The Cheesecake Factory

Still, the survey found that even a great meal could be spoiled if customers have to wait for a table or the restaurant is too noisy. At the Cheesecake Factory, for example, 57 percent of visitors reported that they had to wait more than 10 minutes, and 22 percent waited a half-hour or longer. The Cheesecake Factory also received complaints about crowds and noise. Gripes that can sour a meal for diners were usually: crowds, noise, long waits, messy tables, and messy bathrooms. The report lists 22 that had more complaints than most about specific problems, including such well-known chains as Denny’s, Friendly’s, Shoney’s, and IHOP.


Best Restaurants for Children


Kids have always been welcomed at family chains, where food is often served on indestructible tableware in a very informal setting. Family chains also tend to have menus for children and are open long hours. In a few chains such as Denny’s, most of the restaurants never close. Now, some casual dinner restaurants are using similar incentives to court parents. A few go even further: Red Robin, for instance, hands out crayons, balloons, and a souvenir cup, and it has a video-game room. The tactics seem to be working. Six chains where readers with kids said that they all had a great time were the casual dinner type, including: Bugaboo Creek, The Old Spaghetti Factory, Rainforest Cafe, Islands Fine Burgers & Drinks, Red Robin, and Ruby Tuesday.


How to Eat for Less


One clear way to save is to choose a family restaurant over a fancy one. Those chains are particularly generous to children (usually under 12) and seniors (typically 60 and up), offering frequent discounts. Kids can eat for free at some chains on certain days and at certain times. Wherever diners decide to eat, following one of these tips could knock a substantial amount off the price of a meal:
  • Eat at off hours – By surfing the Web, Consumer Reports discovered that the Chart House has early evening discounts Sunday through Thursday.
  • Eat at the bar – McCormick & Schmick’s, for example, has a $1.95 bar menu at some locations, and some Saltgrass Steak Houses feature half-price appetizers at the bar on weekdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m..
  • Order family style and share – Or, order off the lunch menu at dinner. Not every place lets customers do this, but some allow it.
  • Visit chains’ Web sites – By signing up for e-mail alerts, diners can learn about discounts, be entered into contests for free dinners or trips, or earn a free appetizer.
  • Don’t rely on coupons – Some chains have cut back on coupon distribution, partly because of fraudulent offers that appear as pop-up ads online or as spam email promising free meals.
The July 2006 issue of Consumer Reports is available wherever magazines are sold. The report will be also available to subscribers of
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Consumer Reports ’ survey of chain restaurants finds best values
Some newer chains take top honors in survey: The Capital Grille and Carrabba’s Italian Grill.
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