A couple weeks ago, a reader by the name of Beth posted an interesting comment under one of our stories. "May I inquire as to why it is common practice on these blogs to look down upon other so-called 'middle-class casual restaurants?'" she (assuming) wrote, mentioning Olive Garden as a favored venue. "In this economic downturn I'd think that a blog writer as yourself would embrace this idea. Maybe not."
Under certain circumstances, there's nothing wrong with either the quick service spots, such as McDonald's, or casual sit down chains. Most of us pick up fast food on occasion. And the Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters of the world come in real handy when you have one stubbornly unadventerous eater--or an equally stubborn pre-teen--in a group.
Of course, that person's friends will curse silently throughout the meal.
McDonald's serves a functional purpose. Outside of small towns with limited options (and the above mentioned scenario) however, the choice to dine at a casual chain is not one of value for the money, it is one of expectations for the money.
In a response to Beth's post, DallasDude said "there are plenty of fantastic low cost restaurants in Dallas. I was on Chow raving just a few days ago about Indo Pak Cafe that has a huge plate of chicken biryani for 2.99! I can have dim sum practically daily (and often do) at Kirin Court for around ten bucks. Or a banh mi and pho at La Me for a few bucks. Or any number of taquerias (El Paisano!) for a delightful torta for under a fin. Jimmy's Food Store has the best sandwiches in town for under five, too.
"This stuff is awesome and cheap," the Dude continued. "Many wonderful places, just that Olive Garden isn't one of them."
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Visiting a restaurant such as Olive Garden violates a rule that, unless one is destitute, holds true even in difficult economic times. Aside from office lunches and roadside fill-ups, when you spend money for a meal it should in some way be better than, or different than, you can make at home--irregardless of price point.
The options, as DallasDude points out, are fairly broad if you want to spend ten bucks or less for dinner. You can overcook pasta at home for cheaper than the overcooked pasta you order at Olive Garden. You can bake frozen tilapia for less than you'd pay at a casual chain. Or you can also find a little mom and pop joint doing it right for the about the same price.
Five star or two star doesn't matter. I think you should expect just a bit more from any restaurant (keeping in mind they can't work miracles, of course)--whether it be better ingredients, skilled cooking, flashy service or a certain atmosphere--and that you seek out and frequent places that satisfy this demand.
Fast casual chains appeal to those without such expectations. And that's why we don't embrace the idea.