Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Top Ten Purveyors of Middle Class Haute Cuisine

My favorite food critic - Antone from Ratatouille
The hoity-toity make jokes about them. Food critics regularly look down their lengthy noses at them. Sitcoms occasionally remind us that they are not as good as "real" Italian or Mexican or Ethiopian or Thai restaurants where they drizzle some unidentifiable sauce over a bit of meat, two asparagus spears and a slice of some kind of squash.  But restaurants like these so-called "casual dining" restaurants  are essential to the mental health of the middle class.  They help us keep our tuxedos and evening gowns clean for weddings and funerals and deer hunting. There are several good reasons why these places are popular with the less snooty crowd:

  1. We know where they are. They have big lighted signs and they put them in places we can find them like next to a mall or Wal-Mart. Middle class people don't have the time or energy left after a hard day of real work to run all over town looking for snobby restaurants.  We want something good, something nice and something we can find.
  2. We can afford them.  Most of these cost a few bucks more, but the service and the tastiness of the food makes us feel special.  
  3. We know what we're getting.  If you're going our to eat and going a little over budget to boot, you want to know what to expect.  The lack of nasty surprises is part of the charm in going out to a "nice" restaurant in the first place.
  4. They give us a safe place to celebrate the special events of our lives. Middle class people like to go out to eat on birthdays, Mother's day, Father's day, anniversaries and the like. We'd rather go someplace nicer than McDonald's or the Sonic Drive-In to mark these occasion.  We'd rather not risk spending a lot of money and then not enjoying it, so we tend to stick to places we know and can trust.
This list is in no particular order and it's my list not yours so if you disagree, please post your own list in the comments section. I always like to know about good restaurants. Also note, I left off places like Hooter's, not only because I've never been there, but because it's not the sort of place you could take your hardshell Baptist grandmother. For most of these you could take her, even those with a bar, so long as you sat at the far end of the dining area and didn't order a beer.

The Olive Garden:  When both my wife and I were working in the same day care center, she as nurse and I as director, we went to the OG the same night every week after we shut down the center. They got to where they expected us, had our drinks ready for us and let us sit in the bar area while we waited. Sometimes, if the place was crowded, they'd bring our meal to the little table in the bar area so we wouldn't have to wait an hour for a regular table.  We had our favorite meals, but eventually settled on Ravioli de Portabello as our favorite. Great place for anniversaries, birthdays and such. Nice relaxing atmosphere. Nice people. Food you can count on even if it is a more expensive than McDonald's. 

Red Robin:  I hadn't tried out RR until a few years ago when I came up to Washington to visit my sister and brother-in-law. RR is a sort of cafe' on steroids - nice atmosphere with all sorts of interesting stuff on the walls like most of these places.  If you're looking for a fancy hamburger, this place has 'em.  They also do some nice dinner kinds of things too. 

IHop:  IHop is middle class breakfast haute cuisine. IHop is where you gather the grownup siblings when you want to talk about "what to do about Dad". They do have some nice dinners, but it's not the sort of place you go to celebrate birthdays and special occasions. They do maintain a booming business on Sundays before and after and during church (You find a lot of heathen Dads in there between 10 and 12 after they've dropped Mom and the kids off at Sunday School. 

Red Lobster:  Red Lobster holds title to probably the most popular semi-uppity seafood place. They rank about third in the nation for restaurant chains so they must be doing something right.  While, I've never been there, but my son loved the place and took his girl there whenever he wanted to part with some money in exchange for looking like one of the swells. If Micah liked the food, I could always trust his good rating. He was a manager at several restaurants while he was going to college and had his mother's eye for cleanliness. If they got past his inspection and he thought the food tasted good, you could count on his recommendation. Since I don't eat crab, shrimp, lobster or other shellfish, their reputation with me would depend on their fish dishes which I have promised myself I would try.

Cheddar's:  Cheddar's is basically a slightly higher priced cafe with atmosphere. The food is consistently good, but the menu can be limited if you don't eat bacon. They do put bacon in a lot of things, so if you're Jewish, Muslim or Seventh-day Adventist, you may have a limited, though tasty selection. The Cheddar's we used to go to tended to be a bit noisy, but they made a good steak and had a nice variety of homey American foods. 
Chili's, Applebee's and TGI Friday's:  Applebees has some really good food and their prices are reasonable.  It is a bar and grill, so expect some noise from the bar area on Friday and Saturday nights. Our favorites are the steak (my wife is a closet carnivore) and the oriental chicken bowl. Very nice. I combined Chili's and Applebee's in one entry because they are a lot alike in atmosphere and menu. One thing Chili's does that I appreciate is offer a vegetarian version of any of their burgers. Just ask for the Swiss Mushroom Burger with the black bean burger.  It's what I always have at Chili's. TGI Fridays has pretty good food of about the same bar/grill style cuisine as the others.  Any one of them are good for after the ball game on the weekend and for miscellaneous celebratory gatherings.

Chuys:  Chuy's only has added some 70 locations, from Texas to Chicago to Virginia since this article was first written. It's well worth a visit. There are other great Mexican places like On the Border, El Chico and such, but Chuy's is special. First, it's distinctly Tex-Mex. It's an odd place, usually in some weird part of town and you often have to park six blocks away because their parking is often very limited. I think they do that to keep the traffic down. There's almost always a line to get in, though it moves pretty quickly. The prices are very very reasonable. The food is amazing and the decor is weird. They have this Elvis/50s thing going that gets a little crazy with hubcaps on the ceiling and such.  They started out in Austin. Lance Armstrong and other Austin celebrities are regulars there, but the management never got snobbish about it or jacked up their prices, just carefully added new locations around Texas. The Dallas restaurant has a statue of Elvis standing in a fountain in the semi-outdoors part of the restaurant.  The food at the one they built in Tyler just before I rashly moved to Washington State was beyond incredible and the service for the big group I went with was unbelievable.  We were swarmed by staff determined to make sure we were happy with everything. They have their own private pepper supply some place in New Mexico and their chefs personally inspect the crop each year I'm told.  I don't know what secret ingredients are in their recipes, but their chefs are geniuses. And you will be pleasantly surprised by the bill and the quality of the guacamole.  

Golden Corral - As family buffet steakhouses go, GC is one of the best. They even do breakfast.  Golden Corral is where you go after church on Sunday or whenever you're really hungry and want to stuff yourself to the eyes. The food is consistently good and the service is quick and efficient.Their salad bar is fantastic and the chocolate waterfall that you can dip fruit into has earned them the undying love of overweight Americans everywhere.

Texas Roadhouse - There are probably a lot of different restaurants with some variant of this name. The one in Tyler where my granddaughter worked is a really good steakhouse with a Texas flavor to it. They have those big barrels of unshelled peanuts sitting around where you sit to wait for a table and bowls of them on the table when you get there. It's fun because everybody throws the shells on the floor, so the place is crunchy when you walk around.  The baked potatoes are lovely and steak is their specialty.  The prices are higher than Golden Corral, but less than The Outback.

Outback Steakhouse - If you know somebody who loves steak and want to make them feel special, The Outback is place.  It will cost you more than most of the places here, but still manages not to break the bank.  My wife loves the place. I don't really see that it's any better than the less expensive places, but she assures me it is.  Being raised almost vegetarian, I don't have a lot of opinion on the value of meat.  Now if we were talking salads.....

I do have to mention a couple of places that didn't make the list because they either aren't chains or aren't semi-uppity enough to qualify for this list.  You'll notice I didn't put any pizza places up there.  Pizza tends to fall into the fast food category. If I were to choose my favorite pizza chain with a dining room it would probably be Pizza Hut or Pizza Inn depending on the quality of the local outlet's salad bar. I lean toward Pizza Hut because my boys worked there while they were in school.

Very honorable mention goes to my favorite Mom and Pop Pizza/Italian place, a place in Tyler, Texas called "Little Italy".  It's in an old KFC location (still has the steeple on top). They make a dish called Chicken Murphy that I've never seen anyone duplicate anywhere. I always say I'm going to try something else, but I seldom do. It's just too hard to resist.  It's spaghetti with chicken breast and this amazing sauce with peppers and onions and mushrooms and a scattering of jalapenos to give it some flair.  Sometimes the chef gives it a little extra flair so if you are sensitive to jalapenos, you can just remove the jalapenos with a fork and enjoy the lingering spicy flavor without burning your tongue if, like me, you like your peppers milder than most East Texans.

If one of your favorite casual dining restaurants is missing from this list, feel free to add it in the comments section. I probably just haven't been there yet or this would be a top 20 or top 50.  Hmmm. I may have to expand my list someday soon. 

Tom King

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