I don’t get why people go to chain restaurants

 

Anyone who knows me reasonably well knows I mostly avoid going to chain restaurants. Personally, I find them to be generic and too cookie-cutter in the whole experience they offer. I would rather support a local, independent restaurant who’s survival relies on the support of the community. It just seems they try harder.

The title of this blog is facetious as I have a pretty good idea why people choose chain restaurants. They’re convenient and reliable, and when choosing where to go, they take up very little brain power. I think there might also be a perception that they offer pretty good value.

I judge too harshly

I have been accused of being too critical and a food snob. While I admit I have standards, I don’t feel they are unreasonable.

From the server I expect attentive service or at the very least decent communication as I know sometimes things can take longer than they should. I just ask to be kept in the loop. And if some personality can also shine through, that’s a huge bonus.

For the food I expect it to be on par with what they are promoting. Don’t serve me sauce from a can if the restaurant uses words like “home-made” and “fresh”. Serve what you say you serve and I’ll be happy.

For the atmosphere I expect it to be clean and maintained. Décor is personal, so I rarely critique a restaurant for their design choices. But their atmosphere will give me subtle cues about who they want dining there. Dark and loud is a clear signal they primarily want young people.

I don’t think any of my criteria is unreasonable or overly harsh. I let the restaurant set the standard and expectation, and frequently their prices will be a determining factor too. If you’re interested you can read a longer analysis of how I judge restaurants.

Too many to choose from

I decided to look at six chain restaurants that most people are quite familiar with:

 

  • Cactus Club
  • Earls
  • Joey
  • Browns Socialhouse
  • Milestones
  • White Spot

They also represent a good split between corporately owned (three on the left) and franchise restaurants (three on the right).

Here is my biased views of each of them.

  • Browns Socialhouse – The food is enjoyable, but not memorable. This is a restaurant I’ve been to 3 times in the last 2 years, but I rarely crave it or think to go there.
  • Cactus Club – I haven’t been for a few years now and generally avoid it. It feels they want to be more upscale than they are, with prices that don’t match what they deliver on.
  • Earls – Like Cactus club but with higher aspirations they also don’t deliver on. Too expensive for what they are versus what they think they are.
  • Joey – I think of Joey as being the younger sibling of Earls (which it literally is) but with the Browns effect of not being memorable. I’ve eaten there twice in the last 3 years and literally cannot remember anything about it.
  • Milestones – Irrelevant and left behind as they don’t know what they are trying to be in a saturated market. I’ve been 10+ times for brunch in the last 4 years. If it weren’t for their location at Broadway and Cambie with the killer view, I wouldn’t have gone at all (in fact, I can’t even think of another location that’s still around).
  • White Spot – It’s not fancy, but I always enjoy it for what it is. They aren’t pretentious or trying to be something else which I do respect.

Price for admission

To do any sort of comparison I needed to come up with a fair way to judge them evenly. So I did a price average for a full meal at each restaurant. These are what my calculations looked like:

  • I took the cheapest and most expensive appetizer (or shareables as they are frequently called), excluding side salads. And I used the average of the two prices.
  • I took the cheapest and most expensive entrée including steaks and ribs, and averaged the two prices.
  • I took the average price for a dessert and halved it, to represent a shared dessert.

This gave me the average price of going for a full meal at each restaurant (food only) which looks like this:

Browns & White Spot

$37 – $38

Joey & Milestones

$47 – $49

Cactus Club & Earls

$55 – $58

With that same money

In each of those price categories you can have a spectacular dining experience. And in some cases at list-topping, award-winning restaurants. There is a perception that innovative, moden restaurants are expensive. But in my experience it’s the trendy, douchebag-enticing eateries that have the jacked-up prices. You can eat extraordinarily well at all price points in this city.

$35 – $38

Per person

Torafuku

Innovative, modern Asian fusion. Shared plates for 4 people.

Loulas Taverna

Authentic Greek food. Shared plates for 3 people.

$45

Per person

Mazahr

Tasty Lebanese food. Shared plates for 2 people.

The Rise

Global cuisine with an Asian flair. Family style for 4 people.

$50

Per person

Nightingale

Trendy pacific NW cuisine.
Family style for 4 people.

Salad de Fruits

Authentic French brasserie. Nightly 3 course prix fixe menu

$60

Per person

Tavola

Italian food served family style for 4-6 people

Say Mercy!

Italian meets American BBQ. Family style for 4 people

Savio Volpe

Italian food served family style for 4-6 people

Where the value truly lies

You could argue I used this post to justify my existing bias against chain restaurants. But I prefer to look at it like this; for the same money you can experience something unique, with heart and soul. Something that can only be experienced in this one dining room. To me, that’s much better value than eating the exact same dish as hundreds of other people at locations across the city. 

Alistair Henry

Written by:

Alistair is a real lover of food having visited 300 restaurants around Vancouver over the last 3 years. Passionate about sharing food while connecting with people, he is the founder and the host of the Dinner Devils.  Having spent 10 years living in Europe, he is bringing some of that food culture back home with the creation of this group.