Popular chain restaurants may have their faults, but they also have their benefits -- consistency primary among them. It's comforting for customers to know that they can count on uniform, no-surprise dishes at certain chains. And I definitely have my consistent favorites.
Here's a list of my top five full-service chain restaurant meals. Yes, when it comes to food, I do play favorites.
5. Unlimited Soup, Salad and Breadsticks from the Olive Garden. I'm an unashamed fan of Olive Garden soups, mainly because they are among the few menu items that OG still makes fresh, from scratch. Of the four available soups -- Pasta e Fagioli, Minestrone, Chicken & Gnocchi and Zuppa Toscana -- the Toscana is my favorite, a mix of bacon, sausage, sliced potatoes, heavy cream and fresh kale, made perfect with exactly six spins of fresh Romano cheese from one of those little hand-held cheese graters that the servers carry around.
OG's salad is bagged and contains more carrot and purple cabbage than I like, but the signature Italian dressing is tangy and filled with yet more cheese. And if you ask politely for extra salad toppings, the salad can be made much more interesting with olives, tomatoes, red onions and peppers.
I could write an entire blog about Olive Garden's breadsticks. Sure, the kitchen gets them par-baked, then slathers them with liquefied margarine and douses them with massive amounts of garlic salt -- but somehow this combination makes beautiful, soft, savory breadsticks that don't really need a dipping sauce. Still, I can't decline an extra ramekin of Alfredo sauce, because by the time I've made it to the bread I've already ingested enough cheese to kill a moderately-sized farm animal.
4. Beef Bourguignon from Mimi's Café.
Mimi's Café is badly decorated with a cloying Euro-Disney theme, but I find this easily forgotten -- if not entirely forgiven -- when the servers bring me the standard pre-dinner bread basket loaded with house-baked Carrot Raisin Nut Loaf.
I dunno what sugar-fairies Mimi tortures to make this sweet, soft, spicy carrot bread so damned addictive, but I have to hold back to save room for my fave entrée: Beef Bourguignon. It's really just fancy pot roast -- tender chunks of beef swimming in dark, mushroom-speckled gravy over reasonably good mashed potatoes -- but it's a good excuse to go to Mimi's for a meal that's really all about the carrot bread.
3. Ultimate Lobster Feast from Red Lobster. I will admit that Red Lobster today doesn't hold anywhere near the five-star status that I attributed to it as a child, but once a year, when the chain rolls out Lobsterfest, I hurry to feed my annual lobster craving. Red Lobster always seem to come up with new ways to cram several lobster creations onto one plate: lobster pasta, lobster skewers, broiled lobster, stuffed lobster, popcorn lobster and lobster loaf. (I made up those last two, but I'm relatively certain the restaurant will come up with either those or something similar.)
But I draw the line at lobster burritos.
Okay: No, I don't.
2. Vegetarian Pizza with Japanese Eggplant from California Pizza Kitchen.
After that long, long, long day each year when I'm forced -- for some holiday reason -- to trudge through a f*cking mall, I can at least look forward to eating at California Pizza Kitchen, because there always seems to be one somehow attached to every mall I go to.
CPK's pizzas run the gamut from boring as hell to downright ingenious, and my current favorite is the veggie with Japanese eggplant. I usually ask the kitchen to leave off the broccoli, add extra eggplant, and make it with wheat crust with added goat cheese, then follow that up with a piece of the disgustingly good butter cake topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
And after that, I have the strength to slap the shit out of every little poser-goth larvae I run into at Hot Topic, and burn off some calories laughing at their scary little mascara-tears.
1. The Big Night Out four-course dinner from The Melting Pot. The Melting Pot is my absolute favorite chain restaurant. If I were on death row, I would request its super-dooper four-course dinner for my final meal on earth. This place is not cheap, and I usually crack a bill between dinner and wine service -- the bar has the sweet Muscats and late harvest Rieslings that I adore -- but I've never left an MP unsatisfied by either the food or the service.
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The Big Night Out starts off with a choice of cheese fondue, and I usually go with the Cheddar cheese, which has plenty of beer and garlic, followed by a salad -- my choice is the California salad with Raspberry-Black Walnut Vinaigrette. After that, I move on to the Pacific Rim, which is a tray of raw meats, shrimps and potstickers (and duck, which is my favorite part) that I get to self-cook in a pot of "Mojo" Caribbean-seasoned broth, then dip into Ginger Plum sauce.
For me, having dessert at MP holds the same sacred spirituality that other people can only find by going to church. Watching the molten milk chocolate swirled with peanut butter, then dipping slices of banana into it, is such a personal, religious experience.
I may leave the Melting Pot broke, stuffed to the point of illness, but there is always a deep feeling of happiness in my tiny, sea-salted heart.