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(Restaurant) Chains of Love

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

Our distaste for chain restaurants has been well-documented. Local restaurants tend to rise above in food quality and deliciousness, and local restaurants have a sense of location and place. If you eat at a chain steakhouse in Naples, or that same one in Des Moines, Iowa, nine times out of town, once you enter that building, you have no ability to discern where you are. This is not to say that all restaurant chains and franchises are inherently evil, as many of our national chains started out as single locations and grew because of quality, etc, it's just that many of them have to sacrifice quality for speed or ease or unique experience. Of course, the special brand of evil are the ones who are completely corporate made, whose mascots are created in the marketing lab next door to their food science building. "Hey, our next spokesperson for Uncle Bob's International House of Toast should be vaguely but not TOO ethnic, yet look like the girl next door AND be career driven, yet family oriented, whatcha got?"

What that as our jumping off point, here are some chain restaurants that we actually like, some of them quite a bit.

1. Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken

In 2005, some close buddies and I did a barbeque tour of the south. We met in St. Louis, as per the song, and started our drive down I-55. As our first stop was Memphis, a food business friend of mine suggested I try Gus's Fried Chicken. Memphis is known for some bonkers food things like the vat of burger oil that was given a police escort when the fried burger joint moved locations, so know they take their fried foods seriously (One of my favorite song lyrics is from The Hold Steady's "Sequestered In Memphis" - "I know I look tired/but everything's fried here in Memphis"). Back then Gus's was only two locations, Memphis and the original in rural Mason, Tennessee. Rumor has it that they trucked in the batter to Memphis from the Mason location daily.

True or not, the chicken is beyond reproach. Crispy, savory, juice with flavor on the inside, not just on the delicious fried bits. They also have terrific sweet tea and great mac & cheese, fried green tomatoes, and all the other great sides to go with it. Since then, the original family was bought out, but they kept the recipes and now have about thirty stories around the south and the west. They also have kept the local nature of the business by only opening in buildings that are seventy years or older.

2. Sweetgreen

From October 2019 to December 2019, I was a hot mess. I had been on a business trip with butter on everything in Nashville, with Fireball on to wash it down (NEVER DRINK FIREBALL, ITS BAD AND BAD FOR YOU) to a long vacation in Naples with alcohol on top of everything. I had heartburn for the first time in my life, I was out of shape and was so bloated that my thighs rubbing together generated electricity. Then, my life changed forever. They opened a Sweetgreen down the street from my office. For those of you who have never been, it's a simple concept; Chipotle for salad with fresh organic ingredients.

I'm one of those people who doesn't get the concept of salad as a meal but Sweetgreen turned me around. I pretty much ate it every day for lunch for six weeks (while giving up most carbs, most booze and all sugar) and lost...thirty pounds. Most of their salads are pretty delicious, but their Chicken Pesto Parm, with medium pesto and medium hot sauce is outstanding. I probably had it eighty percent of the time and never got tired of it. Healthy Deliciousness! As an added nice touch, they list all the local and national places they buy their produce and a lot of them are local to the region in which the franchise is located.

3. Ben & Jerry's

This one is pretty simple. Ice cream is delicious and Ben & Jerry's is the most delicious ice cream so rather than explain anything about it, I'm just going to list the best flavors in order.

  1. Chunky Monkey

  2. Half-Baked

  3. Phish Food

  4. Strawberry Cheesecake

  5. Americone Dream

4. Uno's Pizzeria and Grill

Chicago deep-dish pizza is very controversial. Some people love it, some people decry that it's more of a casserole than pizza, and most people these days like to argue about really stupid stuff. I happen to be one of those who are in the pro deep dish camp. Admittedly, my addition of Uno's to this list may be more about nostalgia than quality, but I recall it being pretty darn good.

When you're a college student, any restaurant that had wait service was classy, and the nearest wait service spot next to the University at Albany campus was Pizzeria Uno's at Crossgates Mall (fun fact, Rachael Ray got her start in Albany). They used to use a loudspeaker to announce the tables, and because we were dumb college kids, we used to put our name in as Puhpuh, so when they announced us they would say "Puh-Puh Party of 4." (Ed note: stuttering is terrible thing to overcome, but when you're eighteen years old, making someone do it over a loudspeaker is hysterical). If you don't know about deep dish pizza, you are probably not reading this, so I won't describe but my favorite thing on the menu was actually Pizza Skins, which are whipped potatoes, bacon and cheese in a pizza crust. Possibly the least healthy thing you could ever eat, but peak deliciousness!

5. Shake Shack

We are in the golden age of fast burgers. Burger Fi, Five Guys, In-and-Out and so many others have expanded from regional to national chains. The one who stands highest above them is Shake Shack. These days with restaurants trying to come up with some magical everything-and-the-kitchen sink-gourmet-artisan-burger, I like mine pretty spartan. I'm not sure what they do to that burger meat, but it's simple and simply fantastic. Burger, lettuce, tomato, cheese and a pickle if I'm lucky.

I will confess my first exposure to a Shake Shack burger was catching up with friends in NYC in Madison Square Park (where I promptly had about three of them in one sitting), so there may be some nostalgia here at play too, but between the burgers and the "so thick you may actually suck yourself into the cup" shakes, this is just magic. It may be more expensive than most other fast burger joints, but it's 100000% worth it.

6. Ocean Prime

I am not the biggest fan of steakhouses. In general, when I want to go out for a big adventurous meal, steak isn't the first thing to pop to mind. I've had plenty and enjoyed plenty, but when I want the red meat, I tend to be more of a skirt steak/korean BBQ kinda guy. Plus, most chain steakhouses stick to their basics and a steak in Des Moines is the same as a steak in Milwaukee. Well, not only does Ocean Prime have one of our favorite Servers of the Week, but they have a menu that has the national classics, but will also throw in some regional delights. For example, in Naples, they feature grouper (or what my grandmother would call "a nice piece of fish").

This is a nice piece of fish

I've been to a few of them around the country and the bar scene is one of the most amusing you will find. I hate to use the Star Wars bar analogy to death, but this is Mos Eisley's cantina if it were populated by investment bankers and financiers all vying for the attention and approval of a way-too-smart-for-them server.

Honorable mentions: Salt and Straw (ice cream), In-n-Out (burgers), Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen (fried chicken)

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