Let’s get one thing out of the way: I am no food snob. Not only do I not begrudge those who frequent America’s full-service chain restaurants, I understand the gravitational pull of them, having worked briefly as a Red Lobster waiter in a past life. Did meals there often consist of forgettable food and terrible service? Of course, especially if I was your waiter. But for the patrons who measured their devotion in loyalty punch cards, the pluses always outweighed the minuses. Sometimes you want to eat with the whole family for a change, or snag a dinner for two without shelling out three figures. What’s wrong with parking in an overflow lot and eating at 5:30 to beat the dinner rush?
It’s in that spirit that I completed a whirlwind junket devoted to several of Long Island’s most popular sit-down chains. I endeavored to evaluate, fairly and with not a scintilla of food critic snootiness, the absolute most popular thing on each restaurant’s menu. Join me on this eye-opening, thought-provoking, Tums-friendly journey, won’t you?
Breakfast sampler at IHOP
I will defend this chain's coffee to the death -- its soft thunder is worthy of Teddy Roosevelt -- but am consumed by ambivalence over the breakfast sampler ($13.49, 970-1,070 calories), IHOP's most-ordered item. As expected, the eggs are faultlessly prepared in a multitude of ways, the centerpiece of a meat-heavy Noah's ark morning: two strips of decent bacon, two hunks of thick, salty flesh identified by the menu as ham, two cigarillos of pork sausage, two pancakes. The square cake of hash browns arrives with the correct crispy exterior and soft fluffy innards, but its flavor is marred by whatever IHOP's cooks use to keep it from sticking to the griddle. Which brings us to the pancakes in this International House of. I don't know which is more astounding, the fact that the chain sells 700 million of them a year, or that each is the exact same size, thickness and consistent shade of brown. Perhaps more astounding, at least to me: the accompanying achingly sweet, low viscosity syrups, which seem better suited for flavoring Italian ices than pancakes.
The Ultimate Feast at Red Lobster
How do you know when an appetizer has entered the zeitgeist? When it inspires umpteen bootleg recipes, irreverent YouTube videos, vaguely hilarious memes, a dedicated Facebook fan page, and grudging respect from critics like me. So it is with this seafood chain's Cheddar Bay biscuits. Red Lobster hands out gratis upward of 400 million of those slightly clumpy, garlicky hacky-sacks each year, and its ovens crank them out every 15 minutes, which makes the biscuits as fresh as the crustaceans cowering nervously in the corner of the tank by the hostess stand. Can grandma make a better, less dense drop biscuit at home? She can.
But Red Lobster's most popular menu item is the Ultimate Feast ($32.99, 1,070 calories), a poor man's idea of a rich man's sampler platter, featuring a tail of lobster, naturally, plus a couple of snow crab clusters and two kinds of shrimp. Much of it is unremarkable, and the lobster is cracked and clipped so aggressively, you might not recognize it at first. The snow crab, however -- often plucked from the ocean by the fishermen on "Deadliest Catch," so says the company -- is sweet, firm and icy fresh, proof that the Bering Sea boys do not brave danger in vain.
Honey BBQ Chicken SuperMelt at Friendly's
There's something soupy and disquieting about the Edward Hopper-meets-carnival décor, and something even soupier about the uber-popular Legendary Honey BBQ Chicken SuperMelt sandwich ($9.99, 1,460 calories), which rapidly disintegrates after being deposited at your table, its sourdough toast washed away by mighty rivers of barbecue sauce and Ranch dressing. Left behind is something the menu describes, somewhat disturbingly, as "country-breaded, all-white chicken," along with some gooey Cheddar and a few strips of bacon cantilevered off the pile. In its quest to leave no taste bud unconquered, Friendly's brings the full arsenal of sweet and salty, creamy and pungent, crunch and chew to this dish, and its victory -- as measured by the number of diners I saw ordering SuperMelts -- is impressive. Among the tips I picked up: eat quickly, watch for spills and accept nothing less than a book-length supply of napkins.
Loaded potato skins at TGI Friday's
The company says that it actually invented loaded potato skins ($10.59, 1,510 calories), a claim that has been sharply disputed by those with time for such things. But the tubersphere is in general agreement that it was Friday's that brought this ingenious repurposing of table scraps to worldwide attention. The skins remain the restaurant's most popular menu item more than 40 years after first landing on it, perhaps in part because they look baked (i.e., healthy) but are actually fried (i.e., not). The five I had were as round as half-coconuts and almost as big, with crunchy exteriors sturdy enough to mop up sour cream, and insides fluffy, soft, heavily shrouded in caramelized cheese and confettied with bits of bacon. As for the crowd, well, if Friday's began life in the '60s as a nightly haunt for Upper East Side singles, now it's about the consequences of such evenings, the tables filled with families and other budget-conscious diners. What better way to soften the blow than with generous drink specials, frequent promotions and fair prices?
Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhouse
Few establishments can claim a 4:30 p.m. dinner rush, and that's not the only way this faux-Aussie eatery stands out. Amid a menu awash in kookaburra wings and shrimp on the barbie -- you haven't seen so much Down Under drag since "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert"-- is Outback's most popular item, the humble center-cut sirloin. I ordered the 9-oz version ($19.99), which contains about 1,500 calories once you factor in two sides. This is the last man who'd cast aspersions on a steak dinner that costs a single Andrew Jackson, particularly one with lean, high-quality beef dependably cooked to order. The perennial fan favorite Bloomin' Onion, however, despite being a genuine architectural marvel and one of the seven wonders of the partially-hydrogenated world, is troubling in the extreme. Consuming one of these double-battered, exploding chrysanthemums means annexing almost 2,000 calories with a minimum of effort, courting queasiness, and invariably spoiling one's dinner.
Bourbon Street Chicken & Shrimp at Applebee's
"Speak of the devil and he appears," drawls the surly bartender, fingering a guy who, like seemingly all of this eatery's regulars, unquestionably accepts the idea that eatin' good in the neighborhood means 25-cent boneless wings and $3.85 tequila sunrises at happy hour. And yet, there are two things I found noteworthy about Applebee's much-beloved Bourbon Street Chicken & Shrimp: First, it's the greatest, most wildly popular New Orleans export that does not actually hail from New Orleans. Second, it's by far the healthiest thing I ate on my tour. Yes, $17.99 is a rather steep price to pay for the privilege of eating a 600-calorie, non-shame-based meal, but I appreciated the crisp chunks of red potatoes, heaps of sauteed onions and sizzling careful-hot-plate presentation. There is perhaps no squirt of garlic butter generous enough to save Applebee's shrimp from a frozen past, but it does wonders for the chicken, a perfect distraction from the sinewy saltiness of the breast.
Fresh strawberry cheesecake at The Cheesecake Factory
Much is made of the glitzy, irredeemable gaucheness of the layout, with its onion domes, Egyptian columns, Victorian paneling and French limestone floors -- only the slot machines and blackjack tables are missing from this temple of ersatz -- but it perfectly mirrors the menu, an encyclopedia of randomness. Avocado egg rolls are as much the draw as the 30-plus flavors of the factory's namesake dessert, of which fresh strawberry cheesecake has been the most cherished iteration for decades. A tart element would add some complexity to the straightforward sweetness of the cake itself -- reportedly the product of just five ingredients, none of them lemon juice -- but it's a masterpiece compared to the gloppy fruit topping. Three large, perfectly red, perfectly symmetrical strawberries grace every slice, but Stepford berries are no match for the cloying, chemical taste of the red ooze that accompanies them. Is an average-sized wedge of cheesecake worth spending $8.95 and 1,000 calories on? Count me among the skeptics.
Chicken Alfredo at Olive Garden
Greek mythology has much to say about the hydra, which sprouts two heads every time one is cut off, but is suspiciously silent on the subject of The Olive Garden's breadsticks, which operate according to the same principle. No basket of this foodstuff -- which resembles a hot dog bun stretched on a rack and buffed with margarine polish to a fine shine -- sits empty for long, thanks to a bread service so aggressive, it threatens to overwhelm anything that comes after it. More often than not, that thing is the chain's chicken Alfredo ($18.99, 1,620 calories) which for some reason tries to one-up that classically simple sauce by adding flour and milk, thereby guaranteeing a pasty outcome. Equally puzzling, especially given the price, are the suspiciously uniform grill marks on batons of chicken of equal size and girth. It is a meal to conjure not images of tables in Napoli or Roma but economy seats on an international flight.