Ranking The 15 Chain Restaurants That Truly Define American Life

There are few things more American than chowing down at a chain restaurant–serving up life as it truly is, with a side of affordable prices to boot. Here’s a look at some of the finest, and all that they bring to our nation’s dining table:

1. Applebees

via Afl2784
via Afl2784

Claim To Fame: The neighborhood Bar & Grill has seen millions of high school dates–from the triumphs, to the failures, to the accidentally running into the one person you really didn’t want to see right now.

Achilles Heel: The emphasis on neighborhood, while valiant, is sometimes misplaced. The ‘bees in my hometown boasts jerseys from the school 3 towns away.

Fun Fact: If you’re craving half-off apps in the Middle East, Applebees has locations in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and more.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: Author and Twitter personality @DadBoner is a very big fan. Friday Night Lights character Tyra Collette works at an Applebees.

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Overall: An all-around American experience. 8/10.

2. Outback Steakhouse


Claim To Fame: Bloomin’ Onion and faux Australian flair make Outback an essential component of the American Suburban Experience.

Achilles Heel: Steak is respectable, but tough to pride your name in something that’s miles better at a nicer, fancier place. Minor league baseball team of chain restaurants.

Fun Fact: The menu differs by region. Crawfish is served in southern locations, lobster in New England, and king crab legs in the west.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: The have an entire college football bowl named after them. Last year’s Outback Bowl saw South Carolina beat Michigan 33-28, in a game featuring that monster YouTube highlight from JaDeveon Clowney.

Overall: Between the accent and the aformentioned minor league syndrome, can’t totally trust it. 6/10.

3. Ruby Tuesday

Billy Hathorn
Billy Hathorn

Claim To Fame: Handcrafted burgers and sometimes endless fries. McDonalds plus.

Achilles Heel: Tries a bit hard. They have a cookbook, and an alarmingly large emphasis on being gourmet.

Fun Fact: In 2008, a demolition crew was supposed to implode the final “old Ruby Tuesday” as a symbolic cap to their rebranding campaign. However, they ended up demolishing the a place called Cheeky’s Bar and Grill next door.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: “Says, she want diamonds, I took her to Ruby Tuesdays” – Kanye West, Gone. 

Overall: Generally chosen more out of convenience than anything else. Definitely lack a passionate fanbase. 6/10. 

4. Pizza Hut

The first Pizza Hut, at Wichita State University. Via Sanjay Ash
The first Pizza Hut, at Wichita State University. Via Sanjay Ash

Claim To Fame: Pizza Hut has been making eyebrow raising changes to the pizza game for decades; from the stuffed crust pizza to the cheeseburger crust, Pizza Hut is very much what you should be when ordering chain pizza; completely shameless.

Achilles Heel: Sitting down and eating pizza is a tricky science. Pizza Hut finds itself in an awkward middle ground.

Fun Fact: The first pizza hut was the picture above. opened in 1958 by two brothers. As the big box shows, they’ve come a long way.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: This song might haunt your dreams:


Overall: Like the movie Billy Madison, you like it a lot better as an 11 year-old. 4/10

5. The Cheesecake Factory


Claim To Fame: With portions large enough to feed the entire population of the 3rd-world country of your choice, The Cheesecake Factory represents the pinnacle of American excess.

Achilles Heel: If you order a meal, there’s no way you’re getting to the cheesecake.

Fun Fact: The average restaurant sandwich contains 1400 calories.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: The restaurant has been consistently featured in the CBS Sitcom, The Big Bang Theory. But ALSO:  “Takin’ them hoez to the Cheesecake Factory / Lettin’ them hoez order strawberry lemonade and popcorn shrimps.” – Outkast, We Luv Deez Hoez.

Overall: Greed is out, minimalism is in. 5/10

6. T.G.I. Fridays

via CaribDigita
via CaribDigita

Claim To Fame: Is there really anything better than that mud slide dessert from T.G.I. Fridays? The elementary school birthday party king.

Achilles Heel: People in their commercials look irrationally happy.

Fun Fact: They were one of the first establishments to use the timeless promotion now known as ladies night.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: Urban legend says Vince Young somewhat spent 6K at a T.G.I. Fridays.

Overall: They base their entire brand around the fact that people have nothing to live for other than Friday evening, and then think that the greatest activity they could possibly conduct is be 31 years-old go on a double date predicated on spending $20 on two dishes. Clearly, this is genius. 9/10.

7. Red Lobster

via tyeman 200
via tyeman 200

Claim To Fame: The cheddar biscuits, duh.

Achilles Heel: Much like the expectations vs. reality sequence in 500 Days of Summer, diners go through a similar experience when going to Red Lobster after watching one of their world-class commercials:


Fun Fact: There are only 4 Red Lobsters in New England, and all are located in western Connecticut.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: “Takin’ women out to eat, givin’ ’em free meals? What part of the game is that? You takin’ her to Red Lobster with the cheddar biscuits. The fam ain’t eatin’ cheddar biscuits but this random broad is eatin’ cheddar biscuits.” — Riley Freeman, The Boondocks

Overall: Keeping the mouth-watering commercials in mind, Red Lobster is like dating a very hot girl with little else to offer. You’ll ultimately be disappointed, but that initial excitement is definitely worth something. 6/10.

8. Carrabbas Italian Grill


Claim To Fame: The Italian Grill, in addition to knowing how to dominate the American Bread Game, is very much an American-Italian’s dream. Emphasis on the first one.

Achilles Heel: Florida is the state with the most Carrabba’s locations. The seniors have put down their flag.

Fun Fact: One of their signature dishes, the Chicken Bryan, is named after Bryan, Texas, the city the Carrabba’s settled in after moving to the United States.

Notable Pop-Culture Reference: None really. Though the lead singer of Dashboard Confessional is named Chris Carrabba

Overall: Solid, but not quite Olive Garden. 6.5/10.

9. P.F. Changs China Bistro


Claim To Fame: AMERICAN Chinese Food, turned into a chain. Which is kind of like taking a cuisine, and turning it into a daytime soap opera.

Achilles Heel: See above.

Fun Fact: They’ve been recognized by the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America for their commitment to gluten free dining options.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: Tevin Downey, the real estate agent in I Love You Man, proudly advertises on their urinal cakes.

Overall: It’s always in the conversation, isn’t it? 7/10.

10. Hooters

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 2.24.20 PM

Claim To Fame: Yeah…you know.

Achilles Heel: Dick Vitale looks increasingly creepy in those commercials.


Fun Fact: From the 2006 Edition of the employee handbook:

Female employees are required to sign that they “acknowledge and affirm” the following:

1. My job duties require I wear the designated Hooters Girl uniform.

2. The Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal and the work environment is one in which joking and entertaining conversations are commonplace.

3. I do not find my job duties, uniform requirements, or work environment to be offensive, intimidating, hostile, or unwelcome.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: Hooters once had a video game called Hooters: Road Trip. Game Informer called it one of the worst games ever made. 

Overall: Undeniably, an American Institution. Whether it’s a necessary one is the concern of another list. 7.5/10

11. Olive Garden

Anthony 92931
Anthony 92931

Claim To Fame: The magicians at Olive Garden have created a never ending pasta bowl. Great for your mind, terrible for your stomach.

Achilles Heel: They don’t treat their employees too great. In 2012, Olive Garden became the first one of the first national restaurant chains to test converting most of its staff to part-time. The intention here is to not have pay as much health care and other benefits for full-time employees.

Fun Fact: Olive Garden sends a few managers, trainers, and cooks to Tuscany every year, but there is no cooking institute.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: Comedian Mike Birbiglia refers to his folks as “Olive Garden Italian”:


Overall: Big Olive Garden fan, but did NOT know that stuff about the poor employee treatment. Boo. 5/10.

12. Chili’s


Claim To Fame: Babyback babyback babyback ribs. And barbecue sauce.

Achilles Heel: Australia and Chili’s are not homies. After some worker disputes, they shut down operations in the continent.

Fun Fact: AdAge named the Bar-B-Q Sauce song one the”10 songs most likely to get stuck in your head” for 2004.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: When Willie McCoy, singer of said great commercial based away this past year, he was treated to a unique “barbecue-themed” funeral.

Overall: Doesn’t jump out at you, but consistently solid and brings a nice, spicy twist to the chain game. 7/10

13. Famous Dave’s BBQ

Daniel Case

Claim To Fame: They seem to have a penchant for acquiring BBQ-themed trophies, and shoving those awards in your face the moment you walk in the door.

Achilles Heel: Their “Famous Feasts” are certainly not for the weak-stomached.

Fun Fact:  Its founder, Dave Anderson, served on the head of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs from 2004 to 2005.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: The musician M. Ward has a song called Famous Dave. The relation is unclear, and there probably is none.


Overall: Solid Q. Makes you feel like you’re in some other sort of America. This is the purpose of an American chain–it informs the national experience. 8/10. 

14. Cracker Barrel

Ildar Sagdejev
Ildar Sagdejev

Claim To Fame: Cracker Barrel is probably the most unconventional of all the chains. In addition to the food, the “Old Country Store” also features a prominent gift shop.

Achilles Heel: Zero locations in New York City. Madness.

Fun Fact: For much of its early existence, Cracker Barrel centered their locations along interstate highways, the idea based up CB being a United States General Store.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: “And in between the stops at the Cracker Barrel, And forty movies with Will Ferrell, I need some way to occupy my time” – Fountains of Wayne, A Road Song. 

Overall: There’s a reason mention of this place gets people irrationally excited. A smartly executed American Institution. 8.5/10.

15. California Pizza Kitchen

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Claim To Fame: Taking the trends of American dining and applying them to ‘Za. Unconventional and outside the box.

Achilles Heel: At times, overambitious. Personally don’t care for the Thai Chicken pizza.

Fun Fact: The chain was started by two attorneys, Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax, in 1985.

Notable Pop Culture Reference: “I should really listen, dealing with sleazy women/chatting over salads at the California Pizza Kitchen.” –Tic Tic, Dumbfounded.

Overall: Somewhat pricey for ‘za, but definitely an experience: 7.5/10. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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