Playing the role of enlightened eater often means shunning the big-box restaurants of your youth. How can T.G.I. Friday’s put Korean tacos on their menu? you’ll ask indignantly, launching into a diatribe about cultural appropriation and waxing nostalgic about the amazing food truck you discovered in L.A., where the dish was practically invented. And you wonder why America is fat! you’ll declare while watching a large man eat a grilled cheese stuffed with mozzarella sticks. This used to be an independent small business, before Applebee’s bought the space you’ll say, lying to make a point.
But let’s be real: Amid all the copycat cooking and middling fare, chain restaurants have some incredibly delicious dishes that speak directly to our deepest, guiltiest pleasures. Moreover, these places—not fast-food joints like McDonald’s and Burger King, but casual sitdown spots such as Cheesecake Factory and Red Robin—are an integral part of the American dining landscape. They are the stage where high school students seal their young love over a plate of Bang Bang Shrimp, where families bridge generational gaps, and where regular folks can mingle with rappers and NBA players.
Ultimately, the key to successful chain dining is knowing how to order. If you find yourself on the road with no options but the local mall, or grandma insists on taking her annual trip to Cracker Barrel over the holidays, use this guide to ensure that you get the best out of the experience.