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The Secret Shame of the Restaurant Chain

Sometime later this year, the Italian chain with two annoying Texans in its commercials, is expected to open a location on 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale. It'll appear among a mile strip of local favorites, places like Gilbert's, with its great burgers; and Grateful Palate, with its terrific everything. There's even the wildly popular Italian restaurant Bravo across the street and old mainstay pizza slinger Giorgio's a few doors down.

But yet, shortly after it opens, I'll slink into the new Carrabba's and, as usual, order the chicken Bryan. The wife will get the pasta Wesie. We won't check in on Facebook while we're there. We won't tweet photos. We'll be glad if nobody sees us walk out with a takeout bag, the telltale sign that we weren't just checking the place out. 

We'll do this covert dining trip because of chain guilt. You know, that underlying feeling you have that you're giving up on the local joints by hitting a megacorporation. 

There's probably a guilty chain pleasure on your regular dining rotation. I asked my 

friends about it recently, and a whole lot of them shared chain secrets as if they were admitting to cheating on a spouse. My friend Vanessa, responding to my question on Facebook, wrote that she's "ashamed" of her Macaroni Grill addiction. Megan said she hits Olive Garden for "ironic dining," although she likes the salad. David does Red Lobster, and not just for those cheese biscuits. 

And Jenny wrote: "It's Chili's. Bottomless chips and salsa. I dream about it sometimes. They also never seem to get flustered by kids, and with my unpredictable twosome, this is a big plus. I've never been scolded or looked at with disdain in a Chili's. The same cannot be said for some locally owned restaurants."

That's the simple truth of it. There's something simply comforting in knowing you're going to get the exact same thing every time you go into a chain. A Chili's opened in my hometown in New Hampshire when I was in college 20 years ago and was immediately swamped with two-hour waits every night, putting local joints out of business all over town. What it succeeded at doing, where many local places failed, was putting out the same, identical, solid food for two decades. 

Take that chicken Bryan at Carrabba's. It has 12 simple ingredients you could pick up from a shelf at Winn-Dixie (even the bad Winn-Dixie). The recipe -- you can find it online everywhere -- will take ten minutes, with most of that dedicated to letting the sauce reduce. If you've ever seen a sauté pan, you can make this dish. 

But eating at a chain will probably not outwardly disappoint you either. It will be the same bloomin' onion with Thousand Island that you've been eating since college. It will bring you back to that first night at Friday's, an episode of Friends on the bar TV, Better Than Ezra on the sound system, and a server so friendly you considered exchanging beeper numbers. 

You will finish your meal, wash it down with two-for-one drinks, and eat the leftovers guiltily over the sink later. And it will be fairly good. Not as good as the local place across the street maybe, but so comfortably comfortable that you almost forget about the guilt. Almost.

Eric Barton is editor of New Times Broward-Palm Beach. Email him here, or click here to follow him on Facebook.

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton

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