It happens to us all now and again. Your parents come into town. You get together with friends from high school. There’s a kid. A picky eater.
Eventually, we all find ourselves staring one straight in the menu: the dreaded chain restaurant.
Dreaded is kind of a strong word, really. I mean, chains aren’t my personal favorite, but it’s far from inedible dreck. And as much as I crave an elegant touch of seasoning on a locally sourced steak or hand-made gnocchi in a browned butter sauce, I can also get down on some Olive Garden breadsticks.
There’s nothing wrong with that. As you might have noticed from the marathon jaunt through the Taco Bell menu, my friends and I aren’t merely no strangers to mass-market eats, we’re also connoisseurs. You can like both.
Do you know what some of the best chefs in Oklahoma eat when they get off work? It’s not lobster thermidor over a blanched asparagus risotto with a side of seared Brussels sprouts. They’re in the same Whataburger line as the rest of us or sitting at home streaming Netflix while housing a mixing bowl full of Lucky Charms.
But whether you’re actually aghast at visiting an Applebee’s or merely pretending to be aghast so your friends don’t know you sometimes enjoy a riblet, I’m here to help.
Shut up about it being a chain
Do you know what takes a meh meal of Chili’s baby back ribs from marginally okay to absolutely awful? Your attitude.
You can do your part to steer the dinner party to some local restaurant where the menu is unique and the bartenders make cool drinks, but once the majority have decided on whatever chain they want to go to, just shut up and go.
Imagine how mortified you’d be if all of them had come with you to Picasso’s Cafe and they kept acting like the menu is insane and complaining about how it’s not $1 margarita month.
“Vegan chicken-fried portobello mushroom? Uh-uh. No way.”
Well, that’s how you sound when you won’t shut up about how you hope no one you know sees you at Texas Roadhouse. First of all, anyone who sees you at a restaurant and acts like a jerk to you because of it isn’t someone you actually want to know. (And if you act that way, good god, seek therapy.)
Secondly, the chances of anyone seeing you will drop precipitously because it’s absolutely the last time your friends will invite you to dinner.
Explore the menu
Consider this a challenge. You’re not going to sit back and eat some gross frozen burger that was just defrosted in a microwave. You’re going to find something to enjoy.
And let’s be clear: Olive Garden doesn’t have lines of people waiting for tables on a Friday night because the food is awful. It’s not inspired cooking, but it’s still made with ingredients that are meant for you to enjoy.
Flip through. Find something that sounds weird. Challenge your preconceived notions. Yes, maybe it will suck. But then you have a story to tell. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll stumble upon a dish you like. And then when this same group of people want to go to the same place in another couple of months, well, you can concentrate more on the people you’re with than the food you’re eating.
Ask your server
This tip is actually important at every restaurant. The people who eat at a restaurant most often are the people who work there. They know what’s good and what you should avoid.
“What do you like?” is a simple one. And maybe they’re new and don’t know. That’ll happen. Or maybe the stuff they recommend are the things you already know you don’t like, no matter who’s making them.
Here’s the thing about servers: they want you to like your food. Happy customers tip better. Or at least they don’t complain about every little thing. Your waiter or waitress is there to earn a living by making your night better. Maybe they know about a special. Maybe there’s a secret menu item they can have the kitchen make for you.
Maybe they know which dishes are made with fresh ingredients and which ones come frozen in bags.
Not all of us have the kind of disposable funds to eat out all the time, so it’s a treat wherever you’re going. But if you’re at a chain restaurant and you have the scratch to get another meal later, just order light.
Get a salad. Seriously, I’ve heard people actually do that. Your salad shows up, you eat on it a bit and talk with your dinner party and when everybody adjourns for the evening, you swing by that Chinese place you like that’s open late or roll into Taqueria la Tropicana for a late-night plate of barbacoa tacos.
You need something in front of you at dinner. Don’t be rude and refuse to eat. That’s just uncomfortable for everyone. But getting a big dinner salad or a salad and a bowl of soup will tide you over, give you something to do with your mouth while listening to a story and leave you with enough available space to get some food you really want later.
Or you can cut loose. Find the one thing on the menu that looks insanely rich or spicy or meaty and just go for it.
Baby back ribs smothered in Dr. Pepper barbecue sauce? Well, I guess I can try. A Tour of Italy, you say? I guess lasagna and fettuccine alfredo and chicken parm can all be friends in my belly.
Let loose. Go crazy. Forget your rarified tastes for an evening and just let your palate roll around in the dirt with the rest of us heathens. Tomorrow you can go back to eating the national dish of a country whose capital you’re not entirely sure of in a restaurant with only 13 seats and a menu that is hand-typed on upcycled cardboard.
It’s just one meal, man. Make your grandma happy and eat with her at Cheddar’s.
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Pork belly bowl
Pork belly bun
Fried chicken bun
French fries and veggie fries