What are the best things to order at bad chain restaurants?
February 18, 2013 9:12 AM   Subscribe

What are the best things to order at bad chain restaurants?

My wife doesn't like Taco Bell but enjoys a seven-layer burrito if she must dine there. Similarly, I've heard that if you are at the Olive Garden, try the soup. Are there other not-so-bad menu items at these low-end kinds of establishments?
posted by swift to Food & Drink (73 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
Are you talking about health or taste?
posted by letahl at 9:14 AM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've never gone wrong with the French Onion Soup at TGIFridays/Houlihan's/Ruby Tuesday
posted by deanc at 9:15 AM on February 18, 2013

Chicken Cobb Salad w/ Avocado Ranch dressing at the Wendy's ain't bad. (The lemon-ceasar dressing is awful, tho.)

The hot wings appetizer at Ruby Tuesday's are good (not the boneless ones, those are terrible) and a good idea for an entree when paired with the salad bar - the blue cheese dressing at the salad bar is great.

My wife swears by the ginger chicken stir-fry at Friendly's, and I like the tomato soup/grilled cheese combo a lot - surprisingly sophisticated.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:19 AM on February 18, 2013

I don't know how "bad" Dairy Queen is otherwise, but their Flamethrower Burger is one of my favorite food items, and worth a special trip.
posted by Infinity_8 at 9:20 AM on February 18, 2013

Chicken-caesar salad at McDonald's is actually really good. I think Olive Garden's basic salad is also really good.
posted by jbickers at 9:21 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing "bad" is pretty subjective, but as far as chain restaurants in general go, the Chicken Tortilla Soup at El Pollo Loco is astonishingly reminiscent of homemade chicken soup. The first time I had it I was fairly astounded by how foodlike it was.
posted by aecorwin at 9:24 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Assuming you mean health-wise:

Veggie Burger at Burger King.
Egg McMuffin with no meat or cheese at McDonald's.
Grilled Chicken Club with no bacon at Jack in the Box.
posted by Dansaman at 9:24 AM on February 18, 2013

I'm happy with getting the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad at Wendy's, the baked potato and chili are also decent.

Ruby Tuesday's has lots of options for veggies as side dishes, and their Salad Bar is pretty great.

At Denny's the Super Bird is a thing, especially with steak fries.

Husbunny will order breakfast at Cracker Barrel, IHOP, Denny's etc, since that's pretty safe.

I like the hamburgers at Cracker Barrel.

Chili's has okay chicken tacos and burgers.

Olive Garden's Soup, Salad and Breadsticks is pretty much the only thing I'd ever get there. (Gross!) I haven't been there in 5 years.

I won't eat at Applebees because of this.

Outback is okay for steak.

What else were you thinking of?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:27 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Friendly's Fishamajig is the most underrated item on its menu. It is only on the Seniors menu, but it may be enjoyed by all age groups.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:27 AM on February 18, 2013

Assuming you mean health-wise:

I mean more taste-wise than health-wise, though I imagine the two might often intersect.
posted by swift at 9:28 AM on February 18, 2013

The Blooming Onion is on a lot of the mid-tier fast foot menus, such as Chili's, Applebee's, and Outback. It's delicious.
posted by teabag at 9:31 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

While vegan doesn't necessarily mean healthy, PETA's Eating Vegan at Fast Food Chain Restaurants page is pretty good. I put it to the test while driving cross country a few weeks ago and have to say that I ate like a fairly healthy king.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 9:31 AM on February 18, 2013 [9 favorites]

I often order the steak at dubious places, on the grounds that it's less likely to have been microwaved.
posted by emilyw at 9:38 AM on February 18, 2013

Spicy chicken sandwich at Wendy’s is one of the most delicious things.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:38 AM on February 18, 2013 [13 favorites]

Taco Bell - Their new Cantina Bowl is actually pretty tasty. I also like everything off the Fresca menu, which is made with more veggies and fresh pico de gallo.

Ruby Tuesday - Always love their salad bar, and have been happy with pretty much all their options lately.

Wendy's - Baked potato with broccoli and cheese. Fries dipped in a Frosty! If you have not tried this before, you must do it now.
posted by rachaelfaith at 9:41 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The chicken nuggets at Chick-Fil-A are simply amazing.
posted by deanc at 9:41 AM on February 18, 2013

Chick-Fil-A, both the original and spicy chicken sandwiches.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:42 AM on February 18, 2013

Agreed that the chicken sandwiches at Wendy's are fantastic. Truthfully if your options of where-to-eat are Wendy's, McDonald's, or Burger King.. Wendy's has the better quality food of the three. (although, their prices reflect this)
posted by royalsong at 9:46 AM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

Shamrock Shakes.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:46 AM on February 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

Olive Garden's portobello ravioli are pretty good.
posted by something something at 9:49 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Chick-Fil-A's lemonade is also without peer. At Arby's, the jamocha shakes.
posted by jquinby at 9:49 AM on February 18, 2013

Dairy Queen's dip cones.
posted by Addlepated at 9:59 AM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Noodles & Company: Japanese Pan Noodles.

P.F. Chang's: Ma Po Tofu (omg!), Spicy Green Beans, Garlic Snap Peas.

Panera Bread: Mediterranean Veggie sandwich (sans feta), Vegetarian Garden Vegetable or Black Bean soup, Asian Sesame Chicken salad (sans chicken).
posted by divined by radio at 10:01 AM on February 18, 2013

Are there other not-so-bad menu items at these low-end kinds of establishments?
The way to make any fast food order better is to "hold the attitude" and eat it knowing what you are expecting. McD's will never be fine dining, but it doesn't mean you have to gag when you go there. If you do get that reflex, don't go! This came up in some other thread and I stand by it: it's great to be the guy who can appreciate both Domino's and the artisanal brick-oven pizza. You never have to (your words) eat at any of these places if you don't deign to.

If you can stomach that, my go-tos are
- anywhere you can see things fresh in front of you and get a perspective of today's produce quality (Chipotle, Subway, Quiznos)
- the Al Fresco menu on Taco Bell (but hold any extras e.g. refried beans that make you uncomfortable)

Unlike an above poster, I often avoid the steak because beef is a very friendly bacteria vector and it's hard to cook well. If hygiene is a serious factor, I'm more likely to order vegetarian pasta dishes (yay boiling water).
posted by whatzit at 10:02 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was surprised to see that the TGIFriday's in Rapid City, SD has Korean tacos. We were warned away from them because "there's more vegetable than meat and they come on a corn tortilla." Perfect. They turned out to be really good, and inexpensive to boot. I even came home from the trip and ended up making my own for the first time.
posted by Polyhymnia at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2013

The way to make any fast food order better is to "hold the attitude" and eat it knowing what you are expecting.

I think you're right, and that's part of what this question is really about -- how to maximize the enjoyment of places that are arguably designed to maximize profits over taste. But it's true that the best way to enjoy the meal is to be committed to the experience as much as possible -- if you're at McDonald's, get a Big Mac, and savor the Big Macness of the thing.
posted by swift at 10:19 AM on February 18, 2013

I have recently been impressed by Wendy's "Son of Baconator".

If you go to Panera and do not order the BBQ Chopped Chicken Salad I don't know what to say to you.

If you don't mind a Chick-fil-A, you should really really have these.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:20 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Olive Garden's Capellini Pomodoro is wonderful, and frankly, I don't consider Olive Garden to be a bad restaurant. For some reason, lots of people think it's terrible, but I've eaten some good meals there. Like the Capellini Pomodoro. The soups are good, too.
posted by Dolley at 10:20 AM on February 18, 2013

At California Pizza Kitchen, the half Roasted Vegetable Salad is quite nice. It's tasty, has a wide variety of veggies on it, and is pretty much the only thing on the menu with fewer than 500mg of sodium.
posted by hwyengr at 10:27 AM on February 18, 2013

On the rare occasions I have to eat at Chili's, my default has always been the Southwest Eggrolls. It's on the appetizer menu, but it's enough to be your meal. Get it with the ancho sauce, not the avocado sauce.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:31 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the ribs at Outback.
posted by matty at 10:31 AM on February 18, 2013

I really love the Moon over My Hammy at Denny's... dipped in a mix of ranch and tobasco.
posted by misspony at 10:32 AM on February 18, 2013

kroketje from FEBO
posted by ouke at 10:35 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Obviously no one "has" to eat at any restaurant, but I've definitely been in the position of going to a restaurant for someone's birthday or for whatever other reason where either it obviously should be someone else's decision where to go(birthday) or I didn't know the area well and couldn't recommend alternatives.

If I go to Dennys or Ihop (or sometimes Cracker Barrel) I usually try to get a basic version of eggs/bacon/waffles which I've found to be pretty standard and good.

If I'm at a "nicer" chain restaurant - olive garden/red lobster/etc - I try to go for the simplest thing on the menu i can find. That might be soup + salad or, for example, I ended up at Applebees once and had some pretty decent "house made" potato chips along with a burger or something. At applebees my vegetarian friend was able to get them to make her a decent version of their mac & cheese with veggies. I could make a meal out of the cheddar biscuits at Red Lobster and would otherwise try to find the simplest seafood dish on the menu.

With fast food I agree that Wendy's has some of the best, but I also appreciate McDonalds for what it is. Chik fil anything a is good too(putting politics aside because I can deal with spending $3 there once every couple of years when I'm on the road and have a craving.) If a 5 guys is around I will try to go there instead though, but I sometimes just go there because I want to. I'm on the east coast, but substitute any better than average burger place in your geographic area.

Fast food breakfasts: I love a bacon/sausage + egg + cheese biscuit almost anywhere, and McDonalds hash browns are just perfect to me. Plus they have good coffee imo.

Ended up at Cheesecake Factory a few months ago and was pleasantly surprised at a menu of small plates they had, so I was able to get a couple of small dishes with a beer that made a nice meal. I had some kind of small salad with feta/olives/vinagrette along with some fried artichokes and draft beer and I was happy.

If I'm at a restaurant and don't feel like spending the calories on their entrees (I'm not a calorie counter but I know what is and isn't worth it to me) I will just order dessert if something sounds good.

I think the key for maximum enjoyment, if you don't particularly like where you end up, is to order whatever sounds the best on the menu regardless of whether it's an appetizer, dessert, entree, etc.
posted by fromageball at 10:35 AM on February 18, 2013

If you're at a buffet, try to choose food that holds well on a steam table (think pot roast and mashed potatoes, not steak and french fries). If there's something fried that you really want (like you're at a Chinese buffet and want an eggroll) don't just grab one, watch the area and wait until they bring out fresh ones, then grab one.
posted by Daily Alice at 10:43 AM on February 18, 2013

McDonald's: regular hamburger with extra pickles

Taco Bell: taco supreme

Denny's: chicken bacon ranch melt. Ask for it on sourdough bread. With extra ranch on the side.
posted by fruitopia at 10:48 AM on February 18, 2013

McDonald's Angus mushroom swiss burger is good. It's better than similar burgers at higher-end burger places.

I also like the Son of Baconator.

Chik-Fil-A has the best biscuits, at least out here where there's no Whataburger. Their chicken biscuit is good if a little unwieldy, but their sausage patties are really good.

I hadn't had a Jack In The Box salad in a long time until recently, and they had a really nice lettuce mix - probably less than half romaine and the rest spinach and other salad greens.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:49 AM on February 18, 2013

I think the pancakes at Cracker Barrel are pretty effing awesome (ask for extra wee bottle of maple syrup).

DISCLAIMER: Cracker Barrel meals are only to be consumed if you return to the South for a family event and your Canadian husband has never eaten at one.
posted by Kitteh at 10:53 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I like the fried zucchini at Carl's Jr.

I've never had it, but don't people go apeshit for the chili at Wendy's?
posted by Room 641-A at 11:02 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I usually just go for what my guts dictate at the point when my turn has come to order, and then I go totally and insanely wild on the sauces and mayo. The thought being, since I cook real food at home, and eat relatively responsibly on a daily basis, I'd just as well go overboard for real given the chance.
posted by Namlit at 11:17 AM on February 18, 2013

The smashed meatball sandwich at Denny's is really good.
posted by drlith at 11:27 AM on February 18, 2013

The trick to McDonald's is their salads are all actually rather delicious. The secret to Wendy's is thinking of it as a chicken sandwich place. The secret to Arby's is curly fries, and also a chicken salad sandwich, which I think is the only thing on the menu that doesn't taste like a salt lick.
posted by General Malaise at 11:31 AM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Victoria's Filet is very tender and juicy. I like it with the horseradish crust. Their grilled lobster tail is good too.

Their chopped blue-cheese pecan salad is delicious.

I tried the Bushman 'Shrooms the other night and it was about the best fried mushroom I've ever had.


I agree with the Spicy Chicken Sandwich recommendations (but NOT the spicy chicken bites, those were horrible.)

I also think Wendy's hamburgers are pretty tasty, and I'm kind of picky about burgers.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:32 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The secret to Five Guys is that it is the best. Order the one thing they have and enjoy.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:35 AM on February 18, 2013 [13 favorites]

Actually I guess the secret at 5 Guys is: Just get a small burger. It's plenty.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:36 AM on February 18, 2013 [8 favorites]

I try to get the thing on the menu I can least imagine coming right out of the Sysco truck, unwrapped, microwaved for 3 minutes and slid onto a plate. So, nothing that sounds like the description on a box in the frozen meals section of the supermarket. That's harder than it sounds, and usually ends up being a burger or sandwich of some sort.

Probably, I'm wrong, and that's exactly what happened anyway. But that's the image that ruins a meal for me. If I can fool myself into believing that a person actually cooked my dinner, with like, ingredients and stuff, I'm ok.
posted by ctmf at 11:56 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

First We Feast answered pretty much exactly this for the US omnivore - 25 best chain restaurant dishes in America.

(introduced me to the concept of the blooming onion)
posted by Albondiga at 12:02 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

OH! and I love eating the biscuits at KFC!
posted by misspony at 12:31 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The salumi and cheese bistro box at Starbucks is tasty. The one I've linked to doesn't look quite right -- doesn't it have olives? -- but maybe they've changed since I last had it. Edited to add: wait, here's the one I enjoyed. I can't speak to the one on the official website.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:26 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

RIP IHOP's country griddle cakes (made with cream of wheat).
posted by brujita at 1:27 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Scrambled eggs and cheese at Waffle House. Make sure to specifically ask for the raisin toast.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:57 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Beware of ordering fries at 5 Guys. We got a bagful that would have sufficed for a crowd of teenagers.
posted by Cranberry at 2:27 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Before I went super clean Primal/Paleo, the AYCE soup/salad/breadsticks lunch special at the Olive Garden was a perennial favorite of mine. It's really not the most terrible thing you can eat, either (short of the oil-soaked sodium laden breadsticks) and I concur with whoever up thread said OG is not a "bad" restaurant. They're a chain, but I've had far, far worse ketchup-and-vomit "red-sauce" atrocities at the local shitholes that pass for "Italian local family places" here in the Front Range.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Cheesecake Factory not only takes food sensitivities very, very seriously (or at least management at the one here in Boulder does), they will gladly do gluten free versions of their chicken sandwiches, burgers, and salads, and that some of their vinaigrette dressings are wheat, soy and sugar free.

Cantina Laredo has the best guacamole I've ever tasted, and that includes the stuff I make at home.
posted by lonefrontranger at 2:51 PM on February 18, 2013

Burger King/Hungry Jacks' Whoopers are actually good, and McDonalds makes good scones and coffee.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 3:20 PM on February 18, 2013

My roadtrip standby is a plate at Cracker Barrel called Beans & Greens. It's a traditional Southern poverty dinner consisting of turnip greens, pinto beans, cornbread, diced onions and, if you ask for it (and do ask for it) chow-chow. For full authenticity request pepper vinegar to spice up your greens. It's not vegetarian as there is pork in both the beans and the greens but OMG it's yummy, cheap and filling without being nap-inducing.
posted by workerant at 3:24 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Warm spinach artichoke dip! Most sit-down chain-y places have it and it is always a yummy indulgence.
posted by click at 3:27 PM on February 18, 2013

The secret to Five Guys is that it is the best. Order the one thing they have and enjoy.

The other secret to Five Guys (after "just order the small burger") is NOT to order your burger with ketchup, even if you usually like ketchup on your burger. They will BOMB that thing with condiments to the point of "where's the beef?" if you let them. (At least my local store back in Brooklyn did -- haven't eaten in others. Maybe that location just has a heavy hand with the condiments?)

The secret to In N Out is that their fries are terrible.
posted by Sara C. at 3:36 PM on February 18, 2013

On the Border does a pretty decent fish taco, and you can get a house salad on the side that is actually full of really good, fresh-tasting stuff (real green lettuce!, tomatoes, red onion, corn, black beans, etc).
posted by dayintoday at 4:06 PM on February 18, 2013

I too enjoy the Roasted Veggie Salad (with Shrimp and avocado) at CPK.
posted by radioamy at 4:07 PM on February 18, 2013

I used to like the Big Extra with cheese at McDonalds but they discontinued it in favor of those faux Angus monstrosities. However you can still get it by ordering a quarter pounder with cheese and requesting lettuce, tomato and mayo be added on.

I haven't been to TGIFridays in over a decade but I remember really enjoying their desserts. They were paragons of vulgar excess but in a good way.

I've always found Wendy's much better overall than McDonald's or Burger King. My current order there is the son of Baconator combo with a medium frostee instead of a drink (when I was a kid I used to feel gypped when my parents made me choose either the drink or the frostee but now I wouldn't have it any other way).

Dairy Queen is good at one thing and one thing only and that is soft serve ice cream. Never let them try to sell you anything else. No burgers. No fries. Nothing that doesn't come frozen. Dipped cones? Absolutely. Dilly bars? Totally. Blizzards. Hell yes. Disappointingly, their milkshakes are to be avoided. Really artificial tasting. Sad.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:39 PM on February 18, 2013

How have we gone this deep into the thread, with this much mention of Wendy's and the Frostee hasn't come up yet? (Well, until wabbittwax of course.)

In general with fast food restaurants that aren't Five Guys or In N Out, my strategy is usually to order fries and a drink or fries and a shake/shake-like-object. I mean, the burger isn't actually going to be good, so why bother? It's a carryover from my vegetarian period, when I discovered that I didn't actually care to have a whole meal at McDonald's just the two menu items I actually enjoy, their fries and shakes.

I also enjoy plain vanilla ice cream cones from McDonald's. Their ice cream doesn't taste like ice cream or like vanilla to me. Just McDonaldsness.
posted by Sara C. at 6:26 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Subway: get whatever kind of sandwich you like, then, when they ask about veggies, say 'no lettuce, no tomato, everything else.'
posted by box at 6:44 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, how has Chipotle not been discussed?

In my experience (NYC-based), the staff aren't great burrito builders. I usually opt for the bowl. All the necessary components of an enjoyable Chipotle experience. None of the potential for shirt ruining.

I find that enchiladas or fajitas are usually fine in most any gringo-tastic nowhere-near-Mexico Mexican restaurant chain. (Chichis, Cuco's, Baja Fresh, Chevy's, etc)
posted by Sara C. at 6:44 PM on February 18, 2013

Agreeing with Sara C. that enchiladas are the way to go at faux Mexican places - they're hard to mess up.

McDonalds has a $1 chicken sandwich that is simple, filling, and tastes the same at all the restaurants.
posted by Red Desk at 6:59 PM on February 18, 2013

I like the crispy tacos from Chipotle and Qdoba.

Noodles & Company's Pasta Fresca is really good.

Burger King recently changed their chicken nuggets and I was surprised at how much I liked them. Their Italian Chicken sandwich is tasty too.

McDonald's Southern Style Chicken Sandwich is very good. If you like the Chick-Fil-A sandwich but don't actually want to go to Chick-Fil-A, this is really close.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:50 PM on February 18, 2013

At On The Border try the Guacamole Live appetizer. They bring out the fresh ingredients and literally mix it up right there at your table. It is SO. GOOD.
posted by ZabeLeeZoo at 8:59 PM on February 18, 2013

Second tacos at Chipotle, but I get the soft tacos.

Also WTF In N Out Fries are good. They have real potato! I've never lived local to one though so maybe it's the mystique of the rare In N Out times I've had adding its gloss to all the food.
posted by sweetkid at 9:06 PM on February 18, 2013

I find most food at fast food and fast-casual restaurants to be unpalatable bordering on inedible, but I will always happily eat Wendy's chili and the chicken pot pie at KFC. Both taste the most like actual, real food.

The food at Outback Steakhouse isn't particularly objectionable, but I (and many other picky eaters I know) actively crave their baked potato soup.

Oh, and I'll also happily eat hashbrowns (scattered and smothered!) at Waffle House and cream cheese-stuffed jalapeno poppers pretty much anywhere, but that's less because they're objectively good and more because of my personal love of both.
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:06 PM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Popeye's Chicken is light years ahead of KFC. Get the spicy/crispy. Their biscuits are heaven, and while it's not as good as it would be in New Orleans, it's a fast food restaurant that sells dirty rice. Dirty. Rice.

No, really, get the dirty rice.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:09 AM on February 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

Also, Arby's curly fries, and the king of shakes, the Jamocha.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:10 AM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was very happy with my lunch of chili, baked potato, and side salad at Wendy's. The salad was fresh, and the potato comes with this little pyramid of sour cream (which I didn't use, but it was the most amusing thing ever -- my food never has that few faces!).

The Asiago bagel at Tully's Coffee is pretty good, toasted; same with Au Bon Pain. [maybe Asiago is just magical]

And, my god, small fries at Five Guys, never more, unless you have the aid of a softball league.
posted by batter_my_heart at 2:25 AM on February 19, 2013

teabag: The Blooming Onion is on a lot of the mid-tier fast foot menus, such as Chili's, Applebee's, and Outback. It's delicious.
The blooming onion served by Outback has 2210 calories. I'm not a calorie counter and that number made me doubletake.
posted by Brian Puccio at 6:14 PM on February 19, 2013

No love for for McDonald's chocolate chip cookies? They are FABULOUS. Crispy at the edges, mushy and wonderfully doughy in the middle, very good quality/amount of chocolate chips, and you get three for a dollar. They also have oatmeal raisin and occasionally you can find sugar cookies on offer.

Also not to be missed: the McDouble (with extra pickles, or extra onions - either way is great).

Nthing that McDonald's salads are very good, as well as Wendy's salads (and the frosties of course).
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:10 AM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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