The world has changed in some fairly huge and achingly obvious ways since milkshake-machine salesman Ray Kroc bought a small-scale restaurant franchise called McDonald’s in 1954. One way is that, as the “food revolution” meets an increasingly impecunious American public, chain restaurants are thriving. The good news is that chains aren’t necessarily what they used to be — which is to say places whose sole goal is to render us fat and stupid with huge portions of mediocre food at bargain prices.
While we were busy watching Alice Waters plant edible schoolyard gardens, some enterprising franchisers went out and hired chefs and folks who know a thing or two about what tastes good, and along the way they’ve gotten wise to the fact that we're starting to expect things like organic milk on kiddie menus and sea salt on fries. That’s smart. Restaurant business executives say that to thrive in this economy, chains of every stripe, from fast-food stands to "dinner houses" are going to have to raise the quality of their food without substantially raising prices.
The fact is that some chains have gotten pretty good. There are worse ways to spend dinner on a busy weeknight than bent over a plate of miso salmon at the Cheesecake Factory. Here then is a list of the chains that bind us.