Founded in 1978 in Los Angeles by David Overton, whose parents owned a small cheesecake bakery, The Cheesecake Factory is admittedly pretty cheesy; witness the faux Italianate columns decorated with Pharoah faces, the soaring trompe l’oeil ceilings, and the red glass wall sconces the size of toddlers. But it’s much better than a mere last resort if you happen to be snowed in at an office park in Cleveland or someplace similar. The place may have way too many menu items (more than 200, not counting more than 30 types of cheesecake), but a whole lot of it tastes really good.
Don't miss: Nation’s Restaurant News hailed the miso salmon entrée — inspired by Nobu Matsuhisa's famous black cod with miso—as the “Best New Menu Item” of 2002, and believe it or not, it's even tastier than the original. Also, the bartenders make gigantic, perfect, reliably ice-cold martinis.
Denver native Steve Ells trained at the Culinary Institute of America and cooked under Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco for a couple of years before he headed home in 1993, bought an old ice cream shop, and opened the first Chipotle Mexican Grill. Ells’s commitment to eliminating antibiotics in our food supply (a subject on which he’s testified before Congress) is exemplary, and his burritos are fine if not exactly authentic. The fact that everything on the menu is made to order before a diner’s eyes remains a key selling point.
Don't miss: The homemade tortilla chips, spiked with fresh lime and kosher salt, and the freshly made, chunky guacamole.
Does the world really need another burger joint? Probably not — but this one breathes some new life into the genre. The first Five Guys was opened in 1986 in suburban Washington, D.C. by Janie and Jerry Murrell (the “five guys” in question are their sons) with a very simple concept: handmade burgers served with a long list of (gratis) toppings, and fresh-cut, never-frozen French fries. A little star power helped: President Obama is a huge fan, and has been known to show up to get a sack of burgers for his staff.
Don't miss: The thin, mouthwateringly greasy Five Guys burgers are habit-forming, but the grilled cheese is far too good to be left to vegetarians (at least partly because the chain owns its own bakeries, and the buns are all homemade).
There is no Jason, and this under-the-radar franchise isn't a deli, though its 200-plus outlets do offer deli-style sandwiches. What Jason’s Deli is is a combination salad bar, sandwich shop, and cafeteria — a bustling, kid-friendly, geriatric-friendly, down-to-earth chain with a commitment to organic foods, fresh vegetables, gigantic stuffed baked potatoes, and the Italian family, rife with grocers and cooks, who started it all in Beaumont, Texas, in 1976.
Don't miss: The homemade soups, especially the chicken potpie, are great, and the kids meals, none of which cost more than $4, and all of which are completely lacking in trans fats, nitrates, or high-fructose corn syrup, are a revelation.
Is Australia lousy with steakhouses? Not really, but that didn’t stop a small crew of Florida-based Chilis franchise-holders from establishing Outback in Tampa in March of 1988. The goal was to sandwich an affordable, but high (enough) quality steak in the niche between, say, a Bennigan’s and a Morton’s. Success? Today there are Outbacks in all 50 states and 21 countries around the world. If you can get past all that “shrimp on the barbie” and “kookaburra” lingo and the Crocodile Dundee-inspired service, the steak, which is pretty much what you should stick to, is surprisingly well-cooked, well-seasoned, and consistently delicious.
Don't miss: The Outback Special: For $9.99, you get a sirloin and two sides (like salad and a baked potato).
In 1985, two L.A. lawyers decided to try their luck in the restaurant business by riffing on the gourmet pizzas popularized by Wolfgang Puck. They pooled resources and opened shop in Beverly Hills offering a menu of internationally-flavored pies including barbecue chicken and pear-gorgonzola. There are now California Pizza Kitchens in 32 states and in ten countries. The chain is nothing if not dependable: the service is polished, the food — not only the pizza — is of high quality. You may not be moved to try “Mango Tandoori Chicken Pizza,” but you might really like to have a tall, well-made cocktail with a nice bowl of tortilla soup some night while you’re stuck at a business conference.
Don't miss: The gorgeous salads, particularly the Chinese chicken and the Cobb.
Media entrepreneur Ted Turner is just a guy who likes a good bison burger — so in 2002 he partnered with George McKerrow, founder of the LongHorn Steakhouse franchise, to create a place where he could kick up his cowboy boots and chow down. Or so he’d have you believe, at any rate. The fact is that, no matter how you feel about Turner, the idea was a winner. The food at Ted's Montana Grill — mostly upscale comfort fare — is downright stick-to-your-ribs good, and there's plenty of it.
Don't miss: The “skinny dip,” a giant, cooked-to-order bison burger topped with slices of fresh avocado. The meatloaf is pretty good, too.
Houston's was the first restaurant concept launched by George Biel's Los Angeles-based Hillstone Restaurant Group, in business since 1975. The eateries are comfortable, with overstuffed chairs, and tables positioned a respectable distance apart. The menu offers dishes that don’t much belong together — barbecued ribs, tuna sashimi salad — but the food is presented with a spirit of friendliness, abundance, and more discretion and taste than most franchise restaurants bring to the table — which will be much appreciated if you’re quarantined in, say, Winter Park, Fl., without a clue of where to eat.
Don't miss: Hot spinach-and-artichoke dip is a cliché disco-era appetizer, but here it’s downright addictive, especially when presented with extra large, salty, warm, homemade tortilla chips. Strips of the chips show up again on the grilled chicken salad, an extravaganza dressed with fresh lime juice and peanut sauce.
One day in 1975, Mark Johnston, an enterprising waiter at a Maitland, Florida-based fondue restaurant, looked at the simmering pots of cheese on every table and saw gold. He and his two brothers bought the rights to the place, and set out to prove that fondue could have a life beyond the Alps. If you can overlook the (admittedly substantial) cheese factor and skip the many promotionally-planned meals that seem to revolve around boiling cauldrons of oil in which to dip raw meat, Melting Pot can be great fun, and a decidedly different way to spend an evening.
Don't miss: The classic cheese fondue, into which you may dip apple slices, bread, and/or roasted potatoes.
California’s first drive-through hamburger stand was the brainchild of Harry Snyder, back in 1948. There are more than 150 In-N-Outs today, mostly on the West Coast), but it’s not a “chain” in the modern sense of the word. The company is still privately held and has never licensed a franchise. There are only three things on the menu: burgers, fries, and drinks (milkshakes being the highlight), and all of them are made on-site and all of them are delicious.
Don't miss: The house specialty “animal-style” burger, which comes with pickles, extra “spread” (the house condiment, a Thousand Island-esque caloric extravaganza), extra grilled onions, and mustard fried onto each meat patty.