You will almost certainly find such a venue attached to your local American mall
I think there's a place in the industry for this kind of food and tired, cranky and unable to face burgers and fries I've had a few dinners at such venues. Being a foreigner though I find the entire process daunting and outside my usual eating experience, a fine reason for a blog entry. For the purpose of simplicity I am going to use female and gender neutral pronouns, though service staff at such chains are usually well mixed between genders.
Getting a table
The hostess stand at a Buca di Beppo
On arrival you speak to the lead hostess usually behind a podium in the vestibule for table allocation. If it is busy your name and number of diners is taken until a table is ready. I always give my partner's name or a pseudonym since having an unusual name means every restaurant struggles to correctly write down my real name, similar to the Starbucks phenomenon. If it is especially busy you will be given a wireless buzzer informing you that your table is ready, similar to how 'self service' meal collection works at pubs in Australia. A small lounge, outside seating and an easy to access bathroom is usually provided while you wait.
Almost none of these restaurants take reservations, meaning you wait in line with recent arrivals and large groups can wait for extended periods for the few tables larger than a 4 top to be available. This almost always leads to complaints from seemingly endless number of patrons taking a birthday party to a Cheesecake Factory. If we're at a convention where I know we'll be competing for a table with 10000 other caffeine filled geeks this means I will always eat dinner very early or late (at 5pm or after 9pm) to avoid the 45+ min waiting period.
Another hostess calls your name when the table is ready. You are then lead to a table, this is the correct time to say you wish to be seated with particular requirements (booth, table, light, no light, away from bathrooms). I have discovered this is because each server (ie. waitress) is allocated certain tables and switching from one to another after you have been assigned means a change in allocation and ergo a change in the possible tips earned by your server. Not following this rule leads to cranky looks from the wait staff.
Once seated you are usually presented with an impossibly large menu (delivered by your host) designed to meet the needs of any plausible combination of diners that could attend such a chain restaurant. For first time diners this can take up to 15 minutes to digest. For reference the Cheesecake Factory menu has over 200 items and usually comes in a book with an additional addendum for low calorie options. The calorie content of most meals is included for reference, though some stores only place the calorie value by section rather than by dish.
Breadsticks and dipping sauce at The Olive Garden
Your server will usually come by and present some kind of free 'snack' and request drink orders while you attempt to digest the menu. This is likely to be a basket of bread or chips or in some cases a salad. I have never understood how this is economical since eating an entire basket of bread sticks guarantees you will be able to eat less food you are actually paying for, but since most of these restaurant servings are designed to be larger than a single person can eat then presumably it doesn't prevent you spending the same amount of money. Most of these chains will offer some kind of "more than you can possibly eat" option such as endless pasta, shrimp or salad or a 3 course meal that should serve 5 that comes under $20. For families on a budget this must be an incredible boon, at scale they are able to offer food prices that you as a family could never cook for this price. Should you choose one of these options you should go in knowing that no mere mortal could eat all 3 courses comfortably, you are better off leaving half of each serving.
A "small" platter of pasta at Buca di Beppo is designed to feed two people but often has enough for 4 servings for under $20
The main meal
This food combination of "half" a sandwich, salad and soup is served on a platter sized for a large roast for only $10.95USD at The Cheesecake Factory
Once the meal arrives it will be huge, possibly leading you to laugh at the ridiculous platter of food presented for one person. The only way to avoid this experience is to order from the 600 calorie or less page which each chain has. Generally we choose to skip any kind of appetizer knowing that this is true and concentrate on the main meal (inexplicably called an Entree in the US). The first time I ate at such a place I ordered a dish for each course and then looked horrified at how much food was taken away and thrown out.
The giant portion you couldn't possibly eat is given its own branded "doggy bag" and box to take home and finish later
The usual etiquette is that your server will bring a box for you to take the leftovers home and in fact most Americans believe that this extra food is built into the price. Many are budgeting for the fact that the price includes lunch for tomorrow; the Olive Garden even build this into their marketing offering a "buy one, take one" meal deal. Even if you do not ask for a 'doggy bag' then your server will usually offer one; if you are travelling and in a hotel room without kitchen facilities they will look at you oddly if you say no. On the plus side this means that my original fears about how much food must be wasted in America are lessened. If you are uncomfortable with the wastage then consider taking the leftovers and giving them to someone needy on the street.
A typical pasta dish at The Olive Garden $15.49USD includes unlimited salad and breadsticks
The food is decent, if unremarkable across the board. Warm comfort food classics done reasonably well, nothing fancy, but definitely satisfying.
If there is a problem with your meal this is cause for alarm! Chain restaurants like this focus on efficient, friendly reliable service. Any change to the garnishes, any time an allergy has been forgotten in ordering, any time something is cold or damaged is a ding on the reputation of the company. Each time we have had a problem we have immediately been sent a restaurant manager to discuss and apologise, frequently we are offered a discount on our bill. Sometimes this occurs even when there is not a problem as the manager is checking that the service and experience is up to code. As foreigners this is a little embarrassing for us and sometimes leads to cost benefit analysis of mentioning any mistake with the food. As someone with food allergies this care and attention is appreciated though and one assumes that this is a response to the high litigation in the US and the ubiquity of digital rating systems for restaurants.
The end of the meal
Dessert will be fancy - drizzled with caramels, sauces or nuts and sprinkles - and almost certainly as many calories as the rest of your meal. Some chains are starting to realise that most people are too full to eat another bite after their main dish and started offering "mini selections" of 400 calories or less. It is rare that we would order dessert, I struggle with weight control and the portion sizes make this difficult anyway.
A panna cotta "mini dessert" and coffee at The Olive Garden
If I am really hankering for a dessert I will usually order only an appetizer course with no main or no savoury food at all. My partner has a sweet tooth and a larger stomach though; sometimes he orders dessert or we order it "to go" (ie. Takeaway) and he will eat it at home after a suitable digestion period. The coffee will be pre-Starbucks era American drip filter coffee without exception. Weak, watery and very forgettable, your only choices will be "regular or decaf?" and you will be given cream and sugar / sweeteners without needing to ask. Some chains stock dairy free creamer or soy milk for the lactose intolerant. Coffee is treated as a soft drink, you will be brought refills if you sit for long enough.
The cake display at The Cheesecake Factory
Now finally the eating is over and before you must roll your distended stomach to the parking lot the bill must be navigated. This is another entirely daunting experience as a foreigner.
What you're paying for depends entirely on where you are and how many people are at the table. Some states have sales taxes, some have health care stipends for the staff, some may charge for the boxes or plastic bags you are taking home. Large groups will usually have a flat service charge (ie. tip) included so read carefully. Otherwise the bill you are paying does not include the tip and you must now decide what to pay.
Philosophy on tipping is hotly debated in the US but being clear - service staff are not paid a fair living wage in America and tipping is taxed and considered part of their salary. Forgetting to tip or choosing not to tip is punishing a minimum wage worker who is not responsible for the system. Standard amounts range from 10% to 25% and the choice is left to you as a customer to decide what is fair for the service you received. 15-18% would be considered a normal amount for standard service in California. One of the benefits of a large family restaurant is that they will often include a guide on the bill for how much a 15 - 20% tip would be so that you don't have to do the maths yourself. Rounding up to an even amount (ie paying and odd number like 17% to reach a $20 or $50 multiple) is perfectly acceptable. You can pay the tip and the bill with your credit card, we usually pay the bill on a card and pay the tip in cash. This ensures that the server will receive their tip immediately rather than having to have it processed through the accounting system but does require you to carry small bills. If you receive very poor service and wish to comment on this with your tip leave $1 rather than no tip; this signifies that you have not forgotten the tip but wish to make a statement.
Unlike Australia there is no concern about bill splitting; choosing to pay on multiple credit cards is no problem. In a large group this can be very useful if you wish to split the bill between 4 or more people or if corporate travelers are trying to stay under a per diem. Just tell the server how much of the bill to charge to each card. Once the credit bill is signed or cash is left you may leave this in the payment folder on the table and exit the restaurant.
The Good and Bad of Family Restaurant Eating
At the end of the day these restaurants are popular and common for a reason. They are the ultimate in lowest common denominator eating. Comfortable food, comfortable surroundings and comfortable service are the aim of the game.
- You can guarantee a familiar experience and menu across many locations in many states making it a good choice for travel
- Close to tourist sites in easy walking or driving distance
- Unlimited refills on soft drinks are a boon after a hot day walking in the sun or around a convention floor
- Clean, efficient facilities like bathrooms and car parks are better than waiting in line at conventions or theme parks
- Low calorie and allergy options abound
- Budget friendly food - $20-30 per head ensures an abundant amount
- Encourages over eating or food wastage
- Interactions with many unnecessary staff - usually 6+ people involved in delivering your dining experience
- Typically uses factory farming and food preparation
- Sometimes no alternative small eateries exist near tourist centres
- Heavy family attendance and large size restaurants mean these are big and noisy establishments
Choosing the right chain
There are a huge number of these establishments and many can be found around tourist sites so what's my thinking on these?
The Cheesecake Factory - Probably the most familiar and frequently mentioned on TV. They do stock cheesecakes but the main point of this chain is huge diner/bistro meals, huge menus and family eating. Comfort food options like pasta, burgers, sandwiches and small plates are well presented efficiently. Usually this is our go to chain if family eating and I have yet to have a bad experience in one of their restaurants.
Bucca di Beppo - Family style Italian comfort food that is surprisingly good quality. Cheap pastas and salads abound, deep fried Italian American appetizers like mozzarella sticks and fried ravioli are a hit. I go for Classic Italian fare like Saltimbocca or simple pastas. Their store in Anaheim is the best option for dinner when visiting Disneyland or the Anaheim Convention Center.
Olive Garden - Another Italian American chain known for endless salad and good quality classics like spaghetti and meatballs or meat lasagne. Italian style accompaniments like antipasto, red wine and Italian pastries are rotated in a seasonal selection. A more casual affair than Bucca di Beppo.
Chili's - Casual Tex Mex diner food with kid friendly options like tacos, burgers and flatbreads. Free chips and dip, large burritos, fresh fajitas and more make this a great roadside stop on a long drive.
Famous Dave's - Smokehouse BBQ and sticky sauces presented in a beer and ribs family environment. Huge servings of meat and sides like baked beans, grilled corn, cornbread, mac and cheese or fried pickles make this a stick to your ribs affair. Expect paper table cloths and sticky fingers, make sure you've walked off your calories before you go!
BJ's or Gordon Biersch - Only America could take the concept of a micro brewery and gastro pub and turn it into a mass marketed chain restaurant concept. Honestly though the results aren't bad. Pub friendly comfort food like burgers, pizzas, salads and small plates and 'own brand' beers with seasonal offerings come in a family restaurant efficiency feel. Ask to sit by the bar to enjoy your favourite sports team on large screens while you indulge in beer and wings.
We avoid chains which specialise in seafood such as Red Lobster or Bubba Gump Shrimp company. The same philosophy of cheap large portions ensures that seafood is factory farmed and often shipped from Asian food factories with dubious reputations. We also avoid themed restaurants like Hard Rock Cafe and especially Outback Steakhouse because as Australians the premise is embarrassing.