Consumer Reports surveyed 47,565 diners to help find the best meals and best deals at 102 of the nation's biggest sit-down chain restaurants. Nine chains, three of which have locations in Florida, earned high marks across the board for the four attributes in the ratings — taste, value, service and mood — plus praise in three other key areas — menu variety, cleanliness and a lack of noise.
• Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano (in 12 states, not Florida)
• Black Angus Steakhouse (in six Western states, not Florida)
• Bob Evans (in Florida and 17 other states)
• Bravo Cucina Italiana (in Florida, other states)
• First Watch (in Florida and 13 other states)
• J. Alexander's (in Florida and 12 other states)
• Le Peep (in 14 states, not Florida)
• Elmer's (in four Northwest states, not Florida)
• Fatz Eatz and Drinkz (in five states, not Florida)
Among the lower-rated chains were two family restaurants: Friendly's and Waffle House. Both drew low marks for cleanliness and mood; Friendly's was also criticized for lackluster service. Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar was criticized for value and noise. Complete restaurant ratings on all 102 popular chains, tips to save, more trends and survey results are available in Consumer Reports' August issue or online at ConsumerReports.org.
Among the chains more prone to noise complaints were Texas Roadhouse, Hard Rock Cafe, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar and Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen. Bad service was another complaint, especially at Hard Rock Cafe, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill and Bar, Chevys Fresh Mex and Benihana.
Patrons singled out First Watch and Legal Seafoods as most likely to offer healthful dishes. Least likely to sell healthful fare were Buffalo Wild Wings, Quaker Steak and Lube, Waffle House, Hooters and Johnny Rockets, according to respondents.
Find the deals
Spirited competition among the chains means that consumers can use a toolbox of tactics to find bargains.
Here are some examples:
• Eat when others don't. That's a surefire way to save. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Red Lobster customers get a discount on some shrimp entrees. At Applebee's, the reward for late-night dining is half-price appetizers.
• Eat at the bar. At Bravo Cucina Italiana, guests can sit at the bar and order off the Bar Bites menu for as little as $3.95. Until 7 p.m., Fleming's offers five cocktails, glasses of wine and appetizers at the bar, each for $6.
• Show your age. For people 55 and older, Perkins has inexpensive lunches and dinners with two sides every day. Chart House will take 10 percent off the bills of AARP members; at Denny's, AARP members save 20 percent off their bill from 4 to 10 p.m. daily. Revealing your age can net benefits even if you're not over 50: At the Cheesecake Factory, the birthday celebrant gets a free scoop of ice cream.
• Eat with others. Applebee's, Chili's and O'Charley's have "two for" deals consisting of one shareable appetizer and two full-sized entrees for $20. P.F. Chang's has a four-course Meal For Two for $40. Maggiano's and Buca di Beppo serve heaping portions on large platters, family style, and Buca di Beppo also has smaller platters designed for two or four people. (Having seen those platters, we suspect they could easily feed more.)
• Check in on Facebook. That's where many restaurants reveal their latest promotions. By "liking" the restaurant or just visiting the page, we found offers and clickable coupons for a free appetizer with a paid entree (Chili's), free dessert when buying the Italian dinner for two (Romano's Macaroni Grill) and $10 off the purchase of two dinner entrees (Carrabba's).