There can be a stigma attached to chain restaurants. In the current food culture, which praises locally sourced, farm-to-table fare, the idea of a multi-city chain seems antithetical. A chain restaurant calls to mind assembly line, paint-by-numbers food that does little to excite. Yet, there are some restaurants spread out across the country that still deliver a great meal, despite their scale. From hot dogs to haute “supper club”-style cuisine, find out which chains deserve a spot on your to-try list.
Point your GPS toward the water, and you’re likely to find a Chart House. Located in places like Newport Beach, Hilton Head Island, and Longboat Key, the common thread between all of the Chart House restaurants is killer views—and the menu to match. Take your choice between surf and turf, with dishes like Macadamia-Crusted Mahi Mahi and Spiced Yellowfin Tuna alongside prime rib and filet mignon. (Pro tip: start your meal by ordering the molten Hot Chocolate Lava Cake, which takes 30 minutes to make—and only a few seconds to devour.)
At DogHaus, choose your own gluttonous adventure: gourmet sausages, hot dogs, or burgers. Many of the sausages are designed by Food Network star Adam Gertler (aka the “Sausage Pimp”), with selections like the Bad Mutha Clucka (chicken fontina sausage with sun-dried tomato aioli, basil, and crispy onions) and The Fonz (hot Italian sausage with pastrami and melted mozzarella). Hot dog fiends can choose from nine signature dogs or customize their own with more than 40 toppings. (Fig and onion relish, anyone?) For both the burgers and dogs, buns are cut from grilled sweet Hawaiian rolls rather than standard “white-or-wheat” fare.
Wine-obsessed? Prepare your pinky finger for a lot of action at this winery-slash-restaurant. It’s all about vittles-and-vino symbiosis here, with each contemporary American dish specially created to accompany Cooper’s Hawk’s list of 50 wines. Case in point: the Red Wine Braised Short Ribs, paired with Cabernet Sauvignon. (People also obsess over the pretzel bread, which pairs well with…just about everything.) Each location features a tasting room, barrel-aging room, and bar alongside the restaurant to ensure you don’t leave thirsty.
Once a restaurant nabs Anthony Bourdain’s stamp of approval, you know it’s probably worth checking out. Enter Pok Pok, which Bourdain dubbed “simply the best, the tastiest, and most ‘authentic’ Northern Thai flavors I’ve ever had outside of Thailand.” Chef Andy Ricker calls on the cuisine of Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son (near the Burmese border) to create bold bites like spicy boar collar and pork belly curry. The deep-fried Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings are Ricker’s most craveable calling card, marinated in sugar and tossed in caramelized fish sauce and garlic. Hungry yet? Pok Pok locations can currently be found in Los Angeles, New York, and Portland.
RUBIO’S FRESH MEXICAN GRILL
If your version of heaven includes a bucket of Mexican beer and Baja-style seafood eats, get to a Rubio’s—stat. To date, Rubio’s has sold more than 170 million of its vaunted fish tacos (many of which have likely been consumed on the chain’s weekly “Taco Tuesday,” when tacos cost $1.50 after 2:30 p.m.). The must-try item here? The Original Fish Taco: beer-battered, sustainable wild Alaska Pollock topped with white sauce, mild salsa, and fresh cabbage. (Dress it up even more with a trip to the salsa bar, featuring house-made salsas like roasted chipotle and tomatillo.)
Buffalo wings and cheeseburgers aren’t what one typically might expect at a vegan joint, but that’s where Veggie Grill comes in. With a motto of “Taste and Believe,” Veggie Grill lures in reluctant carnivores with comfort foods packing a plant-based punch; prime examples include the Santa Fe Crispy Chickin’, Glazed Tofu Banh Mi, Mondo Nachos, and the VG-Cheeseburger. (All of Veggie Grill’s “meats” are made from non-GMO soybeans, wheat, and peas.) Many of the menu options are also gluten- and/or soy-free—but, thankfully, not flavor-free.
For those who haven’t yet shacked up for a mouth-watering meal, Shake Shack’s cult followers might insist you’re missing out. From humble beginnings as a hot dog cart in NYC’s Madison Square Park, the chain has grown to include 65 locations as far-flung as Dubai and Moscow. Part of the “secret sauce” for Shake Shack’s success is just that: “ShackSauce,” a top-secret, mayo-based condiment that tops all of the Shack’s gourmet Angus beef burgers. (This Vine says it all.) Other draws include old-school crinkle-cut cheese fries; hand-spun milkshakes; and “Concrete” frozen custard treats with mix-ins like chocolate truffle cookie dough.
Named one of CNBC’s “Ten Restaurant Brands to Watch,” Ocean Prime is currently serving up surf-and-turf in 11 cities—and set to expand to Boston and Manhattan by end of 2015. Steaks and seafood are the name of the game here, with the big winner being Chilean Sea Bass on a bed of whipped potatoes and champagne truffle sauce. Like it raw? Hit up the raw bar for oysters or, if you enjoy a good special effect, the dry ice-enhanced “Smoking Shellfish Tower.” (And be sure to save room for the sides, which range from Black Truffle Mac & Cheese to Smoked Gouda Tater Tots.)
It may seem a bit strange that two hot dog joints made it onto this list, but Portillo’s is just that good. (The chain’s got the kudos to prove it, too—in 2014, it earned a spot in the Vienna Beef Hall of Fame, and Consumer Reports ranked it tops on its Best Fast Food Chains list with an 8.5/10 taste ranking.) Here, the Windy City roots are evident, from gravy-dipped Italian beef sandwiches to Chicago-style dogs with the works. Reward yourself for braving the long lines with a gooey plate of cheese fries or the ridiculously decadent chocolate cake shake.
Mix the fast-casual, “build-your-own” ethos of Chipotle with artisanal, Neopolitan-style pizza, and you’ve got the addictive Blaze Pizza. Here’s how it works: Make your way down the assembly line choosing from toppers such as BBQ drizzle and crumbled meatballs, then wait 180 seconds while your 11-inch pizza is “fast-fire’d” in the Woodstone oven. The fast-growing chain has attracted celebrity investors like BoSox co-owner Tom Werner, Maria Shriver, and Patrick Schwarzenegger, and it’s easy to see why: One bite of this pie, and you’re likely to say, “I’ll be back,” Terminator-style.