HuffPost Food recently went on a tour de force of some of America's major casual dining chains. Regardless of your taste in cuisine, chances are you've found yourself at a casual dining restaurant before, whether one is your go-to Friday night spot or a road trip-only meal. These national chains pride themselves on creating a menu that can appeal to a wide variety of eaters. But are these calorie-heavy appetizers worth it? We pitted eight appetizers from eight casual dining chains against each other to find out. Week 6: Onion Rings.
What originally turned us on to evaluating the most common fare at the biggest restaurant chains was a surface level understanding of how many major casual dining restaurants work. In some of these chains, food is often pre-prepared in a central kitchen, and then frozen to be shipped and re-heated across the country. We read fascinating tales of this process, such as the section on Applebee's in Tracie McMillan's "The American Way Of Eating" or the discussion of Chili's in David Kessler's "The End Of Overeating."
Perhaps the viral review of an Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota proved just how much casual dining can resonate with the American audience.
In our evaluation of American casual dining food, we chose eight prominent chains that serve similar American fare across the country: Applebee's, The Cheesecake Factory, Chili's, Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday and T.G.I. Friday's. Although locations and number of outlets vary, we felt that all eight epitomized the casual dining experience, perhaps best evidenced by the amount of dish overlap on all menus. In choosing which dishes to evaluate, we stuck to what we deemed the most sought-after appetizers.
As we kept eating our way through the various menus, we were surprised by the huge range across the food categories. While certain chains overall performed better than others, the more appropriate comparison was really about single dishes, rather than a restaurant as a whole. All spinach dips are not created equal.
For our sixth installment, we examined onion rings. There were high highs and low lows with this one. We loved the thinner ones that gave ample room for breading and spice. Crunch was the key factor to the stand-outs though -- a soggy onion ring not only offers bad texture, but also never tastes as good.
Week 1: Buffalo Wings
Week 2: Nachos
Week 3: Mozzarella Sticks
Week 4: Potato Skins
Week 5: French Fries
Check out the results below (high score: 5, low score: 1), and check back next week for Chain Food Showdown, Vol. 7: Spinach Dip.
"Got very soggy very quickly." "So soggy and flavorless." "Nasty." "Mushy, lacking spice." "Doughy and terrible."
"Crispy outside, way too greasy." "Nice soft onion inside and crunchy breading." "Not much flavor but tasted some spice on crust." "A little floppy and bland."
"Nice big onion pieces but onion was a little crunchy and breading was bland." "What you expect onion rings to taste like."
"Good stringy ones." "These were delicious! But not really onion rings. More like onion strips, but if I go back to Red Lobster I'd get these for sure." "I love these as a chip-type snack. It's mostly coating, very little onion." "Addictive. Want to keep eating. Great batter." "Ethereal texture."
"Nice slightly sweet flavor. Jalapenos were nice too." "Not classic onion rigs -- thinner and less crunchy. But the breading has great flavor, and love addition of fried jalapenos!" "At first taste, these were good. But after going for seconds, they got too limp and soggy." The creamy dip was perfect though." "Addicting. Easy to munch on. Peppery. Enjoyed dressing but didn't even need it."
Editor's Note: We dined at all chains anonymously -- no restaurant knew that we were evaluating the cuisine. The chains we visited were all located in the New York metro area.