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 7: Spinach Dip.
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.
For our seventh installment, we examined spinach dip. Although these came in several different iterations -- with artichoke, with seafood, etc. -- the core ingredients (spinach and cheese) remained the same. At worst, these were gloppy, oily and soapy. At best, they actually had a noticeable spinach flavor. Also worth noting: bad tortilla chips can ruin a good spinach dip.
Week 1: Buffalo Wings
Week 2: Nachos
Week 3: Mozzarella Sticks
Week 4: Potato Skins
Week 5: French Fries
Week 6: Onion Rings
Check out the results below (high score: 5, low score: 1), and check back next week for Chain Food Showdown, Vol. 8: Chicken Fingers.
"Sad and disappointing. It quite literally tasted like a package of frozen spinach mixed with a bag of pre-shredded, low-moisture, part-skim, 'mozzarella.'" "Bland, cream cheese mess." "Not much spinach or artichoke flavor, mostly just cheese." "Chips tasted like chlorine." "Creamy and no vegetable taste. Soapy chips."
"Nice and garlicky." "Really good but miss the chips." "Good with the buttery bread, holds up nicely. Garlicky." "Bland, bread to dip ratio too big." "Bread bowl maybe a little stale but actual dip is tasty." "Gloopy and too heavy."
"A little greasy, but exactly what artichoke dip should taste like, plus seafood!" "Too oily." "What a great creamy flavor, but way too oily and no real spinach taste." "Greasy. There was a problem with the separation of cheese and oil. Nicely spiced, though." "Very thin and oily, not enough evidence of lobster or shrimp, as promised." "Too much garlic."
"Gloopy, gross sludge. Should be called 'spinach and trace amounts of artichoke dip.'" "A lot of cheese and a lot of spinach." "It was hard to stop eating this dip, especially with the awesome tortilla chips. It was just creamy enough to be addictive but not too creamy that it felt over-greasy." "Solid. Could use a little more artichoke flavor. Tortilla chips were tasty."
"Lots of artichoke!" "Lots of vegetables, but they're too grainy and chunky. It's lacking creaminess." "Good balance of spinach and artichoke. Garlicky but sort of starchy." "Very full flavor! Not too creamy -- but lots of garlic and cheese. Slightly too much salt."
"Nicely balanced, with good crispy cheese top." "Could use a little more artichoke." "Not strongly spinach flavored but really nicely creamy and crispy. But where was the artichoke?" "Bit boring and too creamy." "No spinach flavor." "Lots of artichoke chunks. Very creamy."
"Very vegetal. The cheese binds the vegetables together rather than being soupy." "This dip made me re-evaluate my opinion of spinach artichoke dip. I never thought they could taste this good. There was a nice amount of veggie and wasn't heavy on the grease." "Great chunks of artichoke and great amount of spinach." "Healthier seeming than others but ends up a little bland."
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.