34. Buffalo Wild Wings
Jim Disbrow got an unpleasant surprise when he relocated from Buffalo, New York to Ohio: The chicken wings in the Buckeye State left much to be desired.
So in 1982, Disbrow and his business partner founded a brand that now has more than 1,200 locations across the U.S. and 21 signature sauces and seasonings.
The original location was called Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck, as it also served a classic sandwich from back home. Beef on weck is made with rare, thin-cut roast beef on a kummelweck roll topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds. A bit of au jus and horseradish is also traditional.
Fun fact: The single TV in the original establishment only showed music videos until someone asked the owners to turn on the Ohio State game. In the end, sports won out.
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32. (tie) TGI Fridays
While it’s falling on hard times, TGI Fridays used to be jam-packed from happy hour until last call.
The original location in New York City was a singles bar that had the briefest of chalkboard menus, but growth resulted in a gargantuan menu. Back in the 1980s, everything from stuffed potato skins to eggs Benedict was made from scratch.
As Americans gravitate to either higher-end establishments or fast-food joints, TGI Fridays has been retooling its menu as part of an effort to return to its singles-bar roots.
Fun fact: Two items are found in almost every TGI Fridays: an airplane propeller over the bar to remind employees what propels the restaurant and a racing scull to remind them of the importance of teamwork.
32. (tie) Applebee’s
Millennials remember this childhood post-soccer hangout for its crowd-pleasing American fare, though Applebee’s has spent the last few years trying to expand its horizons.
The restaurant introduced more international and fusion cuisine like chicken wonton tacos while simultaneously wooing back baby boomers with its "2-for-$20" menu and all-you-can-eat dinner specials.
While Applebee’s has closed hundreds of locations, its fortunes were looking up before the pandemic hit.
Fun fact: While the company plays its branding straight these days, the original restaurant in Atlanta bore the more fanciful title of “T.J. Applebee's Rx for Edibles & Elixirs” when it opened in 1980.
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31. Ruby Tuesday
Founded in 1972, Ruby Tuesday was a pioneer of fresh ingredients and handcrafted cocktails. The very first one was a tiny hangout near the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Its strategy of opening in malls was a stroke of genius, at least until malls started dying off. Ruby Tuesday has half the locations it once did and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October 2020.
The company hopes that if it can keep doing the basics right — provide its hot food hot and its service with a smile — people will fall in love all over again.
Fun fact: As part of a brand makeover in 2008, the company announced it would stream the demolition of an old-fashioned Ruby Tuesday restaurant. When viewers tuned in, the company “accidentally” blew up a neighboring restaurant instead, later revealing it to be an elaborate marketing stunt.
28. (tie) Golden Corral
The home of the “endless” all-you-can-eat buffet started with a very basic idea 50 years ago. As of March 2020, the chain had close to 500 locations offering steaks, fried chicken, “awesome pot roast” and a long list of sides in 40 states.
But the pandemic hasn’t been kind to buffet restaurants. Golden Corral locations introduced sanitizer stations and other safety measures, including frequent replacement of its buffet serving utensils, but the company's largest franchisee filed for bankruptcy in October.
Still, the chain boasts on its website that “restaurants are reopening every day” after COVID-related shutdowns, and the chain now offers online ordering, takeout and delivery.
Fun fact: Golden Corral restaurants feature a “Brass Bell Bakery” (how’s that for a tongue twister?) with a bell that’s rung every few minutes to let customers know when fresh rolls, breads and pastries are coming out of the oven.
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28. (tie) IHOP
The founders of this breakfast behemoth opened the first, humble location in a Los Angeles suburb in 1958.
By 2008, the family-friendly chain had more than 1,400 locations. And by 2014, IHOP went truly international with locations in countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.
Over the last 15 years, crowds have clamored to sit and enjoy sweet stacks on National Pancake Day. The pandemic has forced the company to cancel its event in 2021, but don’t worry — you can sign up for an IOU that can be redeemed in April.
In addition to the world-famous pancakes, this road-trip staple has expanded the menu over the years to include a range of breakfast, lunch and dinner items. In January, IHOP ventured into the world of burritos and bowls.
Fun fact: IHOP is famous for more than one type of cake. The restaurant introduced funnel cakes for the first time in 2005 and quickly became America’s largest seller of the amusement park classic.
28. (tie) Denny’s
Name a more iconic American restaurant chain. We’ll wait.
Save for IHOP, Denny’s is the largest full-service breakfast brand in America, according to the Market Force survey. A fifth of survey respondents said that the home of the Grand Slam and Moons Over My Hammy was the casual dine-in breakfast chain they’d visited most recently.
It pays to have name recognition but it also pays to innovate. That’s exactly what Denny’s has done in recent years, revamping nearly 80% of its core entrees since 2011 and refreshing over 80% of the chain’s dining rooms as of mid-2019.
Fun fact: Would you believe that Denny’s started out under a different name? It’s true: Danny’s Donuts, which first opened in Southern California in 1956, was already a six-store chain when, to avoid confusion with a local competitor, it was rechristened Denny’s Coffee Shop in 1959.
Now a juggernaut of Mexican-inspired casual dining, this beloved chain started in 1973 as a burger joint in Dallas.
Since then, more than 1,600 locations have sprung up around the world, each offering American fare with a southwest flare.
In 2017, Chili’s made big changes to its menu, slashing 40% of its offerings — including Buffalo fried cauliflower and mango tilapia — in order to focus on timeless classics like ribs, fajitas and, yes, burgers.
Fun fact: Somewhere on the walls of every Chili’s location, you’ll find a framed picture that’s been hung upside down. No one knows how or why this tradition got started.
Cicis has been trying to reinvent itself, because the things fans loved most about this sit-down pizza chain have been major disadvantages during the pandemic.
At Cicis, you can pay one low price to fill and refill your plate with unlimited pizza, pasta, salad and desserts from buffet stations. But many people have grown wary of buffet basic practices — like the sharing of ladles and spatulas — because of COVID-19.
Though the chain has been putting more emphasis on online ordering and delivery, struggling Cicis filed for bankruptcy protection in late January.
Fun fact: The Cicis website doesn’t explain where the name came from, but it was founded by guys with the last names Croce and Cole (C-C's, get it?). Originally, the chain was called CiCi’s Pizza, but the apostrophe was eventually dropped and the second “C” became lower case.
25. Red Robin
Despite a string of restaurant closures in recent years, Red Robin is alive and serving up its beloved burgers.
Founded in Seattle 50 years ago, the chain has stayed a family-oriented hit with bottomless sides and a variety of bottomless drinks — hello, root beer floats — and a commitment to quality food.
After the pandemic hit, Red Robin cut a third of its menu — that’s 55 items — and the company decided to keep its menu simple long-term to focus on quality and to appeal to millennial families.
Fun fact: The Property Brothers from HGTV, Jonathan and Drew Scott, were both bussing at Red Robin in 1993.
24. Pizza Hut
This pizza chain with the iconic roof was founded by the Carey brothers, Dan and Frank, in Wichita, Kansas. They were still in college back in 1958 when they borrowed $600 from their mom to get the company up and running.
It’s now a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, Inc., which is a Fortune 100 company that also owns Taco Bell, KFC and WingStreet. In 1995, Pizza Hut unleashed its famous stuffed crust pizza on the market — “so good, you eat it backwards.”
Fans gave Pizza Hut especially high marks for its buffet service, though that has obviously been decimated by the pandemic.
Fun fact: In 2012, Pizza Hut launched a limited-edition perfume that smelled like “fresh dough with a bit of spice.” Bottles were sent out to 100 fans of the Pizza Hut Canada Facebook page, while a Valentine’s Day promotion the year after gave a few Americans the chance to get their hands on a bottle. Bottles have popped up on eBay for as much as $495.
23. Cheesecake Factory
Of all casual dining restaurants, Cheesecake Factory may have the most diverse menu. The chain says more than 250 dishes are made from scratch every day.
If you have the willpower to pass on a Glamburger — the restaurant took some heat in the past for its calorie-laden menu — peruse more than 50 low-cal options in the Skinnylicious section.
For dessert, one of almost 40 cheesecakes is bound to strike your fancy. Save plenty of time to decide, and be sure to bring your reading glasses.
Fun fact: The rapper Drake expressed his passion for the restaurant in the song Child’s Play. “Why you gotta fight with me at Cheesecake? You know I love to go there,” he sings in the music video, after a jilted lover played by Tyra Banks squishes a cheesecake into his face. “This a place for families that drive Camrys and go to Disney. They don't need to know all of our business.”
22. Logan’s Roadhouse
The Nashville-based steakhouse temporarily closed all of its locations in March 2020 when parent company CraftWorks filed for bankruptcy, but they reopened after getting acquired by a new investor.
The roadhouse favorites that keep customers coming back include wood-grilled steaks, burgers, ribs and American Roadhouse Meals.
The chain also offers choice cuts of meat from the Logan Butcher Shop for folks to grill at home.
Fun fact: Logan’s makes more than 98 million rolls a year — and you can add to that number when you order a dozen to go.
20. (tie) BJ’s Restaurants
BJ’s was born in 1978 as a pizza joint. When the first seven locations thrived, the owners bought out another chain and added a microbrewery.
Now there’s much more to BJ’s than pizza. The massive menu features both comfort food and healthy choices, and its signature beers have won more than 200 awards.
Fun fact: BJ's was originally named BJ Grunts as a tribute to a restaurant in Chicago called R.J. Grunts. But the founders dropped the "Grunts" and made it just BJ's after the other restaurant complained, the Los Angeles Times reports.
20. (tie) Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen
Cheddar’s opened way back in 1979, but the restaurant is staying on top of its game. Patrons still give it high marks for its food quality, good value and prompt service.
When parent company Darden announced the acquisition of Cheddar’s in 2017, Darden was the top gainer of the day on the S&P 500.
Cheddar’s is best known for comfort food, like country-fried steak and chicken pot pie, but there are plenty of waistline-friendly options, too.
There’s nothing especially cheesy about Cheddar’s. The name was proposed by a 5th grade class when founders Aubry Good and Doug Rogers asked for suggestions.
17. (tie) Waffle House
Waffle House promises “Good Food Fast” and offers much more than breakfast options. The menu includes burgers, sandwiches and melts, dinner plates and pies.
Favorites include — you guessed it — waffles along with hash brown bowls. The hefty All-Star Special serves up scrambled eggs, toast with jelly, a waffle, your choice of bacon, sausage or city ham and your choice of grits, hashbrowns or sliced tomatoes.
The brand owns its own record label, cranking out original songs like, “There Are Raisins in My Toast” and “Waffle House Steaks,” which you can listen to through the TouchTunes digital jukebox app.
Fun fact: Waffle House is well-known for its disaster preparedness. The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses a “Waffle House Index” to determine the severity of a disaster. When restaurants are open and serving full menus, the index is green. During a power outage or food supply shortage, Waffle House serves a truncated menu and the index is yellow. Red indicates severe damage and full restaurant shutdowns.
17. (tie) Outback Steakhouse
This Australian-inspired steakhouse capitalized on the popularity of the Crocodile Dundee films. Australians are famously fun-loving and gregarious, so the emphasis here is on hospitality.
Outback locations are warm and laid-back. Steak, chicken and seafood come in generous portions for modest prices, and you can look for special deals on Walkabout Wednesdays.
But Outback’s signature dish is the hand-carved, expertly fried, delectably seasoned Bloomin’ Onion. That’s just for starters, so come hungry.
Fun fact: The chain's founders never made a field trip to Australia before the opening because they weren't really aiming for authenticity. Now, Outback has eight locations Down Under.
17. (tie) Red Lobster
The very first “Harbor for Seafood Lovers” opened in 1968 in Lakeland, Florida. A couple years later, Red Lobster was acquired by General Mills — yes, the parent company of Cheerios, Häagen-Dazs, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury — and started spawning new locations all over.
Today, Red Lobster has more than 700 locations around the world.
The restaurant is known for its Ultimate Feast, which features a Maine lobster tail, wild-caught snow crab legs, garlic shrimp scampi, Walt’s Favorite Shrimp and rice and your choice of side.
Yet one offering is even more famous: its Cheddar Bay Biscuits, which were introduced in 1992 to keep guests occupied while waiting for a seat. The biscuits have become so popular they have their own Facebook page with more than 900,000 followers.
Fun fact: Every day, across Red Lobster’s North American locations, employees bake nearly a million biscuits. A fresh batch goes into the oven every 15 to 20 minutes. If all the Cheddar Bay Biscuits served in one day were stacked on top of each other, the pile would be 137 times the height of the Empire State Building.
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15. (tie) Olive Garden
For 37 years, Olive Garden has promoted togetherness and Italian-style generosity.
The largest Italian-themed chain in the country is famous for all-you-can-eat soup, salad and garlic bread. Its affordable, versatile menu features pronto lunches, early dinner duos and create-your-own pasta bowls. There are traditional favorites and creative specials that frequently change.
Because Olive Garden cheerfully accommodates large groups, it’s a mecca for business people, families and friends.
Fun fact: Olive Garden's Never Ending Pasta Bowl promotions were so popular that the chain's Never Ending Pasta Passes — which offer all-you-can-eat carbs for either eight weeks or an entire year — sold out in less than a second in 2014.
15. (tie) Bob Evans Restaurants
Founder Bob Evans, who died in 2007, treated strangers like friends and friends like family. The heartfelt hospitality came through in these farm-themed casual restaurants and made the biscuits and sausage gravy taste even better.
Breakfast is served all day for people who crave pancakes or pot roast hash midafternoon, and plenty of people apparently do — there are 500 Bob Evans locations.
Down-home favorites on the dinner menu include classic meatloaf, potato-crusted fried flounder and slow-roasted turkey.
Fun fact: Bob Evans started out making sausage on his farm in southeastern Ohio to sell at a diner he owned nearby. The original restaurant had just 12 stools and was called The Sausage Shop.
12. (tie) Marco’s Pizza
Plenty of chains allow customers to build their own pizzas, but how many let you make your own pizza bowl? (Think all the yummy pizza toppings, sans crust.)
This franchise was founded in 1978 by Italian-born Pasquale “Pat” Giammarco in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio. Today, Marco’s Pizza operates hundreds of stores across the U.S. and in three other countries.
Marco’s offers subs, salads, sides and desserts as well.
Fun fact: The “Ah!thentic” pizza franchise has a learning lab so franchise owners can make pizza for corporate staff and earn a completion certificate, as part of their training. Some delicious desserts and limited-time specialty pizzas have been created in the test kitchen.
12. (tie) Sweet Tomatoes
Sweet Tomatoes, or Souplantation in southern California, devastated fans when it permanently shuttered all of its locations in May 2020.
The buffet chain, with its all-you-can-eat soups and salad fixings, was another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parent company Garden Fresh CEO John Haywood told Restaurant Business Online that converting the self-serve business model into table service or pickup and delivery just wasn’t working.
Sweet Tomatoes’ iconic 50-foot salad bar offered over 100 ingredients to build your own salads and soups, with pasta, pizza and other baked items included as well.
Fun fact: The restaurant website had a “Sprouts Only” page for kids, which included games, coloring sheets and puzzles to promote healthy eating.
10. (tie) Blaze Pizza
Blaze is shaking things up with its made-to-order approach, fast service and healthy options. The executive chef, Bradford Kent, is known as the “Pizza Whisperer.”
Pizzas are created on an assembly line as customers choose toppings. Crispy perfection is the result of fast-firing the pies in a blazing oven for 180 seconds.
Blaze was founded in Pasadena in 2011, and the company had plans to hit 500 locations worldwide by 2020.
Fun fact: Pro baller LeBron James was an original investor in the company, with a $1 million stake in 2012. He enjoys turkey meatballs, kalamata olives and banana peppers on his Blaze Pizza.
10. (tie) Carrabba’s Italian Grill
This popular Italian-American chain was launched in 1986 by Johnny Carrabba III and his uncle Damian Mandola. The two are self-described Sicilian boys from Texas who love to cook and eat.
Expect robust, rustic fare, and expect a lot of it.
You can soak up the energy and sample what’s currently on the stove by dining at Carrabba’s Kitchen Counter.
Customers say the signature Chicken Bryan, topped with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and lemon-butter sauce, is heavenly.
Fun fact: Mandola and Carrabba hosted their own cooking show on PBS, titled Cucina Sicilia. In each episode, they shared cooking secrets and showed viewers how to make authentic Sicilian classics.
8. (tie) Maggiano’s Little Italy
Just like nonna, this Italian-American chain refuses to let patrons go home hungry.
The portion sizes at Maggiano’s Little Italy are huge, and with Today & Tomorrow Pastas — choose two, and one is free to take home — you can feed a starving linebacker for a week.
That said, the company promises not to judge if you prefer to think of it as “Today & Later Today Pasta.”
Fun fact: The restaurant’s namesake was a real person, though not quite as Italian as you might expect. Marvin Magid was an associate of restaurant tycoon Rich Melman. When Magid died in a helicopter crash in Hawaii, Melman wanted to name something after him — so he combined “Mag” with “iano” to make it sound more appropriate.
8. (tie) Bonefish Grill
Fans are hooked on the quality, attention to detail and craft cocktails at Bonefish Grill, which was founded by two fishermen in Florida in 2000. Along with Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s, it is now owned by Bloomin’ Brands.
The menu features seasonal ingredients, like Maryland soft-shell crabs in spring. Preparation on an oak-burning grill and minimal seasoning enhance the fish’s natural flavors.
Fun fact: After billionaire investor Warren Buffett married his second wife Astrid Menks in a brief civil ceremony in 2006, they went out for a small family dinner party at the Bonefish Grill in Omaha, Nebraska, where Buffett lives, according to The New York Times.
6. (tie) Cracker Barrel
For Southern hospitality, it’s tough to beat Cracker Barrel. The stone fireplaces, rocking chairs and local artifacts have drawn diners for 50 years.
The menu, featuring Southern staples like chicken and dumplings, catfish and turnip greens, has expanded to include local favorites and lighter fare.
Market Force says the chain scores especially high for its friendly service and "inviting atmosphere."
Fun fact: With the expansion of America’s highway system in the ’50s and ’60s, restaurant founder Dan Evins knew isolated travelers would appreciate a consistent, nostalgic, home-style meal. So he built a gas station off the highway and added a small restaurant and gift shop called Cracker Barrel — a reference to old country stores where people chatted while hanging around barrels full of soda crackers.
6. (tie) LongHorn Steakhouse
First and foremost, this ranch-themed restaurant promises its menu is designed by steak lovers for steak lovers.
However, in addition to affordable steaks, customers have ribs, seafood, burgers and more than 30 lunch combos to choose from.
Feel bad about the carbon footprint of all that meat? Each LongHorn location has a sustainability team that oversees recycling and energy use. And they’ve collectively donated over 23 million pounds of fresh food to their local communities.
Fun fact: The first LongHorn opened to little fanfare in Atlanta in 1981. But when a freak snow storm blew into town the next year, it was stampeded by stranded motorists. It’s been sunny skies ever since.
4. (tie) Mellow Mushroom
Born out of the “free-wheelin’ hippy culture of the ’70s,” this Atlanta-based resto dishes up stoned-baked pizzas in an eclectic, art-filled environment.
It offers calzones and hoagies in addition to build-your-own pies and house specialty pizzas.
The site has a special Community Karma page that salutes the contributors who create works of art for Mellow Mushroom locations.
Fun fact: While McDonald’s had Grimace and the Hamburglar, Mellow Mushroom has a groovy cast of characters adorning its own stores, calendars and comic strips. Shroomville and the Mellow Mushroom Mothership play host to Mel. O Mushroom, the Funguys, Esperanza and more.
4. (tie) MOD Pizza
MOD Pizza’s popularity stems from its customizable pies. Customers have more than 30 toppings to choose from, all at one set price, and can even create their own salad combos.
That said, you can always choose one of the house pizzas, like the Maddy classic cheese or the Jasper mushroom and spicy chicken sausage.
Husband and wife duo Scott and Ally Svenson founded MOD in Seattle in 2008, inspired by their own quest for fast and affordable restaurant options for their growing family.
Fun fact: The chain made headlines for giving a second chance to ex-convicts. CNN Business reports that many former felons have gone on to become store managers and brand ambassadors.
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3. Texas Roadhouse
Clarksville, Indiana, is nowhere near Texas, but that’s where these casual dining restaurants got their start in 1993.
The steaks are hand-cut, the bread is fresh-baked, and the peanuts are free. Jukeboxes, line dancing and Texas-friendly service are all part of the experience.
Texas Roadhouse has more than 600 locations in 49 states and dozens more across 10 countries, including Kuwait, the Philippines and China.
Fun fact: Country music star Willie Nelson became friends with the company’s founder after meeting at a Farm Aid benefit concert. Now each Texas Roadhouse location has a Willie’s Corner — a dedicated area that celebrates his career.
2. Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen
The Pappas brothers have several casual dining concepts — including Pappas Burger, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and Pappasito’s Cantina — but Pappadeaux is the largest.
Few casual restaurants have such hands-on operators. Pappadeaux owns and operates its delivery trucks to ensure food arrives fresh from the docks.
The company says its French Quarter-style menu continually changes to incorporate seasonal ingredients, and sauces are made from scratch every day.
Fun fact: The company’s do-it-yourself approach goes far beyond delivery trucks. Pappas Restaurants employs its own electricians and even makes its own dining chairs.
1. First Watch
Scorning deep fryers and heat lamps, this daytime-only chain boasts fresh, made-to-order foods. If you ask for coffee, you’ll get a whole pot — and a complimentary newspaper.
First Watch opened in 1983 in California, and Market Force says it's now America's favorite breakfast chain. It tops competitors for the quality of its food, its healthy menu options and the attention it pays to food allergies.
Fun fact: The name “First Watch” comes from a nautical term for the first shift of the day. That’s why the restaurant chain serves breakfast, brunch and lunch from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
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