As a food writer, there are two questions I get asked most frequently. The first is the predictable (and unanswerable), “What’s you favorite restaurant?” The second is, “Do you ever eat at fast-food/chain restaurants?” After all my stories about 14-course meals, exotic ingredients and amazing beverage pairings, many of my friends seem genuinely shocked to hear that I also patronize some of the same simple restaurants they do. Granted, I haven’t had a McDonald’s hamburger in years, and could happily go the rest of my life without another one. But there are plenty of great chains out there. Here are five of my favorites.
SAMMY’S WOODFIRED PIZZA: While owner Sam Ladeki has 18 locations in California and Nevada, the place doesn’t feel like a chain. More importantly, it doesn’t taste like a chain. In addition to its excellent pizzas, made with fresh, top-notch ingredients, it offers an internationally inspired selection of small plates, 10 salads and various pastas, sandwiches and burgers. It’s also introduced a large selection of vegetarian and gluten-free items. For me, the duck tacos alone are worth a visit.
FIREHOUSE SUBS: Firehouse is light years ahead of giant chains such as Subway, and in my book it even edges out local favorite Capriotti’s. Its hot subs in particular are huge, delicious and a bit more original then what the other guys offer. Throw in an unrivaled collection of hot sauces and a charitable foundation that supports public-safety organizations across the country, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
SMASHBURGER: I generally don’t eat fast-food burgers, because the quality tends to be horrible. But from time to time I do crave a good burger and don’t feel like coughing up the dough for one in a high-end restaurant. In those instances, I’ll go to one of two chains. The first is Smashburger, which offers the best-tasting burger you’ll find for under $10. Everything is cooked fresh to order. Burgers start as meatballs literally smashed onto the grill, so the patties are loosely formed and messy. And there are some truly inspired combinations of toppings.
ELEVATION BURGER: While Smashburger just beats out Elevation for taste, the latter makes up for it by being healthier — for me and the planet. All of its beef is grass-fed and free-range, 100 percent antibiotic-free and ground in the restaurant. The company is also dedicated to sustainability and recycling in its factories and the restaurants. And the fact that the menu lists the calorie content of every ingredient you use to build your burger convinced me to forgo an extra slice of cheese on at least one occasion.
PANERA BREAD: A great sandwich has to start with great bread, and Panera does just that by making all of its breads in house every day. Meats and cheese are top-notch, and it uses some pretty amazing spreads, such as artichoke-parmesan, or chipotle mayo. I’ve spent many an afternoon taking advantage of its WiFi access while enjoying a soup-and-half-sandwich combo.
Check out the rest of our Fall Dining issue: