Not that I want to spend any more time discussing this quintessential modern chain palace of oversized-portion blandness, but there's an interesting article in Slate about exactly this phenomenon of wildly popular modern chains aspiring to fine dining (as the article notes, Cheesecake Factory-- unlike Applebee's, say-- can call something Miso Salmon without having to explain what Miso is. Or salmon, for that matter.)
I think he gets close to something without exactly hitting it on the head: he notes how many of the dishes have a sweet flavored sauce ("Everything was cooked competently, but way too many dishes were coated in syrupy sauces (including the Miso Salmon)").
I've always thought that the reason McDonald's is so insanely popular with kids is that it's really a kind of hamburger candy-- the fries are actually coated with a sugar spray that caramelizes, and the burgers taste primarily of sweet ketchup and very mild onions and pickles, not of salt and mustard (as say a Wendy's hamburger does). So people who grow up on such food and want better things may find much fresher and higher quality ingredients at these chains (there's no arguing with the raw ingredients that go into the wok at P.F. Chang's, say-- just the sauce they get coated with) but still get a meal whose dominant note throughout is sweetness, just like when they were six.
Also, he invents another good rule that I imagine is specific to chains: "It was at Outback that I developed my theory of anti-eponymy; in other words, don't order a dish if it's in the name of the restaurant."
Anyway, an interesting piece on The Enemies of Chowhoundism.
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