Should Northern Virginia Magazine Review Chain Restaurants?

Posted by / Monday, March 12th, 2012

Marilyn Hagerty, an 85 year old restaurant critic for the Grand Forks Herald, reviewed the town’s 6-week-old Olive Garden. Hagerty notes the opening was much anticipated, with waits stretching an hour long at lunch.

She compliments the “attractive bar area” near the entry way, as well as the Italian-American classic, chicken Alfredo, which she called “warm and comforting on a cold day.”

Hagerty’s review has since gone viral, landing the critic on national television shows (see video above). The attention rotates between out-right mocking (who would eat at an Olive Garden, let alone take it seriously enough to write about it for a newspaper) and endearing condescension (oh, look, that little old lady is so cute and so out-of-touch with current food trends.)

But does Hagerty have a point?

Chain restaurants are by nature not supposed to vary from location to location. Jack Daniels flavored ribs should taste the same in Birmingham as in Oakland. This type of restaurant, where consistency is valued over creativity, would not normally deserve editorial ink. 

Unique, locally-owned restaurants open with regularity in Northern Virginia, allowing this magazine to focus on these community-building businesses instead of a new TGI Friday. But do occasional check-ins at chain restaurants offer any incite into the dining scene? Is it important to eat how “corporate America” wants us to eat, to understand mass-appeal, nationally-enjoyed dinners? 

Should Northern Virginia Magazine ever review a chain restaurant?

[tips for the food desk / follow @gansie]

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37 Responses

kathy Says:

I think yes, unfortunately our area is full of franchise restaurants and because of that a review now and then would be helpful, especially if the chain is new to the area.

Red Brixton Says:

Certainly, chains should be reviewed. Start with Subway (yummy “turkey” breast sandwiches!). Feature quotes from the new Head Sandwich Maker.

Next up: Starbucks. Did you hear about the new Mild Grande with Peach?

Stefanie Gans Says:

thanks for chiming in kathy. what are your favorite chains?

Jason Says:

Yes! Not all chain restaurants are created equal and having regular reviews would be beneficial.

Jan Says:

MOST definitely, YES! It would be helpful to those who are not anal like I [constantly reading Eat This, Not That and other websites/pages to find out about chains]. For instance, MANY could benefit from information about a venue like Romano’s [who has horrible service and the LEAST nutritious food of most chains, with the exception of Cheescake Factory who rates #1 as the worst] – and my fav, Olive Garden has great food but sometimes certain dishes are really not healthy – service is usually pretty good and not a super long wait…Can’t say that for Carraba’s! A real disappointment across the board. SO bring it on!

Karen Anspach Says:

Absolutely review them. It will help keep them on their toes and let us know if it is worth a drive to the other side of town to dine at the “other” one. My husband and I find a great difference in chains where we have visited more than one location.

Charles "Charley" Metcalf Says:

Stefanie …

Absolutely. You have a responsibility to advise and protect wary foodies of where to spend and where not to spend their hard-earned money. That’s why I critiqued your recent review of a restaurant in Dale City, Virginia. And, under separate cover I’ll send you a review of an eatery in Arlington.

Michelle Says:

I agree. The quality can vary a lot, which can be frustrating, and an external review might be just the way to bring QC back to the experience we expect to have. I’d like to know which locations are reliable and which are not.

Cathy Says:

Yes I would enjoy reading the reviews for local chain restaurants. I think it would be so helpful since so many of us frequently eat there.

Cathy Says:

YES – some chains are very good and some are amazingly bad. It would be nice to know the difference.

We went to a place in Florida called Sweet Tomatoes and it was super for a quick, fresh lunch of mostly salads, soup and bread. We didn’t know it was a chain and wish there was one in NOVA.

Valarie Says:

No way! There are too many local family-owned places that would kill for a chance to be reviewed! Why waste your time with a place we could all go to just about anywhere? Lets focus on what makes our area special an unique!

Joan Says:

Kathy and Red make good points. However, Grand Forks is not Northern VA–and I would much rather see reviews of the multitude of locally owned and operated restaurants. Local businesses are the lifeblood of our communities; why not focus on them?

ADSinNoVA Says:

Chain restaurant quality can also vary from location to location and it’s helpful to know–especially to those of us with kids–if a certain outpost is better than another. Beyond that, some chain restaurants are actually quite good and offer good food and reasonable prices. And while it’s of course always preferable to frequent local restaurants with local ownership, it is also not always possible. Maybe you can start with upscale chain–the Maggianos of the world–and then move forward from there. Heck, even Clyde’s is a chain as well as the various franchises of the massively popular Great American restaurants. Go for it!

A. L. Henrichsen Says:

NO! Lets support our own locally owned restaurants.

Alexis Says:

These days it seems like it’s increasingly likely that newly-opening restaurants will be part of a chain of some kind, even if that might be a small locally-owned group of restaurants. That can’t be the sole determinant of whether a restaurant gets reviewed.

It’s definitely preferable to focus on local businesses, but I think that national sit-down chains above the casual sit-down dining level are worth reviewing, especially for chains where there may be only one or two locations in the Washington area (e.g., Seasons 52). High-demand chains at lower price points might also be worth reviewing – people may want to know whether it’s worth waiting in long lines for heavily-hyped new arrivals.

In both of those cases, it would also be good to provide a compare-and-contrast to similar local offerings – even if it’s just a quick sidebar to remind people of an existing review for the local competitor.

Kathleen Says:

I think that all restaurants should be reviewed.

Jeff L. Says:

Let me take care of this for you:

The link I posted has plenty of reviews for chain restaurants. Let others publish reviews of the obvious and mundane and let Northern Virginia Magazine continue to review the variety of local haute cuisine restaurants in the area. If you review chain restaurants, what’s next? Telling us about the great bargains at Target and K-Mart?

Carol Leon Says:

Yes, if it is the calibre of Maggiano’s, Shula’s or Carrabba’s and Outback.

Annie Says:

When I first moved here from Denver, I missed Chipotle a LOT. It’s good food, not too expensive and a great alternative to a burger and fries. We had to find out by luck when they actually showed up in our area. It would be nice to spotlight chains like these who actually try to create a good product. I would really love to know when Yahoo Fish Tacos or In and Out burgers are coming here :) Maybe review some smaller, less known chains specific to the East Coast?

Kate Says:

I say no. Living in Arlington, there are SO many amazing eateries that are not chains that your reviews help me make a decision on which to try next. A chain is a chain and generally tastes the same no matter if you have it here or in California. I love the diversity in the small community based restaurants here and haven’t eaten at a chain since I moved here (2008) solely because of the amazing culinary choices.


I support the idea, but find someone who can do it without being snarky. It would be a real service to the community.

andrea Says:

I think there are cases where it’s valid, for example the Great American restaurant group (Carlyle, Coastal Flats, Arties, Sweetwater, etc). They aren’t national, so someone new to the area might not even know they are a chain. And Jaleo has Dc, VA, MD and Vegas locations, but I definitely wouldn’t lump them in with Olive Garden either. Maybe the criteria is fewer than 10 locations and/or a renowned chef attached? Or a bigger chain with local roots (a la Five Guys) I’m not sure how you draw the line…

Jeff H Says:

Absolutely. Seasons 52, a sister chain of Olive Garden, is worth a review. Alternatively, chains provide an opportunity for benchmarking. For example, if Olive Garden is worthy of three out of five stars, Ruffinos in Arlington might earn three and one-half stars (good, inexpensive sauce and gravy restaurant that’s not for foodies but a value for families). The benchmark provides perspective that may otherwise be missing in a review.

Geoff Says:

Absolutely not, chains usually have their food mass produced, frozen, and then microwaved or thawed and reheated so all chains maintain consistency. With so many great local mom and pop restaurants that could be reviewed to bring in customers, why waste resources on over sized portions of unremarkable food. And incidentally, I am not in the restaurant or food business.

Sandi Says:

Why not? These are the places we go to for lunch when we are shopping or are out for an appointment, etc. More upscale places are reserved for planned lunches and dinners
by most of us. We like convenience and consistency, so it would be nice to have some assurance that there is a level of competency accompanying the latter.

T Says:

Chain restaurants shouldn’t get reviews. They normally have big advertising budgets, including TV commercials, web and print advertisements, to spread the word. Independent restaurants normally do not have these things to attract customers. They have local owners, real people with real families, and hard earned money at stake. They need all the exposure, good or bad, that they can get. Local, independent restaurants and shops have a more difficult time attracting customers mainly because the lack of knowledge that they exist. And a lot of times they are significantly better than the chains. It’s like reviewing the coffee at Starbucks; why do that? A significant portion of the population has been to a Starbucks at one time or another; there’s no reason to generate more business for them by giving them a review. Local, independent coffee shops should be getting reviewed, so that your audience knows about them and those places become more approachable. In turn, it just might make customers more willing to search for a locally owned restaurant or coffee shop knowing that they get better service, better food, and are supporting the local economy.

John F Says:

Not every meal can be at L’Auberge Chez Francois or El Manantial or Bazin’s on Church Street. The reality is that most of us eat at chain restaurants more than we care to admit. The menus at chain restaurants get updated periodically, and it might be that a chain we spurned has added a line of options that were previously missing – like how Outback expanded into seafood at Bonefish Grill. Worth a try to gauge reader reaction .

Ron Says:

Yes. Definitely!

Shay Says:

No way! There are so many great local eateries that could really benefit from the NOVA Mag reviews. It is how I find out about them!

Tanya Says:

Yes, but probably just the chains that may be newer to the area, like Il Forniao, Vapiano or even Jersey Mikes. Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday and Chilis? Not so much.

Shesh Says:

Why would anyone choose to review a chain restaurant, unless of course you don’t support small businesses. I will continue to support the small business owner and I believe our local magazines and newspapers do the same.

Johanna Says:

I would have to say no. I agree with the sentiment that we should remain supporting local, mom & pop, small businesses. Chains do not need the marketing, they are no original, and have larger backing. We need to support the local entrepreneurs, the chefs and investors that create the great variety of places we have to eat. I have seen to many other cities and towns go gag over chains, and the small and local and ethnic fall by the way side and disappear. It is very sad when I visit other places and all they have to offer is the Olive Garden because when the chains showed up, the locals all lost the support and business. Small businesses need the support and marketing they get from local reviews. Lets keep supporting and growing that market. We have GREAT DIVERSITY here, and it is sad when we lose another great little enterprise because the franchise opens up two doors down. Please keep the focus on our community! Thank you!

Nicole Says:

Yes, they should be reviewed. The national reputation is not nearly important as the local information. Not all places are created equal. A restaurant is a restaurant, right?

kathy Says:

i think in this area the great american restaurants are very popular, but most of the time i feel like their food is very cookie cutter. I LOVE The Counter at reston town center, i also really enjoy Glory Days for a casual night out. i feel like places like mon ami gabi and passion fish don’t always live up to their hype. i have had terrible service at mon ami gabi and passion fish while nice can be overly expensive. lately i’ve been enjoying place like Guapos for a bit more of an authentic feel instead of the more tex mex like chains like on the border or uncle julios, and some new places like McAlisters Deli have really disappointed.

kathy Says:

oh i almost forgot, i am also really liking Dogfish ale house.

Melissa Says:

In general, I prefer not to see chains reviewed. But if a chain is new and has something different to offer (sustainably raised food, consistently fresh ingredients, or something to that effect)I would be interested. Standard big chains with frozen and microwaved, cookie cutter food? No thanks.

Loree Says:

Yes, chain restaurants should be reviewed. Would you add Red Hot & Blue Restaurants to your vote list ?

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