The answer is … Chili’s. No wait, that’s only according to a new study focused on the Best Cheap Family Restaurant. Other surveys give top honors to The Cheesecake Factory. Or Bonefish Grill. Or In-N-Out Burger. Or Chick-fil-A. Or, well, you get the idea.
Every “best” list is inevitably met with critics who are eager to argue why the rankings are flawed. Part of the reason why these lists are created to begin with is because they’re bound to be followed with discussion. TIME is no stranger to lists, of course. See: The 10 Best Brand Extensions, Top 10 Nude Magazine Covers, and the All-TIME Best 100 Novels, to name a few.
In a foodie world that runs the gamut from Chef Boyardee to Nobu and everything in between, little is more subjective than the personal tastes that factor into reviews of food and restaurants. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s rarely a consensus about any “best” restaurant.
Restaurant rankings are fun anyway, and they can be helpful and informative when broken down into subcategories that mean more to different niche dining groups. Cheapism, a site that specializes in all things cheap and investigates penny-conscious matters such as whether Costco or Sam’s Clubs have better prices and how shopping outlets match up with traditional malls, has just released its Cheap Family Restaurant rankings.
One part of the study strictly tallied up prices. The researchers visited five comparable sit-down chains—Applebee’s, Chili’s, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, TGI Friday’s—and added up the cost of a cheeseburger, a chicken dish, an entree salad, and a kids meal at each chain. Applebee’s was cheapest ($36.74, before tax or tip), while Outback cost the most ($41.44).
That’s not even a $5 difference, though, so Cheapism decided to factor in things like portion size, special diet menu items, lunch deals, and happy hour beverage prices, as well as data from various consumer surveys, before naming a Best Cheap Family Restaurant Chain Champ. After crunching the numbers, the crown went to Chili’s:
Chili’s was one of the cheapest restaurants we sampled. The food was fresh and enjoyable and the portions were large and filling. The restaurant offers plenty of healthful choices — even on the kids menu. Frugal diners generally echo our assessment in reviews.
In terms of drinks, Outback scored points for $2 American draft beers every day. The chain doesn’t offer happy hour specials, but with $2 drafts you probably don’t need them. TGI Friday’s, on the other hand, gets no love in any part of the study:
This restaurant served one of the most expensive meals we ate, yet seemed to offer the least value. The food was rather bland and looked like something we could have made at home at far less expense. Many reviewers seem to agree on this point. One expert ranks the chain among the most unhealthful in America.
Again, though, each survey and “best” or “top” results tend to be a little different. A Nation’s Restaurant News survey in which consumers picked the Top 10 Casual Dining Chains had Bonefish Grill (known for fish dishes, especially liked by men and millenials) at the top of the list, with P.F. Chang’s and The Cheesecake Factory right behind.
The results of a study from the research firm MarketForce, meanwhile, has had The Cheesecake Factory named #1 for two years and running. Texas Roadhouse and Olive Garden have been ranked #2 and #3, respectively, in the survey for the past two years. The latter’s high ratings may be surprising since, despite one highly publicized rave review of the chain, business has been bad at Olive Garden lately and the restaurant is undergoing a major menu revamping to try to win back customers.
In still more restaurant rankings, Zagat’s names winners in a wide range of fast food categories, including burgers (Five Guys), grilled chicken (Chick-fil-A), French fries (McDonald’s), smoothies (Red Mango), wings (Buffalo Wild Wings), and fish (Long John Silver’s). As for Consumer Reports, its top marks went to McCormick & Schmick, Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano, First Watch, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and Capital Grille in a 2009 study, while the magazine named In-N-Out Burger as the highest-rated chain last summer.