Over the years that I have been writing about food, friends have questioned whether or not I have a bias against chain restaurants. I do. I have a preference for locally owned and operated establishments, which do, generally, turn out much better food and offer a more enjoyable dining experience. But, I can’t ignore the fact that some chain restaurants actually do serve some pretty good food, very good in some cases.
Here is a list of regional and national chains which have operations in Houston that I do enjoy. I’ve excluded the home-grown places, since these are, to my mind, well, local places. Hamburgers and steaks are two themes that seem to do well in replication.
Though Austin restaurants in general are ridiculously overhyped, this old school transplant is still a favorite for no-fuss Tex-Mex. Actually, it would be a favorite stop, but the River Oaks location, the only one somewhat close to me, is seemingly always packed and parking is a hassle. Maybe I am biased because I was visiting the original location when it was still just a single outpost on Barton Springs Road during my very unsophisticated undergraduate days in Austin, but the food is consistently well-prepared, flavorful, and it is a very good value to boot. It can be a fun place, too. I’m still a sucker for their enchiladas, chile rellenos, and the additive creamy jalapeño dip. There are seven area locations.
For some reason I have always felt that the Galleria location of this upscale steakhouse chain from the Dallas area has been quite inviting. It is certainly not the steep menu prices, but maybe the consistency in the quality of the preparation of the steaks, the professionalism of the operation, or maybe the light from the big windows warming the plentiful dark woods for a warmer feel in this appropriately masculine setting. To be honest, the appeal is mostly the steaks, which seem to be worth tariff when dining here. One area location.
Consistency and the juicy, beefy and flavorful hamburger patties are the biggest reasons why I keep coming back to this national burger chain. Noticeably good ingredients like the sautéed mushrooms help, as does the slice of (the processed) American cheese, which really does make for a better burger here. The appeal is the basic burger and fries done very well. Eighteen Houston area locations.
Another burger concept that churns out quality burgers for a fair price, I’ve enjoyed Fuddrucker’s for years. Freshly made buns are much better than typical and a big plus to making these a tasty treat, but it begins with the quality beef patties that are nicely available for four different hamburger sizes. The condiments bar featuring a wide array of hamburger toppings is also a welcome addition. Nineteen Houston locations.
Better-than-usual comfort food done well in comfortable settings are why these restaurants are always crowded during peak times. Though I have enjoyed eating at Houston’s over the years and I still believe that they do a good job, there is really no reason to eat at Houston’s in its namesake city. There are too many other good restaurant options offering similar, and I believe, better fare. With that, Houston’s has been a great choice when traveling. Two area locations.
I have been a fan of this French-inspired casual café since it was a single location in Dallas and a hotspot for coeds from nearby SMU. The latter might have affected my affection, but it has been their assertive, very not-French Caesar salad, quiches made with properly flaky crusts, croquet monsieurs, and tomato-basil soup that has had me coming back to the various locations in Houston for years. Their pastries are very good, too, and La Madeleine also does a fine job for the breakfast hours. Fourteen Houston area locations.
Now owned by Houston-based Landry’s – not necessarily a plus, in my opinion – this steakhouse chain began life as a single restaurant in Chicago and provided the show-the-customer-the-pre-cooked-steak-and-barely-moving-lobster that has long been copied by other steakhouses. I have always had a very good experience at Morton’s (which has nothing to do with the fact that a client or company was usually picking up the always considerable tab). The steaks have been tremendously flavorful and cooked as ordered, and the starch or cream-laden sides properly baroque in stature, a perfect complement. There is a location in the Galleria area and another downtown.
Expense-account steakhouse chains, with their buying power for prime beef and the straightforward cooking necessary technique for their staple dishes, lend themselves to quality replications. The different upscale steakhouse chains are not terribly different than each other. Some are just better than others, or more consistent than others. The Palm has a few Italian-American items on the menu, but maybe it is more of an emphasis on huge lobsters – steakhouses’ second major protein offering – that helps sets the Houston location apart just a little from its direct chain competitors. One Houston location.
I have to admit I was not a big fan when the first of these hit the Houston area from Guatemala (yes, Guatemala). The very first American location might have been the one on Bellaire in Gulfton, and I found the chickens rather scrawny and less flavorful than the African-American chicken places I frequented on a regular basis. Since that time the menu and the concept has expanded from its chicken-centric concept and there are many items suited to local tastes, at least my tastes. The settings are clean and inviting enough and a couple steps above the usual fast-food restaurant. Four Houston area locations.
Where as Five Guys takes a sloppy, but still very commendable approach to the great American hamburger, Smashburger’s offerings are a bit more refined, though just about as tasty, and with more menu options, including healthier ones. The burgers and fries, especially the garlic-rosemary Smash Fries, are consistently quite satisfying and the settings are more comfortable, and much more so than the typical burger joint. Sixteen area locations.