By Peter D. and Andrew S. ’20
There are few things that define a culture more prominently than its food. The nuances and delicate threads of a nation’s history can be traced through its cuisine more easily than perhaps any other medium. In the United States, some purists might search for our land’s heritage in everything from Southern soul food to Wisconsin bratwursts to Cali-Mex fish tacos. Their efforts are in vain.
For at least several decades, the most elevated form of American dining has been enormous, mass-marketed chain restaurants.
And not all of these joints were created equal. Two Gryphon Gazette writers set out on a journey to reach the core of our democracy, one burger, slice of pizza, or ice cream cone at a time. After weighing a multitude of factors, these freelance correspondents condensed their knowledge into a single list, producing a ranking of the Top 100 Greatest Chain Restaurants. The first installment of their list, entrees 100-91, is found below. Bon appetit!
An all-too-familiar sight?
- Waffle House
This Southern breakfast spot holds the ignominious distinction of coming in dead-last in our ranking. The fast-food diner is burdened by the unholy trinity of disgusting food, lackluster service, and raucous clientele. To that point, here is a by no means exhaustive list of notable crimes that have taken place within the establishment:
- A waitress at a Waffle House in Beaufort, SC, was arrested for clubbing a customer over the head with a hot coffeepot in 2012.
- In 2011, a Waffle House in Toccoa, GA, was identified as the headquarters of an anti-government group of senior citizens who planned to protest federal action by spreading ricin over Washington, D.C.
- A Panama City Beach, FL man tried to run over his wife with his car while she was on shift as a waitress at a local Waffle House, prompting an evacuation of the facilities.
Their food is a crime in and of itself. The House’s signature entree—the waffles—are as flat and tasteless as your average communion wafer. The only way to accurately describe their eggs is “watered-down”, which is really not a very good way to be describing eggs. Bland sausage and salty hash browns cap off a disappointing meal. Save your taste buds, keep yourself safe from bodily harm, and choose another breakfast spot.
Writer’s Picks: Despite their abundance of sodium, hash browns are probably the best thing on the menu. If you must dine here, opt for the Hash Brown Bowl or something similar.
Nearest Location: 820 North Dysart Road, Goodyear, AZ
- Rainforest Cafe
Step into the front door of the Rainforest Cafe, and you’ll think you’re on the set of some 1950s B-movie set in Hawaii. Weave your way through the unsettling maze of animatronic alligators, gorillas, jaguars, and more to get to your chair. You will more likely than not find yourself in the midst of a hoard of shrieking children; Rainforest Cafe holds ungodly appeal for young families on vacation, and toddlers are frequently frightened by the faux-lightning strikes, thunder claps, and bursts of rain that punctuate your meal every 20 minutes. The humidity in the restaurant rises markedly when this occurs, and your table will become slick with condensation.
The fare is about what you would expect from a restaurant whose first location was in the Mall of America. Your geographically confused “safari guide” server will bring out dishes of flabby pasta, undercooked pizza, and at least one item that you flatly did not order. Good luck getting them to adequately address the error; the throngs of customers give little incentive for high quality service. But what did we really expect from an eatery that once housed live baboons and iguanas? A jungle, indeed.
Writer’s Picks: The Dino Nuggets Kid’s Meal is probably a safe bet, given that these dinosaur-shaped bits of chicken are a family favorite throughout the United States. For a more restaurant specific item, the Sparkling Volcano sundae—a heaping mass of brownies, whipped cream, ice cream, chocolate sauce, and carmel sauce for $14.99—is a good call.
Nearest Location: 3717 S. Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, NV 89109
Looks can be deceiving
- Golden Corral
This buffet chain has grown from humble beginnings as a neighborhood spot in Fayetteville, North Carolina to become a monument to American gluttony. Open to almost any ploy to get families in their clutches, the restaurant feeds kids for a reduced price every evening Monday through Thursday, as well as whenever the NASCAR car they sponsor finishes in the top 10 at that weekend’s race.
All you can eat buffets are almost always an exercise in quantity over quality, and Golden Corral is no exception to this rule. Here, the weight of your plate is the undisputed attraction; in fact, many locations over a “GC on the Go” service which customers pay for by the pound. It’s possible that this approach has translated into decreased customer safety. Golden Corral has been plagued recently by health complaints, including a salmonella outbreak in 2003 and a norovirus incident in 2012.
The food is generally bland. There’s a reason why the two signature fixtures at any Golden Corral are the salad bar and chocolate fountain; both rely on drenching a base food in sauce to keep things edible. While we commend the work that Golden Corral has done for the families of America’s veterans through their Camp Corral program, the quality of their food keeps them firmly ensconced near the bottom of the list.
Writer’s Picks: Fried chicken is one of their marquee items, and it’s truthfully one of the better things available. The scalloped potatoes are also surprisingly good.
Nearest Location: 2050 Diamond Boulevard, Concord, CA, 94520
One of Schultz’s many sculptures
- Black Bear Diner
Anybody who’s ever made the drive from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe has likely encountered a few signs for this joint on the side of Highway 80. If they’re smart, they keep on driving. Black Bear Diner is frequently too much for even the most indiscriminate eaters to stomach.
The restaurant has an over-the-top Western motif, with each location featuring a 12-foot-tall (3.7 m) bear carving by artist Ray Schulz. Murals and other bear-related imagery fills the interior walls of the establishment. The menu takes the form of a newspaper entitled the Black Bear Gazette. Customers had better get their money’s worth enjoying the decor, because they’re probably not that enthused about the food.
Like so many other diners on this list, Black Bear makes sure to saddle their customers with generous portions. This is probably an effort to compensate for burnt burgers, uninspired breakfast items, and questionable coffee. If you are in the mood to bombard yourself with calories, at least have them come from something you won’t be ashamed of a few hours later.
Writer’s Picks: The open-faced turkey sandwich is serviceable after a long day of skiing. The diner also serves breakfast all day- not that their breakfast is anything to brag about, but still, it’s something.
Nearest Location: 4927 Junipero Serra Boulevard, Colma, CA 94014
Your neighborhood fast food rotisserie
- Boston Market
Don’t be fooled by the name. Boston Market is headquartered in Golden, Colorado, and name is not the only department in which this chain misrepresents himself. Founded with the goal of bringing quality comfort food to the masses, the first sign of its failure should be its 2000 acquisition by the McDonald’s Corporation. The chain has since been freed of this obligation, having been jettisoned by the fast food giant in 2007 following poor financial performance. If you had any doubts about the grave peril in which our nation finds itself, consider that 1.1 million people eat this for Thanksgiving.
The menu of the establishment gives off a distinct TV dinner aura. You’ll find all of the Tuesday night trappings that you hated as a kid—think overcooked meatloaf, sickly sweet potato casserole, and fatty brisket—but the menu clearly revolves around chicken. The Market went by the moniker of Boston Chicken until the mid 1990s, and it’s still one of the only things done tolerably well within their walls. But is it worth the cafeteria plates and sorry sides? No. Just go to the Costco rotisserie.
Writer’s Picks: It is very difficult to mess up a chicken pot pie, and Boston Market is no exception: check out their Rotisserie Pot Pie for 750 calories.
Nearest Location: 332 Gellert Boulevard, Daly City, CA 94015
You get what you paid for
- Long John Silver’s
Long John Silver’s was founded in 1969 in the noted seaport of Louisville, Kentucky. The restaurant takes its name from a character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island. Consider yourself warned: you’ll be finding no treasure on its menu, unless you’re searching for mercury poisoning.
Many of the chain’s locations are located near a body of water. Don’t let this tactic fool you; the fish you’re eating is not from anywhere near the dining establishment. You can almost feel the freezer burn on your tongue, and don’t be banking on their french fries to save your dining experience. The offerings are also a nutritional disaster; according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the chain’s “Big Catch” meal was the worst dish served in any American restaurant, coming in at 1,320 calories, 33 grams of trans fat, 19 grams of saturated fat, and almost 3,700 grams of sodium if consumed in its totality. If that isn’t enough to make you seasick, just imagine the impact of their fish patty breakfast sandwich with tater tots to start your day.
Writer’s Picks: The best option here is the classic fish sandwich: the fish is borderline inedible, but the bread holds up pretty well.
Nearest Location: 2609 Charleston Road, Palo Alto, CA 94303
Thankfully, an increasingly rare sight
Simultaneously a shrine to American tackiness, tastelessness, and debauchery, Hooters occupies a special place in the pantheon of awful American cultural innovations. The lewd chain and their imitators (looking at you, Tilted Kilt) have been doing their part to make shopping malls less family-friendly for close to 40 years, and 44 states are now infected by the establishment.
Apart from the restaurant’s dubious morality—think an employee handbook referring to the harassment that Hooters Girls endure as “joking and entertaining conversations” and a veritable slew of legal issues—the fare will send you high-tailing for the exit. Mentally prepare yourself for rancid mozzarella sticks, putrid burgers, and neon orange vomit-inducing chicken wings. The restaurant has also stuck their fingers in far more than what’s on your plate; name branding has included the now defunct Hooters Air, the Hooters Road Trip Playstation game, and at one time the Miami Hooters of the Arena Football League. If nothing else, Hooters is out for your wallet. Don’t give it to them.
Writer’s Picks: You’re best off trying something completely bare bones. Think about a hot dog, or something similar.
Nearest Location: 1150 El Camino Real Suite 210, San Bruno, CA 94066
A picture says a thousand words
This Western chain was born in Culver City, California in 1958, and still maintains restaurants across the Pacific seaboard. Purporting to offer quality steak, shrimp and salad to the masses for extremely low prices, the establishment has suffered from a past more turbulent that perhaps any other large scale eatery.
The trouble began in 1996 with a surprise declaration of bankruptcy that resulted in the closure of around 130 locations. Four years later, a Sizzler in Milwaukee was located at the center of an E. coli outbreak that killed one customer and left sixty ill, an incident which forced the closure of all company property in the Midwest. 2006 forced every Sizzler in Australia to lock down their Salad Bar, previously central to the dining experience, after a mentally disturbed woman infected several salad stations with rat poison.
Apart from their tumultuous history, Sizzler’s cuisine is expectedly subpar. It’s inexpensive, and you’re getting what you paid for; the steak is bland, and don’t order anything fried unless you’re in the mood for an oily, nauseating mess. There’s nothing worth eating here that you couldn’t make at home.
Writer’s Picks: The chief highlight of any meal at Sizzler is the soft serve station available at almost all locations. Start with a chocolate base and be on the lookout for toppings.
Nearest Location: 1011 Veterans Boulevard, Redwood City, CA 94063
Good luck sleeping tonight
- Papa Murphy’s Pizza
Papa Murphy’s isn’t last on our list, but they take the blue ribbon for sheer laziness. In what can only be described as an ingenious cost-cutting scheme, Papa Murphy’s has convinced the public that it is worth their while to drive to a location, purchase a frozen pizza, drive back home, cook it themselves, and then eat something that tastes- well, tastes like a frozen pizza. Keep in mind that this audacious scheme was concocted in a world in which pizza delivery exists.
Since they don’t actually offer any real dining experience, it’s debatable whether or not Papa Murphy’s even belongs in a list ranking restaurants. Apart from pizza, the chain’s other chief offering is cookie dough, for cookies that customers—you guessed it—have to make themselves. Some Papa Murphy’s creations are so ghastly that it would appear that the establishment hopes that customers don’t look at them until they get home (the abominable Jack O’ Lantern Halloween promotional pizza comes to mind). They talk a big game about using fresh ingredients and so on, but trust me- just stick with the Red Baron.
Writer’s Picks: Honestly just use the build-your-own option. Stay away from olives unless you’d like to be absolutely bombarded with them.
Nearest Location: 1395 El Camino Real, Unit B, Millbrae, CA 94030
“New England themed decor”
- Red Lobster
One of the nation’s punniest restaurant chains- think a mascot-logo named “Clawde”- Red Lobster serves some of the worst seafood this side of Long John Silver’s, all centered around a New England theme. In a horrible development for small, hardworking fish restaurant owners everywhere, Beyonce referenced the chain in her 2016 track “Formation”, which resulted in a 33% sales increase for the eatery.
It’s a good rule of thumb to be wary of anybody who claims that they can provide you with an unlimited supply of a delicacy like snow crab legs for a fixed price, and Red Lobster is certainly no exception. Corners are certainly cut when it comes to the quality of what’s ending up on your plate, and an uneven performance by management also serves to detract from customer satisfaction. In fact, the aforementioned unlimited snow crab promotion resulted in extremely long wait times across all Red Lobster locations, due to an underestimate of the time it would take for diners to crack open the legs. Put your money in the pocket of a local fisherman, not the coffers of Red Lobster Hospitality LLC.
Writer’s Picks: The cheddar biscuits are actually pretty great, truth be told. And the Ultimate Feast probably won’t hurt every once in a while, if you don’t mind saddling yourself with 1,120 calories.
Nearest Location: 5343 Almaden Expressway, San Jose, CA 95118
That’s all for now. Stay tuned for 90-81!