I’m not afraid to say it: I enjoy the occasional trip to a chain restaurant. The guarantee that the food will be mediocre and really salty is a sort of enchanting fairy calling your name from the suburban woods, telling you to come home because Grandpa’s sick and you colon hasn’t been blasted by shoddy food in a while.
Growing up in the Midwest, I took a lot of road trips. A move from Kansas to Minnesota when I was 10 meant that we were haulin’ it every summer and holiday to go home to Kansas to see friends and family.
When you’re in the car for 8-10 hours in one day with your nuclear family, staring at majestic corn fields, smelling luscious dad farts and spitefully snacking on the healthy nut mix your loving mom packed while suppressing a Preteen cry for Cheetos, there’s no room for debate about which quaint Midwest country restaurant you and yours will dine at during your trip. You need dependable food and a familiar menu before anyone has a hunger meltdown in your prestigious Dodge Caravan.
As was normal on many road trips down I-35, my parents awoke me from the third nap of the day at 12:30pm, which meant it was time to start hunting for the highway “FOOD” signs.
The way it worked is if you’ve never heard of the restaurant before, we’re not going there. Oh, no commercial on national television? In your dreams, Shane’s Rib Shack. Take a hike, Grandma’s Kitchen. Nice try, Lou’s Food Emporium.
Back in 1998 when I was 10, there was no internet in your hand and on-the-go, so taking a risk on a lesser known restaurant was not something any travel fatigued family wanted to do. Stopping to eat takes up valuable road time, and you can’t take your chances on unknown places. What if their decaf coffee is terrible, sending mother into a tailspin worse than you letting your Gigapet starve to death? What if they don’t have chicken strips? You simply can’t take chances like that when you’re travelling with anyone. The fallout would be unbearable in such close farting quarters.
Luckily, all the Chili’s, Applebees and Pizza Huts were conveniently located next to the highway so we only had to argue over which chain to eat at, significantly lowering the number of “I’M NOT EATING THERE!!!” screams from my preteen soul.
The dependable chain restaurant food was just that: dependable. The chicken strips were gorgeous, the Heinz ketchup was perfectly room temperature, and the Pepsi on tap was always a disappointment. It was heavenly. Plus, where the fuck are you gonna get a plate with cheeseburgers, criminally delicious SOUTHWEST ROLLS, and the mythically loaded potato skin. It’s the definition of heaven on a plate. The menu at any one of these restaurants is the definition of mediocre innovation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful.
Now that I’m older and live in a big city, of course I have better taste, I’m not a total asshole. But once in a while, something greater than me pulls me to the suburbs like an alien magnate, where I find myself uncontrollably smiling inside of a Chili’s. Yes Amanda, I AM just a party of one. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of being young, or maybe it’s because you can’t get good chicken strips at nice restaurants. Whatever the case, chain restaurants will always hold a beautiful mini-chimichanga platter in my heart.