Do you fret over the bill every time your family goes out for dinner? Restaurant meals can add up quickly. Including tips, national spending at eating and drinking establishments amounted to $1,402.67 per person in 2010, according to the most recent data available online from the USDA's Economic Research Service. While dining out generally isn't cheap, some family restaurant chains are a better value than others. We set out to determine the best casual dining chains for families on a budget, focusing on full-service restaurants with bar-and-grill-style menus (rather than quick-service or fast-casual chains, where customers order at a counter).
Family Restaurants Guide
We sent a researcher out for dinner at five popular restaurants with similar menus: Applebee's, Chili's Grill & Bar, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, and TGI Friday's. Each has at least 800 locations and an international presence, so frugal consumers are likely to have more than one, if not all, nearby.
We compared the bill for a family of four by tallying the cost of a cheeseburger, a chicken dish, an entree salad, and a kids meal at each restaurant before tax and tip. The lowest total was $36.74 at Applebee's and the highest was $41.44 at Outback. That said, our aim is always to base our picks on overall value, not just price, and the difference between the cheapest meal and the most expensive amounted to less than $5. With that in mind, we took into account portion size, nutritional value, special diet options, kids menus, lunch deals, carryout service, discounts, and happy hour/adult beverage prices. Factors such as service, ambience, and cleanliness play into consumers' dining decisions as well, but these no doubt vary depending on the day and the location. We did consider our researcher's opinion of the food, along with other reviews and consumer surveys, while recognizing that such assessments are highly subjective. For every family restaurant chain, there is bound to be a bad review or two from someone unimpressed with the atmosphere or annoyed with the wait staff.
Ruby Tuesday storefront
Of the five restaurants we researched, Outback Steakhouse placed highest in a 2011 ranking of the best casual dining chains, based on a consumer survey by Market Force. The annual survey asks thousands of consumers to vote for their favorite chain and weights the results by the number of locations, so that a restaurant doesn't garner fewer votes simply because fewer respondents have eaten there. Applebee's, Chili's, TGI Friday's, and Ruby Tuesday rank a bit lower, in that order, but each trails the restaurant above it by 0.1 percent, the equivalent of only a handful of votes.
We confined our primary research to the largest family restaurant chains with American bar-and-grill-style menus so we could compare similar dishes. However, a few other restaurants offer markedly different cuisine at similar price points and come up often in surveys of the best casual dining chains. We wrap up this buying guide with a look at popular specialty restaurants Olive Garden and Red Lobster. Although we didn't dine at these chains, we evaluated them based on similar criteria and relied on online comments as our data source.
What follows is a detailed look at where these family restaurant chains excel and where they fall short, with the aim of helping you get your money's worth the next time you take your family out for a meal.