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.
|Cheap Restaurant Food|
|Restaurant Lunch Menus, Kids Menus, Takeout|
|Restaurant Dinner Specials, Happy Hours|
|Red Lobster, Olive Garden Prices|
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.
Cheap Restaurant Food
To estimate the cost of a family dinner at each of the restaurants on our list -- Applebee's, Chili's Grill & Bar, Outback Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, and TGI Friday's -- we totaled the prices of four restaurant meals: a cheeseburger and fries, a chicken entree with sides (usually broccoli and mashed potatoes), an entree salad, and a kids meal, plus a house salad and a fountain drink. Applebee's emerged as the cheapest, totaling $36.74, followed by Chili's at $37.85. Outback was most expensive, at $41.44. TGI Friday's had the second-highest total, at $40.04, and Ruby Tuesday fell in the middle, at $39.44.
We did not figure in sales tax and tip, which vary depending on the state tax rate and individual tipping practices. We discovered that food prices also may differ slightly from state to state. We checked prices in a number of states for the items we sampled at all the restaurants except TGI Friday's, which doesn't list prices online. Any differences in the entree prices amounted to no more than $2.
Monterey Chicken at Chili's
Cheap Restaurant Meals.While our researcher doesn't claim to be a food critic, she can tell a tender chicken breast from a dried-out fillet. She dined with a companion at each chain on our list and sampled two cheap restaurant meals: a cheeseburger and a chicken entree with sides, as well as a house salad. Some restaurants served better meals than others, based not just on taste but also on portion size.
At Chili's, the Oldtimer hamburger with cheese was juicy, flavorful, and cooked to order, and accompanied by plentiful, well-seasoned fries. The Monterey Chicken was topped with cheese and bacon -- a delicious, if unhealthful, combination -- and cooked thoroughly without being overdone. It came with sour cream mashed potatoes and tender, buttered broccoli. The house salad proved basic but fresh and crispy. A Foursquare check-in special yielded a heaping portion of free, warm chips and fresh salsa. Numerous commenters on Yelp echo our researcher's verdict that Chili's serves filling, fulfilling, and cheap restaurant meals. In reviews on Viewpoints, most consumers find the food satisfying and the prices relatively low. On Epinions, the restaurant earns four out of five stars overall, and positive reviews number more than 200. Reviewers point to the family atmosphere and extensive menu. Most negative comments stem from poor service, an important but highly variable aspect of the customer experience.
Burger and fries from Applebee's
At Applebee's, our researcher had no complaints about the cheeseburger but declared the chicken unremarkable. The fries that came with the burger were deliciously seasoned, but the portion was skimpy. As for the other sides, the mashed potatoes were pretty plain and the broccoli was barely cooked. Our researcher found it tough and crunchy -- too underdone for her liking (although it had the least fat and calories of any she tried). Consumers posting reviews on Epinions often deem Applebee's food middle-of-the-road. Complaints tend to cite poor service.
Ruby Tuesday served up very generous portions and most items were average in the taste department -- with one exception. The barbecue grilled chicken was fatty and lacked much flavor or seasoning. It also seemed undercooked. Truth be told, our researcher could stomach only a few bites. Negative comments outnumber favorable reviews of Ruby Tuesday on My3cents.com, although the salad bar earns kudos.
Jack Daniel's Chicken from TGI Friday's
With many consumers counting calories, we wanted to factor in the healthful menu options available at each chain. A wealth of restaurant nutrition information online makes it easier to eat healthfully when you dine out. All the restaurants on our list post nutrition facts on their websites. They generally do not include these numbers on their menus except where required by law. (Eventually all chains with 20 or more locations will have to display restaurant nutrition information under the federal health care overhaul adopted in 2010.)
Chili's touts Guiltless Grill options that total fewer than 750 calories, 25 grams of fat, and 8 grams of saturated fat. At Ruby Tuesday, Fit and Trim selections come in under 700 calories. These items are marked with symbols on the restaurants' menus.
Low-calorie menu at Applebee's
Outback's menu doesn't point to items that are low in calories or fat, but its website lists eight entrees with fewer than 500 calories. A server informed our researcher that the restaurant accommodates customers watching their waistlines by making meals to order.
Dave Zinczenko, editor of Men's Health magazine and author of the book Eat This, Not That, notes the high calorie counts at TGI Friday's, naming it the second-worst chain in America based on an annual survey of restaurant nutrition information. No other chain on our list landed among the five best or worst. Zinczenko does give TGI Friday's credit for its Right Portion Right Price menu, which consists of smaller servings with fewer than 750 calories. He also singles out the Jack Daniel's chicken our researcher ordered as a diamond in the rough, with 660 calories, 10.5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, and 1,955 milligrams of sodium.
Outback's side salad
Special Diets.Chili's, Applebee's, and Ruby Tuesday provide detailed allergen information online, listing menu items fit for customers with soy, dairy, egg, peanut, shellfish, tree nut, wheat, fish, MSG, or gluten allergies. Outback has a gluten-free menu online and TGI Friday's unveiled a gluten-free menu in 2010, although we were unable to find it. None of the restaurants include allergy information on their regular menus, but the allergy menus are available upon request. Vegetarian items aren't identified as such on any of the menus, but all the restaurants offer vegetarian dishes or items that can be ordered minus the meat. Chili's provides a list of suggested vegetarian options on its website. The Ruby Tuesday salad bar lends itself to numerous vegetarian combinations, as does the restaurant's list of side dishes. Ask your server to confirm whether a given meal will meet your needs.
Restaurant Lunch Menus, Kids Menus, Takeout
All the chains on our list have typical restaurant kids menus proffering items such as hamburgers, chicken fingers, and grilled cheese. (If you're thinking of ordering one of these smaller, cheaper meals for yourself, note that they're only for children 12 and under at Applebee's, Chili's, and TGI Friday's and 10 and under at Outback and Ruby Tuesday.) Chili's and Outback Steakhouse participate in a recently launched National Restaurant Association initiative called Kids LiveWell, which calls for at least one menu item with 600 calories or fewer and a side dish with 200 calories or fewer. The requirements also limit fat, sugar, and sodium. At Outback, the healthful menu items include Joey Sirloin Medallions and Grilled Chicken on the Barbie. Chili's offers up a grilled chicken platter and a grilled chicken sandwich, with sides of mandarin oranges, corn on the cob, steamed broccoli, fresh pineapple, and celery sticks with low-fat ranch.
The Chili's kids menu boasts the largest selection. For $4.59, kids can choose from 11 entree options, 11 sides, and a soft drink, milk, or juice. Applebee's has the cheapest kids menu but also a scant selection: a mini cheeseburger or mini chicken sandwich with a side and drink for $3.49. Outback prices its kids meal a bit higher, at $4.99, and lets children choose from five entrees that come with a side and drink. Ruby Tuesday charges the most for an equivalent kids meal -- $3.99 for a choice of four entrees and a side, plus $1.19 for a kids beverage.
Outback Steakhouse storefront
Cheap Lunch Menus.Outback Steakhouse serves lunch only on Saturdays, offering the same menu and prices it does at dinner. However, consumers can save money at the other four restaurants on our list by taking advantage of cheap lunch menus. At Chili's you can build your own combo by pairing a soup or salad with a sandwich or other selected entree. The combos cost $6, $7, or $8, depending on your choices. The cheap lunch menu at Applebee's works in a similar way. For $6.99 customers can choose two Pick 'N Pair items from the menu. Choices include soup, salad, sandwiches, and pastas. TGI Friday's offers an endless lunch combo of soup and salad for $6.99, along with two or three other combos, but the rest of the lunch items are pricey and consist of hamburgers, sandwiches, and entrees. At Ruby Tuesday, you'll find several salad bar lunch combinations, hamburgers, and petite lunch plates. Prices start at $6.99.
TGI Friday's storefront
Carryout Service.All the restaurants we researched offer carryout service for customers who want to eat at home but don't want to cook. Applebee's lets customers call in to place an order through its Carside To Go service. When you pick up your food, you pull into a designated parking space and wait for someone to bring it out to you. Outback Steakhouse provides the same service but offers online ordering. At Chili's you can order online or over the phone, but you must park and go into the restaurant to get your order -- unless you live in Ohio, Idaho, or Montana, where you can order Chili's and have it delivered through Cafe Courier (for an additional charge). At TGI Friday's and Ruby Tuesday, customers must call in their orders and go into the restaurant to pick up their food. Friday's does have a separate To Go entrance at select locations. All these restaurants offer full menus for carryout.
Restaurant Dinner Specials, Happy Hours
Of the five restaurants we researched, three were offering dinner specials: Chili's, Applebee's, and TGI Friday's. We found the most deals at TGI Friday's. Customers could choose three courses -- a starter, an entree, and a dessert -- from a designated list for $16.99 or three from a different list for $12.99. A third deal offered two courses for $10.99. Chili's and Applebee's were running similar dinner specials. Chili's was advertising two margaritas, one appetizer, two entrees, and one dessert for $35 -- not bad for a date night. The Applebee's dinner special consisted of two entrees and one appetizer for $20. Chili's also had a check-in special running on Foursquare. If you checked in at Chili's on your smartphone, you received a free order of chips and salsa simply by telling your server. Some deals are offered for a limited time, so you may see different dinner specials depending on when and where you dine out.
TGI Friday's rewards program
Restaurant Happy Hours and Drink Specials.Most of this report focuses on family dining, but during our research we also came across several restaurant happy hours and appealing drink specials. Outback was featuring margaritas for $3.95 or a pitcher for $11, and American draft beers were $2 every day. At Outback there's no happy hour, so it doesn't matter what time you go. Keep an eye out for the drink of the day; on Frozen Fridays, for example, all frozen drinks are $4 instead of $5 to $6.
Dinner specials at Applebee's
Ruby Tuesday doesn't do happy hour; premium cocktails are $5 all day. The Chili's restaurant happy hour includes well drinks for $3, margaritas for $3.99 (the regular price is $5), and small domestic drafts for $2.25 Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Red Lobster, Olive Garden Prices
A couple of other casual dining chains finish high on lists of consumers' preferred restaurants but offer decidedly different menus. Olive Garden has been the top vote getter two years in a row in the Market Force survey that asks consumers to pick their favorite chain. The Italian-American restaurant places third when the results are weighted by number of locations. Red Lobster came in third in total votes in 2011, behind Olive Garden and Applebee's, and sixth in the weighted results. We didn't sample the fare at these restaurants, but we've done some research and compiled a quick rundown of their highlights and lowlights.
Olive Garden prices range from $10.75 for linguine alla marinara to $19.95 for Steak Toscana, which comes with a side of potatoes and bell peppers. Entrees come with unlimited salad and breadsticks. Red Lobster is generally more expensive, with prices ranging from $11.25 for popcorn shrimp to $24.99 for the Ultimate Seafood Feast. Entrees are served with salad and a side dish. In general, Red Lobster and Olive Garden prices are a dollar or two higher than those at the five restaurants we visited, where entrees range from $7 for a sandwich to $23.99 for a filet and lobster tail dinner.
Many customers complain on My3cents.com that Red Lobster makes its food look succulent and tasty in commercials, but in reality the portions are small and the food isn't all that great. On the other hand, customers posting reviews on Epinions say that, for the most part, the food is fresh, affordable, and full of flavor. Olive Garden earns a favorable overall rating on Epinions. Several consumers gripe that the restaurant serves low-quality, imitation Italian food. But for every one of those complaints, there is another review that deems the food delicious. Many single out the warm, soft breadsticks and say Olive Garden prices are reasonable for the large amount of food you get.
A registered dietician writing about Olive Garden nutrition information at Livestrong.com notes that high-fat menu items abound, but healthful options are available. She points to some of the items lowest in fat and calories, such as shrimp primavera and Portobello mushroom ravioli. Olive Garden also offers gluten-free versions of many menu items. Red Lobster was named the most healthful sit-down restaurant chain in America in the most recent Eat This, Not That Restaurant Report Card, thanks to myriad menu items high in protein and low in calories, even if still too high in sodium for one expert's liking. The Eat This, Not That survey endorses the Peach-Bourbon BBQ Shrimp and Scallops, with 490 calories, 22 grams of fat, 4 grams of saturated fat, and 1,680 milligrams of sodium. All the meals on Red Lobster's Lighthouse menu have no more than 500 calories, 15 grams of fat, and 5 grams of saturated fat. Customers with allergies and others who follow special diets can download allergen information from both restaurants' websites.
For kids, Olive Garden serves pasta, pizza, or chicken for $4.95 to $5.65, not including a beverage. Red Lobster's kids menu ranges from $5.25 to $8.99 (for lobster tail) and comprises mostly chicken, fish, and pasta, along with a vegetable or fruit side and a beverage. Both restaurants offer their full menus for takeout.
Olive Garden also offers a full lunch menu, made up mostly of dinner items in lunch sizes for lower cost. One notable option is unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks for $6.95. At lunchtime Red Lobster serves a condensed menu with a handful of entrees, soups, salads, and sandwiches, along with a create-your-own-lunch deal that invites diners to choose two fish options from a designated list for $9.75.
Consumers looking for a dinner deal should note that Red Lobster is offering a four-course meal -- soup, salad, one of seven entrees, and dessert -- for $15. At Olive Garden, $12.95 buys three courses: a soup or salad, one of five entrees, and one of five desserts. As with the bar-and-grill-style restaurants we researched, such deals are offered for a limited time.