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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

You Know You Love It: Seven Best Chain Restaurants in S.F. Bay Area

Posted By on Tue, Jun 7, 2011 at 4:08 PM

We love fancy food as much as the next San Francisco asshole, but there are times when we just want an enormous plate of mediocre slop. Every now and then we need to walk into a place that looks the same in S.F. as it does in Des Moines, and we need to order 52 plates of mozzarella sticks and a small Diet Coke that's actually the size of an NFL linebacker's thigh. We want, nay, need a zucchini stuffed with cheese, deep-fried, smothered in cheese, and then deep-fried again. Then we need it topped with whipped cream and served with a margarita the size of a hot tub. Is that so wrong?

This post right here is about chain restaurants that serve you like the American that you are. Screw Blue Bottle, we're talking blue plate specials, yo.

7. Hillstone, né Houston's

First of all, it's like walking into a power lunch in the '80s. We're Melanie Griffith about to confront Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, ya dig? It's all dark wood, huge booths, and luscious, rich colors that are the opposite of the sparse minimalism of San Francisco's schmanciest restaurants. It's what we thought classy was when we were 10 and we're still impressed. And the food is pretty damn good, too! First off, it makes one of the best veggie burgers anywhere. It's so beloved that its legions of fans keep trying (and failing) to reproduce the deliciousness. There are tons of copycat recipes but nobody has yet to capture the magic. And all their food is like that! In fact, Hillstone's most impressive feat is that it manages to make everything taste like it's not a chain restaurant -- it tastes like a real restaurant. How does it do it!? And that eternal flame outside? Come on!

click to enlarge They told their friends they were eating at Coi tonight.
  • They told their friends they were eating at Coi tonight.

6. P.F. Chang's

We know, we know, you love the stewed tripe and stinky tofu at that one hidden gem in the Outer Richmond. We get it, you've got culinary street cred, but at night, when you're tucked safely in bed and start drifting off to sleep, we know you dream about P.F. Chang's. On weekday nights, under a cloak of darkness, you secretly take BART to Walnut Creek and wait in line with everyone in that whole damn town for just one taste of the stir-fried eggplant that can be described as being about as authentically Asian as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Your little traitor heart yearns for Paul Fleming Chang's tofu lettuce wraps and delicious Chinese-style margaritas. Continue to lie about your secret shame to friends and family, but just know that one day you'll spot the foodiest foodies you know trying to hide behind the menu while they wolf down their grilled Norwegian salmon. Finally, you're both free.

5. Olive Garden

Even after we learned the O.G. lied to us about its cooking school in old Napoli -- Surprise! It's actually just a hotel where it puts up a few employees for a couple of days each year -- we can't turn our backs on its irresistible endless soup, salad, and breadsticks combo. Where else can you eat like a king for a mere $6.99? That's hospitaliano! And when the "bottomless bowls of pasta special" comes around? Fucking forget it, it is on. The expert way to play this deal is to fill up on soup, salad, and breadsticks, eat exactly one bite of your pasta dish, and then take the rest home. If you roll hard, you'll put away a plate or two of pasta before taking your third to go. Pro tip: You can take anything left on the table home with you, so don't hold back. What else are you gonna eat while watching midnight reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond in the same sweatpants you wore to the restaurant? Think, goddammit!

click to enlarge It's a fucking burrito, Chipotle.
  • It's a fucking burrito, Chipotle.

4. Chipotle

Now, it might seem sacrilege to talk about Chipotle when we have some of the world's best burritos within our city limits, but 1) screw you, snob; and 2) They're totally different things! El Farolito gives an honest-to-god authentic gut bomb from heaven/hell, and Chipotle is its dorky, puny cousin in the corner, whining about trans fats. How much more American can you get? Plus, that shit is tasty. The corn mixture Chipotle's tops everything with? Ridic! Perhaps Chipotle's greatest gift is that it allows us to fool ourselves, offering the illusion of selling more nutritious food -- fuck, we've gone so far as to embarrassingly call it "health food." You might feel virtuous ordering your gordita in a spinach tortilla, but if you calculate the Weight Watchers Points (tm) on that thing, you'll realize you can't eat for another five days. Worth it!

3. Aijsen Ramen

You would think that a China-based chain specializing in Japanese ramen wouldn't really nail authentic flavors, and you'd be right. But might we argue that some of these changes might even be (gasp) improvements? Okay, we won't do that -- we value our lives -- but still, this stuff ain't half bad! If you're stuck in the Westfield mall because you're about to see a movie or have a crippling shopping addiction (no judgment!), this is the place to hit.

Cheesecake Factory: Restaurant. Bakery. Bar. Way of life. - WESLEY FRYER/FLICKR
  • Wesley Fryer/Flickr
  • Cheesecake Factory: Restaurant. Bakery. Bar. Way of life.

2. Cheesecake Factory

This is the Big Mama of chains. The Cheesecake Factory might be single-handedly responsible for the obesity epidemic, but we say it's also single-handedly responsible for our gross national happiness. Where else can you eat a salad the size of a football field that has as many calories as 50 Big Macs? My kitchen and The Cheesecake Factory, that's where. When the doctors are wheeling you in for your triple bypass right after you finished your slice of peanut butter whipped cream Snickers Butterfinger whatchamacallit carrot cake pecan Creamsicle beef stew cheesecake, just know that it was worth it.

The last coherent memory you'll have at Chevy's. - BILLADAY/FLICKR
  • billaday/Flickr
  • The last coherent memory you'll have at Chevy's.

1. Chevy's

This chain gets our #1 spot because not only does it continue to dominate globally with its Tex-Mex'edness, its roots are right here in Alameda. Yes, the Bay's shittiest shitbox tropical island paradise became home to el numero uno Chevy's in 1986. In fact, this writer's first job was slinging watered-down margaritas and defrosted flan to drunken idiots cherished patrons at the Alameda location. Let me tell you this: That Chevy's was the cleanest restaurant I ever worked at, even though that's not saying much. Only once -- just one time! -- did a floor tamale ever make its way to a table, and that's only because that table was full of dicks. Even though the Alameda location is now defunct, there are still several Chevy's in S.F. and its environs, and they're all equally awesome. If you can't get down with a gigantic bowl of sometimes great, sometimes inedible salsa; some tortillas from La Maquina (the tortilla machine of death -- watch your fingers!); and top-shelf margaritas that are really made with bottom-shelf tequila, then we don't want to know you. Oh, and don't forget the excellent deals during EL HAPPY HOUR. Yes, that is what it is actually called. We can't make this shit up. So go ahead, get a MangoGuavaWatermelonRita with seven pieces of giant fruit and nine Mexican flags hanging off it. It might be 2,000 calories and not get you even remotely drunk but you're already the asshole drinking a fake margarita at a fake Mexican restaurant, so let's just do the damn thing! Viva TexMexico!

Laura Beck is a founding editor of Vegansaurus! and tweets at mrpenguino. Follow SFoodie on Twitter: @SFoodie, and like us on Facebook.

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Laura Beck

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