After a little more than a year and a half spent focusing primarily on mom-and-pop burger joints on Serious Eats site A Hamburger Today, I felt it was high time to explore the world of burgers in the "casual dining" sector. More than a few AHT readers had emailed expressing the opinion that Houlihan's or Red Robin or T.G.I.Friday's had surprisingly good burgers. Countless television commercials touting the fare at these bar-and-grill type restaurants played a part, too, getting me off the couch and into the booths of four of the nation's most recognizable chains in the course of one day.
My mission was to sample cheeseburgers, collect visual intel, and report my findings to you, our burger-loving readers. I sampled standard cheeseburgers at Houlihan's, Applebee's, T.G.I.Friday's, and Red Robin, asking for medium-rare or as close to it as possible. Below are the results.
Locations: 80 in 21 states [restaurant finder]; reviewed at 139 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn NY 11217
Cost: $8.79 (comes with choice of fries, coleslaw, or tortilla chips and salsa)
First up was Houlihan's, the smallest chain among those that I tried, with 80 locations in 21 states. Of the four casual dining options of the day, Houlihan's was the most upscale, with a decor that might be described as "slightly swanky"--dark wood accents; dark, moody lighting; a conservative amount of framed retro French movie posters on the walls; and a low-key vibe that matched the Stereolab soundtrack that back the muted Jets game on a handful of strategically placed flat-panel TVs. Service was adequate--friendly but not overbearing.
I ordered the cheeseburger, advertised on the menu as 100 percent fresh Angus beef, medium-rare, and it arrived at table about ten minutes thereafter, cooked well north of desired doneness, to about medium-well. As all burgers at the four restaurants, this one came standard with lettuce, tomato, and red onion were all fresh-tasting, crisp, and cool. The bun was a bit too thick and also dry, throwing off the meat-to-bun ratio and also doing nothing to help the dryness of the overcooked patty. The meat itself tasted like it could have been a contender, had it not been done to within an inch of its life. And, for what looked like a beefy burger as presented, the patty itself only contributed about half an inch to the sandwich's thickness.
Locations: 1,804 in 49 states [restaurant finder]; reviewed at 395 Flatbush Ave. Extension, Brooklyn NY 11201
Cost: $7.59 (comes with fries)
Not more than a few blocks away from the Houlihan's, Applebee's was the next stop on my burger tour. With 1,804 locations in 49 states, you've likely been to an Applebee's, so descriptions are almost unnecessary. This one varied very little from the ones I'd grown up around near Overland Park, Kansas, which is corporate home to the chain--plenty of art on the walls to look at, brass rails, and stained-glass lighting fixtures. Service here, too, was friendly, with very attentive hosts and servers, and the food arrived quickly.
The meat here is also billed as 100 percent Angus beef, and, as the menu states, "All burgers are cooked to medium/medium-well." "Are the burgers fresh or frozen?" I asked the waiter. "Frozen," he replied. Not looking good, I thought, but resolved to give the burger a fair shake. I asked for it as close to medium as possible, but it came out (sloppily presented) very well done and so over salted as to be almost inedible. I was unable to ascertain the flavor of the beef for all the salt. Lettuce, tomato, and onion were all fresh tasting, and the bun was very good--perfectly toasted, soft and squishy, and cornmeal-dusted for some texture on top--but they couldn't make up for the patty they accompanied. I gave up after eating a quarter of this burger.
Locations: 576 in 47 states [restaurant finder]; reviewed at 372 Fulton Street Brooklyn NY 11201
Upset at the lackluster showing at Applebee's, I was looking for burger redemption at T.G.I.Friday's. I ended up at an interesting location: the former Gage & Tollner, a landmark Brooklyn restaurant until its closing in February 2004. Though locals bemoaned the fact that a chain replaced the venerable institution, a T.G.I.Friday's is not entirely out of place here; it moved into a space with cherrywood accents, a mahogany bar, and cut-glass chandeliers--just the type of atmosphere the branches I've visited elsewhere try to evoke.
I skipped the Jack Daniel's burger (special JD-infused sauce) in favor of a regular cheeseburger so as to keep T.G.I.Friday's on a level playing field with the other sandwiches eaten. Here, the menu made no mention of Angus beef nor issued any prescriptive proclamations as to doneness; I ordered medium-rare with American cheese. Again, the burger that arrived at table was cooked far beyond what I had ordered, though this time to medium-well. Presentation was adequate, and the burger certainly looked hefty but, as at Houlihan's, the patty here was a relatively small part of equation. Despite the overcooking, there was still some juiciness left in the beefy-tasting patty, and the bun was lightly toasted and pillowy. Toppings were haphazardly stacked and of subpar quality, I ended up jettisoning the shredded lettuce, too-thick tomatoes, and mushy pickles that tasted more like cucumbers.
Locations: 307 in 35 states [restaurant finder]; reviewed at 265 State Hwy. Route 3E, Clifton NJ 07014
Cost: $8.99 (comes with "bottomless" steak fries)
The last burger of the day, which I ate sometime around 10 p.m., was from Red Robin. For this stop, I took out a Zipcar and made the 14-mile, two-hour journey to Clifton, New Jersey, the nearest location to my home. Perhaps it's a bit unfair to throw this one in the mix, since Red Robin is a casual-dining concept based on burgers, whereas the other three do not place the noble sandwich at the center of their business. But it serves as an example of what the other bar and grills should aim for. Here, the burger's price was in line with the first three sites but it far outstripped them in terms of quality.
Red Robin has an atmosphere that's similar to, but a bit more staid, than Applebee's--call it Applebee's Lite. Like the Applebee's I visited, the hosts and servers were very friendly and attentive, and the food arrived at table in almost no time. The 22 specialty burgers on the menu here, all made from fresh ground beef, are cooked "with some pink or no pink," according to my server. I ordered "some pink." Of the chains, this one cooked the burger closest to the temperature I had ordered. I didn't see much pink in the patty, but it remained juicy nonetheless. Toppings were of good quality, sandwiched with patty and melted cheese within a toasted, sesame-seed covered bun. Presentation was flawless, with the burger arriving at table neatly wrapped yet bursting from its wax-paper wrapping, accompanied by a handful of steak fries in a plastic burger basket. As with the other three burgers, the meat-to-bun ratio skewed a bit in favor of bready. Still, after 2.25 burgers earlier in the day, I felt compelled to finish this one.
And thus ended my day and night recon of the mid-range casual-dining burgerworld. Though I'm disheartened by what I found, I realize there are some decent sandwiches to be had. For that reason, I will expand my scope and explore other chains in the near future--notably Ruby Tuesday, which had closed for the evening by the time I made it through the Lincoln Tunnel. Also on the list: Bennigan's, Chili's, and any others that you might wish to send me to (leave your suggestions in the Comments).
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