This article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (what is a "Post-Intelligencer," incidentally?) details the shocking (SHOCKING) revelation that chain restaurants aren't always honest about how low-fat or low-cal their "diet" meals are.

Chain restaurants (Applebee's, Friday's, Cheesecake Factory, Macaroni Grill, etc.) specialize in high-volume, low-cost fare. They are not there to make sure you're getting your full nutritional benefit from their food. Their primary concern is to perfect a chicken pesto that costs $2 in overhead and can be made by any GED-educated line chef in their kitchens across the country roughly the same way and the same time, every time. Going into one of these places and expecting a magical, healthful gastronomic event is kind of like searching YouTube for a hot Gloria Steinem/Ann Coulter porno. In short, not happening. (Although, that would be awesome. If any of you have a line on Steinem/Coulter action, let me know.)

I generally avoid chain restaurants like the plague. There are several reasons for this choice, but the primary reason can be summed up simply by looking at the menu of any of these establishments. When you're examining the 15-page menu at the Cheesecake Factory and you realize that out of all the food options presented you're maybe only interested in 3 of them, and even then it's iffy because you're pretty sure you can cook it better yourself, the experience kind of loses its magic. Bottom line, the food just isn't that interesting because they have to pander to the common culinary denominator. That's not to say this method isn't successful; the Cheesecake Factory makes ridiculous amounts of money per year catering to the bland unimaginative stomachs of Middle America. Really though, if I want a dry salmon filet with a side of overcooked rice and vegetables clearly sauteed in butter although I asked for no butter, I can go fuck food up in my own kitchen for a lot less money.

(On a side note, who the hell designed the interior of the Cheesecake Factory? It looks like Ancient Egypt got wasted and had a messy night of indiscretion with Renaissance Italy after throwing up in the toilet of Colonial India's apartment.)

I would personally rather eat out less and instead choose a more expensive place known for its creative food applications than a glorified cafeteria. I want to be pleasantly surprised by what chefs can do that I can't; I don't go out to places to eat things I can cook, and I certainly don't go out to restaurants to eat "diet" food. It's one thing to present healthful options as part of a well-planned and creative menu (case in point, Steve Schimoler's recent opening Crop); it's quite another to tack on a "diet menu" consisting of bland overdone meats with steamed vegetables and salads with all the goofy shit (bacon bits and egg gunk come to mind) removed to make it more "healthy" but still retaining that disgusting vinaigrette crap and all the fantastic iceberg lettuce you can eat, as well as loaded with sodium in order to maintain some false semblance of flavor. It's a crime against food what chain restaurants do on a daily basis. The fact that people seem not only fine with this but actually enjoy it (had someone say to me the other day "oh my god I LOVE the Cheesecake Factory!") really makes me wonder about this country sometimes.

I also operate by the >50% rule: if I'm in a restaurant and over half of the middle-aged patrons in it are overweight, I try not to make the restaurant part of my standard lineup. I choose the middle-aged sector (30-50 years old) because factors like children and anorexic tweens tend to skew the stats a bit, and most people within that age range should be able to make their own decisions about their personal health and food preferences. Just say no to chain restaurants. It may cost you less to eat there, but the tradeoff in quality is simply not worth it.

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