By Kara Reinhardt, Cheapism.com
Neon signs for casual dining chains grow thick along suburban roadsides, promising a break from cooking and a night out with the family. While one restaurant chain puts on vaguely Australian airs and another imparts a Tex-Mex flavor, many have similar menus. They also have similar price points, according to Cheapism.com, which recently visited five of the largest full-service casual dining chains. The total bill for a family of four varied by less than $5, but Chili's Grill & Bar emerged as the best value overall, based on a comparison of all five restaurants' food and portion sizes, lunch deals and dinner specials, kids' menus, happy hours, carryout service, healthful choices, and menu items for customers with allergies and other special diets. TGI Friday's and Ruby Tuesday, by contrast, impress neither Cheapism nor most customers posting online reviews, who tend to consider the food lackluster and overpriced.
Related: Cheap Restaurant Finder
Chili's, Cheapism's top choice, comes in a close second to Applebee's on price, at $37.85 for a family of four, but wins points for serving generous portions of satisfying food (including free chips and salsa for tech-savvy customers who check in on Foursquare). The restaurant's Guiltless Grill items contain no more than 750 calories, 25 grams of fat, and 8 grams of saturated fat. The kids' menu offers the largest selection of all five restaurants by far, including meals that meet requirements set by the National Restaurant Association as part of its Kids LiveWell initiative.
Related: Chili's Bar & Grill Review
The cheapest chain was Applebee's, where the bill for a family of four totaled $36.74. Applebee's also stands out for its healthful options, thanks in large part to an alliance with Weight Watchers. Dieters posting reviews of the chain online applaud the dishes marked on the menu with their Weight Watchers PointsPlus values. Another section of the menu highlights so-called Resolve items that contain fewer than 550 calories.
Outback Steakhouse earns praise for its high-quality meals, convenient takeout, and appealing drink prices unlimited by a happy hour. However, the cost of dinner for a family of four -- a cheeseburger and fries, a chicken entree with sides, an entree salad, and a kid's meal, plus a house salad and a fountain drink -- was the highest among the restaurants sampled, at $41.44.
Related: Outback Steakhouse Review
TGI Friday's touts Right Portion, Right Price offerings with 750 calories or fewer, but that doesn't stop the chain from ranking among the worst for consumers' health in an annual survey of restaurant nutrition information. TGI Friday's is the only chain of the five with a rewards program, which lets members earn points toward free food. The program also offers customers perks such as a free appetizer or dessert for signing up.
At the risk of coming off like Marilyn Hagerty, the North Dakota columnist whose earnest review of the local Olive Garden recently went viral, Cheapism also evaluated Olive Garden and Red Lobster (but didn't sample the fare). These two chains present popular alternatives to the prevailing bar-and-grill-style menu. However, they generally charge somewhat higher prices.
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