(Consumer Reports)---Eating out isn’t just for special occasions anymore: It’s now the American way of life. We’ll spend an estimated $720 billion at restaurants this year, up 19 percent from 2012. That breaks down to $1.97 billion per day—or roughly $2,222 per year for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. It’s almost half of every food dollar we spend.
A lot of those dollars—$262 billion, in fact—are going to fast-food emporiums such as McDonald’s and Burger King. But Americans are also spending $206 billion at restaurants with table service such as California Pizza Kitchen, Chili’s, Red Lobster, and Waffle House, among many others. Our new survey findings represent the largest sit-down restaurant ratings ever reported by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, reflecting the experiences of 68,950 subscribers who frequented a record 238 restaurant chains and had 170,838 meals.
Overall, our survey surfaces praiseworthy options for almost every palate and budget, from informal homestyle family restaurants in the coffee-shop class, such as Elmer’s, to sophisticated white-tablecloth dinner houses, such as Mastro’s (“Proper Attire is Required”).
Although megachains like our five most frequented—Applebee’s, Olive Garden, The Cheesecake Factory, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, and IHOP—are well-represented, this year is notable for 141 newcomers to our survey, making a strong showing in ethnic and organic foods. New favorites run the gamut: all-natural, organic Bareburger; made-from-scratch Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar; and Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants, where the menu is planned to pair with the company’s wines. Others that were once only local hits, such as Chuy’s, a Tex-Mex chain from Austin, Texas, have expanded geographically. Indeed, reflecting America’s broadening tastes, our new ratings cover 11 cuisine categories and contain our most eclectic mix of flavor profiles to date, including Japanese barbecue (Gyu-Kaku), Irish specialties (Fadó Irish Pub), tapas (Barcelona Wine Bar), and Cajun cuisine (Razzoo’s Cajun Cafe), among many others.
Respondents also enjoyed eateries that rely on different themes and atmospheres. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville pays homage to the island lifestyle that the singer captures in his music. Buca di Beppo, loosely translated as “Joe’s basement,” serves “immigrant” food in a kitschy vintage atmosphere where the walls are covered with photos of ethnic icons including Joe DiMaggio and Sophia Loren while classics by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin play in the background. Other chains work a more sophisticated ambience. Case in point: Chart House, known for seafood served in historic buildings such as the John Hancock counting house in Boston or in buildings with spectacular settings such as a bird’s-eye view of the Ohio River and Cincinnati skyline.
Check our restaurant ratings and buying guide to get all the details from the Consumer Reports National Research Center's exclusive survey of 68,950 subscribers reporting on 170,838 restaurant visits.
As we’ve found in the past, many newbies to our survey raised the bar, and not just in terms of dining experience. Some category leaders reveal just how diverse American tastes have become:
Hillstone, our overall top-scoring chain, features unique artwork and dishes made with local ingredients at each spot.
Seasons 52, a casually sophisticated eatery and wine bar known for seasonally inspired menus.
The Counter, a high-end build-your-own-burger (organic bison, vegan veggie, crab, and more) chain featuring premium cheeses, sauces, and toppings.
Primanti Bros., a Pittsburgh-area institution known for its giant signature sandwiches stuffed with french fries.
Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q, originally a combination gas station, garage, and grocery store in Texas. The company added a barbecue pit to the operation in 1989.
Tommy Bahama Restaurant & Bar, a culinary spinoff of the islands-inspired lifestyle and clothing brand.
Ultimately, though, survey respondents told us that nothing matters more in their choice of a restaurant than the quality of the food. But our scores show that just 20 chains served truly inspired fare, and 30 received a below-average rating.
We also saw that, to attract and keep more customers, food establishments are trying to evolve. In particular, we found four major trends that are shaping today’s chain-restaurant landscape.