Eating Nashville: Which are the best (and worst) chain restaurants? Our power rankings.
Mack and Brad go to 20 national-chain restaurants in Middle Tennessee to see which ones have held up over the years − and which have not.
Eating Nashville is The Tennessean's column in which food writer Mackensy Lunsford and food eater Brad Schmitt frequently butt heads about Nashville's culinary hot spots. Or in this case, our power rankings of casual national chain restaurants.
Brad: Nashville is home to plenty of celebrity chefs and high-end restaurants. But on any Friday night in Madison, Antioch, Mt. Juliet or Clarksville, you'll see long lines at the national chain restaurants — you know, Olive Garden, Outback and the like.
Two reasons, we think: When you take the whole family out, you want to go with a place you know before you drop all that cash. The other: nostalgia. My mom used to take us to TGI Friday's after graduations or other special occasions. Bet your family had that special restaurant, too.
Mack: Yep, ours was Ryan's Family Steakhouse. I don't remember what I ate. Every savory item I got down my throat was another bite closer to the self-serve ice cream machine. It was like heaven. You mean I can add as many sprinkles and crushed cookies to my ice cream as I want?
Nostalgia is definitely a huge factor behind the popularity of some of these spots. Some on our list held warm memories for me: Olive Garden with my granddad, a Red Lobster date with a rising star chef that remains a hilarious memory.
Brad: But what has held up over the years? Which restaurants have fallen off the cliff? Mackensy and I tried 20 casual chains. The rules: They had to have at least three locations in Middle Tennessee and table service. To come up with our power rankings and fork ratings, we judged them on food, value, service, kids' accommodations and vibe. Here are the results.
As always, if you love the list, let me know at email@example.com. If you hate it, my wonderful foodie friend Mackensy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the way, friends, you're going to get your chance to weigh in too! It's gonna be a lot of fun, so check back in soon.
Your turn:What's your favorite chain restaurant in Nashville? Vote in our bracket showdown
And now, folks, the list ...
Four locations in Middle Tennessee: Antioch, Franklin, Mt. Juliet and Rivergate
Power rank: 20 of 20
Mack: I know, I know. The biscuits are slammin'. But we had to skip the live lobster because the tank was a little murky. And boy, those entrees were universally rough. I don't like a bunch of stuff all over my seafood, and that's what you get here: butter, cream and more butter. For the love of Pete don't order the Brussels sprouts. Oof.
Brad: I did order lobster, and I'm sorry I did. Rubbery. Chewy. Not good. And expensive to boot. (Kinda tasted like a boot.) Guess you get the idea.
Total forks: 1.5
Four locations in Middle Tennessee: Clarksville, Hermitage, Murfreesboro, Rivergate, South Nashville
Power rank: 19 of 20
Brad: My dude friends often say, eyes downcast, "But I really like the wings at Hooters." Probably the same guys who say they read the articles in Playboy. Regardless, fellas, if you've been lately, you might find the wings now are greasy and gross, as is the fried shrimp. Love the fries. And the service was wonderful! 👍
Mack: Nope, nope, nope.
Total forks 2.5
Fifteen locations in Middle Tennessee: Bellevue, Brentwood, Clarksville, Cookeville, Cool Springs, Franklin, Gallatin, Hermitage, Lebanon, Murfreesboro, Opry Mills, Rivergate, Smyrna, Spring Hill and the Vanderbilt area
Power rank: 18 of 20
Brad: I hear the jingle in my head every time I see a Chili's: "I want my baby-back baby-back baby-back." Except I don't anymore. 😥 Those ribs were dry. Like, desert dry. Everything else? Meh. Service? Slow. But my table of friends tore into desserts, destroying the molten chocolate cake and the skillet chocolate chip cookie.
Mack: Oh boy. Where do I start? The bar was closed because no one showed up to work it. I had some cheesy, chewy egg roll things and a pretty terrible, wilted salad that was spicy but otherwise bland. My 7-year-old loved her cheeseburger, so there's that.
Total forks: 3
Six locations in Middle Tennessee: Berry Hill in Nashville, Clarksville, Columbia, Dickson, McMinnville and Tullahoma
Power rank: 17 of 20
Brad: Like many restaurants, Applebee's in Berry Hill obviously is understaffed; we waited 15 minutes for a table — and three-quarters of the restaurant was empty. Things didn't get any better when the food hit the table. The riblets meat quality was iffy; the chicken in the Bourbon Street chicken and shrimp seemed really old and freezer burned; the boneless wings were super salty. Big ups to the host, though, who remembered customers' names and kept things light and fun for a big old bald guy who was salty about the wait.
Mack: Yeah, the sweet server/hostess (and probably dishwasher and bartender too) told us she was understaffed from the get-go. The restaurant was out of a few things, including the Flamin' Hot Cheetos wings, but I'm not totally mad about it. I liked my Southwestern chicken bowl thing just fine inasmuch as it tasted like a microwavable entree I might pluck out of the freezer section more than once.
Total forks: 3.5
Four locations currently open in Middle Tennessee: Donelson, Clarksville, Lebanon and Dickson
Power rank: 16 of 20
Brad: When I first moved to Nashville in 1990 (yes, Mack, I'm old), I lived across the street from this magical place called Shoney's. A wonderful, inexpensive breakfast bar every morning, filled with warm buttery biscuits, fresh scrambled eggs, melted cheese and perfectly sauteed mushrooms for those eggs. And that glorious hot fudge ice cream cake? Heaven!
I'm sorry to say it may all have been a dream. On a recent visit, I discovered the magic was gone. The food is OK at best. Even the chocolate cake in that magical dessert was stale. I cried softly on the way back to the newsroom.
Mack: I love that this place has a "fresh food bar" as though it wants to distance itself as much as possible from salad. I might potentially hit up a Shoney's breakfast bar on a road trip, but otherwise this just isn't my fave of the chains.
Fifteen locations in Middle Tennessee: Antioch, Clarksville, Columbia, Cookeville, Dickson, Franklin, Gallatin, Goodlettsville, Hermitage, Lebanon, Manchester, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Smyrna, Springfield
Power rank: 15 of 20
Brad: First of all, "free pie Wednesday" is gone! 😭 And second, the chicken tenders are overcooked and smaller than I remember. For those two reasons alone, I'm no longer an O'Charley's fan, which bums me out because I used to enjoy a stop here.
Mack: What's the signature item that distinguishes it from other restaurants? My server wasn't sure. I wasn't sure. I had an overly sweet fried chicken salad and some spinach dip that tasted like the one at Texas Roadhouse.
Eight locations in Middle Tennessee: Brentwood, Clarksville (2), Columbia, Dickson, Lebanon, Nashville, Tullahoma
Power rank: 14 of 20
Brad: Outstanding salad bar! The veggies are crunchy fresh, the pre-prepared salads are well done (and not too much mayo), and the homemade, warm, buttery pumpernickel croutons? Divine! The rest of the food? Sigh. Have I told you about the salad bar? Dude, those croutons...!
Mack: This place is so all over the place. Like what is the theme here? Sauce. I think the theme is lots of sauce.
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers
Five locations in Middle Tennessee: Hendersonville, Mt. Juliet, Murfreesboro, Nashville West and Spring Hill
Power rank: 13 of 20
Mack: Boy howdy, do I hate the word "gourmet." But that's your order here: the gourmet burgers. I ordered the very unfortunately named "Burnin' Love Burger." Like, how did corporate let that name make it past the boardroom? The burger was fine. My daughter liked the shakes, because what child wouldn't appreciate a doughnut-topped anything?
Brad: Yeah, for me, their D'oh! nuts (clever!) and other desserts were the highlights of the meal. That's a bummer at a place that, as Mackensy loves, puts "Gourmet Burgers" in its name. About 12 years ago, I'd go to Red Robin with friends about twice a month. Since then, the food quality has dropped off. I love the idea of endless fries, but it's far more appealing if the fries are hot and crisp.
Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen
Seven locations in Middle Tennessee: Brentwood, Clarksville, Cookeville, Hendersonville, Mt. Juliet, Murfreesboro and Smyrna
Power rank: 12 of 20
Brad: Family-friendly vibe with some big portions. But the food itself? I dunno. Kinda plain. Watery, flavorless sauce on the chicken alfredo, for instance. And the fried chicken salad is a yawner. Loves me some chocolate cake here, though! The service for me is inconsistent, but a big ol' shout-out to the patient and attentive server Johnny in Smyrna. 🤛
Mack: Bland, cheesy and largely inoffensive. Service? I informed someone near the hostess stand that we had arrived since we were a tiny bit late and she bluntly said, "I'm just wiping tables down right now, OK?" OK.
Three locations in Middle Tennessee: CoolSprings Galleria, The Mall at Green Hills and Opry Mills
Power rank: 11 out of 20
Mack: Do I want to know that a side of mac and cheese is 1,550 calories? I do not, even though it was pretty good. Everything else went downhill. Appetizers arrived after the entrees. The flatbread was like frozen pizza garnished with corn syrup. The cheesecake? It's fine! The free bread was better.
Brad: The bread is better than the cheesecake? 😮 Uh, no. In fact, the only reason to go here is dessert. I mean, the restaurant gives you a pretty big hint in the name. Skip the 50 pages of mediocre, overpriced entrees and appetizers, order some coffee and a slice of amazing cheesecake, and you and your kids will go home happy every time. 😋
Total forks: 5.5
Seven locations in Middle Tennessee: Brentwood, Clarksville, Cookeville, Hermitage, Murfreesboro, Nashville West, Rivergate
Power rank: 10 of 20
Mack: They do generally know how to cook a steak here. The fresh, seasonal vegetable side is not, you know, as advertised, so just get the cheesy "Aussie" fries because a few hundred calories here or there means nothing after you inhale a Bloomin' Onion.
Brad: Those Aussie fries might be my favorite app at any chain restaurant. The cheese-fries-bacon ratio is perfect! I basically had to force myself to stop eating them. I had very little food after that because I was so freakin' full o' fries and cheese.
Seven locations in Middle Tennessee: Antioch, Clarksville, Franklin, Mt. Juliet, Murfreesboro, Rivergate and Spring Hill
Power rank: 9 of 20
Mack: The Madison location of this restaurant has the nicest employees I experienced throughout this entire project. My granddad used to take me to eat here when I was a child and everything tasted exactly the same. That being said, I've never seen so much cream sauce and cheese in my life. Dear Tennessean: Please pay my gym bill this month.
Brad: Look, pretty solid food here for a long time, and the all-you-can-eat salad and breadsticks is a crowd-pleaser. I also have to say that, since I started fostering teenage boys, the take-home-another-entree-for-$6 has been greatly appreciated. I found the service in the Antioch location, however, to be, uh, lacking.
Eight locations in Middle Tennessee: Clarksville, Cookeville, Dickson, Gallatin, Lebanon, Opryland area, Smyrna and Spring Hill
Power rank: 8 of 20
Brad: Absolutely loved the ribeye steak, juicy and flavorful. Yummy! And I had to fight my friend for bites of the cookie dough chocolate cake we shared. (Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Keith Sharon.) Not gonna lie, I miss the free peanuts. And the sides are lackluster. But our super friendly server at the Opryland location more than made up for any disappointments.
Mack: Agreed on the sides: a whole lot of calories, not a whole lot of flavor or texture. Just have the steak, which is good but it should be at this price point, and forget the rest. That's why you came anyway, right?
Total forks: 6.3
Eight locations in Middle Tennessee: Brentwood, Mt. Juliet, Murfreesboro, Nashville airport area, Opryland area, Rivergate, Smyrna and Spring Hill
Power rank: 7 of 20
Mack: Would I eat here regularly? Nah. Is this a decent choice for a steak and loaded baked potato? Sure! The cheesecake, made in Mt. Juliet, was the highlight of the meal. The Parmesan-crusted chicken was surprisingly good, too.
Brad: Oh, that cheesecake! That fluffy cheesecake where you catch a taste of actual cheese. It's outstanding. And I also loved the filet.
Five locations in Middle Tennessee: Clarksville, Cookeville, Hendersonville, Murfreesboro and Spring Hill
Power rank: 6 of 20
Brad: Insane energy at our stop in the Murfreesboro location — lots of big groups, birthday parties and noise! Kind of infectious. And the ribeye we had? Insane! Juicy, tender, a perfect medium rare and just the right amount of salt and pepper. Some challenges — sad side dishes and dry ribs. But their version of Outback's Bloomin' Onion — the Cactus Blossom — is fire. And I'll say it: Cactus Blossom > Bloomin' Onion.
Mack: Yeah, the fact that you can pick out your own steak is cool, and they're cooked well, too. If any one of these steak chains could master the art of the side dish, it would instantly distinguish itself from a host of pretty unremarkable spots.
Four locations in Middle Tennessee: Franklin, Green Hills, Hendersonville and Murfreesboro
Power rank: 5 of 20
Brad: The meal had a great start with delicious, super-fresh salads, and really tasty, thick soups. The entrees? Hits and misses. A big chef's kiss to the mezzaluna pasta, ravioli with chicken, ricotta, romano and spinach in a tomato cream sauce. As for the lobster ravioli, someone call da cops! Most of the filling is missing in those bad boys. But we had a happy ending — I thought the cannoli cake for two (which I call "cannoli cake for one") was creamy, moist and delicious.
Mack: This is Olive Garden lite™. I prefer Carrabba's because you can actually find stuff on the menu without a cream or cheese sauce. The salads are good, and the healthy options aren't presented like a bowl full of penance.
Total forks: 6.6
Buffalo Wild Wings
Twelve locations in Middle Tennessee: Clarksville, Dickson, Franklin, Gallatin, Hendersonville, Hermitage, Mt. Juliet, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Smyrna, Spring Hill and Tullahoma
Power rank: 4 of 20
Mack: The Carolina Reaper wings tasted like fire and bad decisions, so I would stick to the basics: Buffalo wings and ball. The location I went to had good whiskey, a really nice bartender and a bajillion screens on which to watch the playoffs. I had fun, especially once my mouth stopped burning.
Brad: "Fire and Bad Decisions: The Mackensy Lunsford Story." 🔥 I'd read it.
The wings are solid, and, for me, some of the sauces are really good. I enjoy them, but even better, I like Buffalo Wild Wings as a fun place to watch the game and share food with friends.
Total forks: 7
Nineteen locations in Middle Tennessee: Brentwood, Clarksville, Columbia, Dickson, Franklin, Gallatin, Goodlettsville, Hendersonville, Hermitage, Lebanon, Mt. Juliet, Murfreesboro (2), Opryland area, Smyrna, South Nashville, Spring Hill, West Nashville and White House
Power rank: 3 of 20
Mack: I absolutely crushed the fried chicken in a fairly unladylike way. It was worth it. So was the man-sized blackberry tea I washed it down with. The mac and cheese and turnip greens made me sad. I remember them being better. But Cracker Barrel still nails that comfortable, nostalgic aesthetic for me.
Brad: Yeah, Mack, there are a few misses among the side dishes. But overall, hoo-doggie, them's good eats. Solid takes on comfort foods that, for me, anyway, indeed is served with a comfortable, nostalgic vibe. Get the pancakes, the blueberry ones, served with super-cute little warm jars of blueberry syrup. Good giggly-wiggly! 😋
Total forks: 8.5
Six locations in Middle Tennessee: Brentwood, Cool Springs, Midtown Nashville, Murfreesboro, Opry Mills and West Nashville
Power rank: 2 of 20
Mack: I like this place. I could drink the queso, though I can't understand why y'all are so obsessed with the creamy jalapeno dip stuff. The salads are fresh, the staff is awesome, there are Hatch Green chiles all over the place, and the chips are light and crisp. It's a standout among the rest.
Brad: The chips are super fresh, light and crispy. I find the creamy jalapeno ranch exquisite and addictive, despite what Hater Mack says. The chicka-chicka boom-boom sauce? Also deee-lish, with just the right amount of heat. Agreed, it totally stands out.
Total forks: 8.5
Nine locations in Middle Tennessee: Brentwood, Franklin (2), Green Hills, Hendersonville, Hermitage, Melrose, Old Hickory, Smyrna
Power rank: 1 of 20
Brad: I love everything about this place, from the gigantic sparkling-white ceramic coffee mugs to the near-perfectly executed dishes on the diverse and often-healthy menu. There is plenty of room at the tables, the service usually is excellent and you can find really satisfying entrees at every calorie point. I love First Watch so much, I want to marry it! 🧡
Mack: Brad accidentally sent me this address when we were supposed to meet at Ruby Tuesdays (true story) and I'm so glad he did. I sat by myself at the bar and ate a cheesy, absolutely delicious veggie melt and a cup of tomato soup. I left feeling satiated and recharged. This is the only one of the chains that seemed packed with happy people, with plenty of staff to go around. This is probably the future of casual dining. The rest should take note.
What's your favorite national chain restaurant? Did you love this list? Reach Brad Schmitt at email@example.com. Find Mackensy at firstname.lastname@example.org.