On Saturday night, my family and I did something fairly new for us: we ate at a chain restaurant. We’d spent the afternoon at Longwood Gardens and found ourselves in a giant stretch of strip mall development around 5:45 p.m. So we ate at Ruby’s Diner (we'd checked out Texas Roadhouse and P.F. Chang's, but both had huge waits. I'm thinking that's a leading economic indicator…).
The reason we don’t eat at chains much has nothing to do with our sophisticated tastes. We lived in Manhattan until June and the chains aren't the most obvious options there. Then after moving to suburbia, we found that, with kids ages 4, 2, and 4 months, eating out has been a total pain. It’s just not very relaxing. While eating at home is certainly not effortless or costless (groceries, the opportunity cost of time spent cooking and cleaning) it has involved less effort than trying to keep a toddler from crawling around on the dirty floor under the table.
But in the past month or so, while Ruth is still unable to move, we've started trying again. We've had a few almost pleasant dinners in restaurants with the older kids not making much of a fuss. Chain restaurants — unlike small NYC restaurants — seem built with families in mind. The kids' menus have pizza and milk. There are often booths (key to keeping little kids sitting down and not running around the restaurant). There are crayons or puzzles or something. And, as someone who just hasn't eaten much at chains in my life, I realize that a lot of the food is pretty good the first time you're there.
Of course, it isn't that good. The first time we went to Outback Steakhouse, I thought it was tasty. The second time I was not at all impressed. The hedonic treadmill runs fast in this particular gym. Was it worth the cost of dinner when I could have cooked steak at home just how I like it?
I've been thinking about this lately in the context of personal finance. The usual advice, when people are trying to free up more cash in their lives, is to stop going out to eat. But I think this advice needs to be a bit nuanced. And so, I was happy to read a fascinating article over at The Primer Magazine on how "The Chain Restaurant is the Worst Deal in America." The point was that, to get the most pleasure out of your food money, you should go big or go home. That is, either drop $100 on somewhere awesome (plus a babysitter) or cook.
This is, in fact, what we tend to do. When we manage to get an evening sitter and make plans for date night, we try to go someplace nice and memorable. Somewhere without booths and crayons. Then, rather than going to a chain restaurant, on nights no one feels like cooking, it's frozen pizza or some ready-made dish from the supermarket.
What about you? What's your philosophy when it comes to eating out?
(photo courtesy flickr user Clotee Pridgen Allochuku. I ordered the fish tacos instead.)