What's wrong with chain restaurants?

Plenty, according to some of my readers. My take on the subject is that chain restaurants aren't bad. They just aren't good, either.

Chain food reduces the volatility of your dining experience. You rarely have a really great meal, a memorable meal, at a chain. (Your date throwing up his Shrimp Fra Diavolo does not count.) But you also rarely have a really bad one. People have forgotten about all the really bad restaurant food there used to be--and still is, in places that don't have the density or income to support chain restaurants. People look at the rich individually owned markets of the few big cities that have them, and the great family owned places in their own area, and conclude that chain restaurants must be dragging America's food tastes down.

I beg to differ. The chains are putting a floor on quality; any family owned restaurant that cannot provide at least as good food and service as a chain has gone out of business. The average family owned restaurant is probably better than a similar chain, but that doesn't mean that if the chains went away, we'd have better food. We'd have a lot of soggy pasta and awful hotel buffets--remember those, small town America? Not an improvement.

And for a more mobile country, chains make a lot of sense. If you travel a lot, search costs start to matter. In other words, there's nothing wrong with chains. Because the best thing about chains is that if you don't like them, you don't have to eat there.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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