No matter how much the outside world may change, it seems that restaurant goers can always depend on the comfort of their favorite restaurant chain. Regardless of if you’re meeting there for your latest family get-together or just looking for a place to spend the next date night, nationwide data from the last five years shows that most Americans tend to rely on the five most popular restaurant chains across the country for their dine-in meals. It’s a true testament to the power of familiarity: You could be with family on vacation far from home or looking for a bite to eat right down the street from your humble abode, but either way you know that your favorite chain is going to look, feel, and taste the same whatever the distance may be.
Of course, no one state is the same — While there are five clear winners out of the hundreds of chains in the United States, each one of the 50 has a unique favorite, and each one has a clear least favorite.
1. Olive Garden
Coming in at the number one most popular chain in America is Olive Garden, the inimitable Italian restaurant that originated in Orange County, Florida back in 1982. While it might not be the most authentic Italian food around (definitely known for putting the American in Italian-American cuisine), it’s impossible to deny the sheer popularity of their restaurants and their menu staples like the Never Ending Pasta Bowl, the unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks, and the Tour of Italy sampler. At nearly 900 restaurants across the globe and over 860 of which are located right here in the U.S., it’s really no surprise that Americans flock to Olive Garden more than any other restaurant chain.
Of all the 50 states, the two that seem to love Olive Garden the most are out in the Wild West: Utah and Oregon. On the contrary, the state that prefers Olive Garden the least is the island of Hawaii. Surprisingly, Texas residents aren’t the biggest Olive Garden fans in the country despite being the state with the most locations: They have over 100 of the United States’ 860-odd Olive Garden restaurants. That’s a whole lot of soup, salad, breadsticks, and pasta bowls.
Second up is Applebee’s, an American-style bar and grill that capitalizes on a small-town “neighborhood” feel throughout its 1,750-plus locations worldwide. In operation since 1980, Applebee’s prides itself on its riblets, a cutesy name for a slab of spare ribs cut in half, but is also known for its plethora of chicken entrees, pasta dishes, grilled burgers, and various salads. They’re your quintessential American restaurant, so it makes sense they’d be the second-favorite.
Of the 1,650 or so Applebee’s locations in the United States, North Dakotans are the ones who head to their local Applebee’s the most. On the flip side, Connecticut and Hawaii are tied for the least-enthusiastic Applebee’s diners — they’d much rather head to one of the other four most popular chains, it seems. For some reason, the allure of the Applebee’s riblets must be lost on them.
The third most popular restaurant in America is Chili’s. A decidedly more Tex-Mex take on the traditional American bar and grill experience, Chili’s has a menu that packs the kind of heat you’d expect from a restaurant named after a pepper. Opening over 1,600 locations worldwide since its inception in 1975, Chili’s is known best for its Southwestern-inspired dishes like fajitas, quesadillas, and seafood tacos, but — surprisingly — they’re also synonymous with baby back ribs (and now the song from the commercial is stuck in your head… sorry).
The state that loves Chili’s the most, while not totally Southwestern, is at least part of the American South: Louisiana. The state that eats at Chili’s the least is on the other side of the country, way up in the Pacific Northwest: Oregon. There’s no real explanation for this divide, really, but it might have something to do with the fact that spicy seafood and American comfort foods are more than welcome in Louisiana, while Oregon is definitely much more north of the border.
4. Outback Steakhouse
The number four most popular restaurant chain is Outback Steakhouse. An Australian-themed American-style eatery, Outback Steakhouse really leans into the Aussie aesthetic while almost exclusively serving food that comes from the U.S. (because, apparently, nothing says Australia like a big, juicy steak). Best-known for the Bloomin’ Onion, a big sliced-and-diced onion that’s battered and fried and intended to be pulled apart and dipped, the rest of Outback’s menu is pretty much identical to the food offered at any other American restaurant.
Believe it or not, it seems the charm of Outback Steakhouse’s Australian act is not lost on Hawaiians. More than any other state, Hawaii tends to frequent the restaurant the most. But who’s the least interested in visiting one of Outback’s 1,000 locations? None other than those countless Applebee’s loyalists up in North Dakota. Why have a Bloomin’ Onion when there’s riblets to eat?
5. T.G.I. Friday’s
Number five on the list of the most popular restaurants in America is TGI Friday’s. As it happens, TGI Friday’s is also the oldest and smallest chain on the list: They were founded in 1965 and operate just over 350 locations in the United States. They’re another American-style restaurant, but their focus is more on casual fare and a massive menu — No matter what you’re in the mood for, TGI Friday’s probably has a version of it.
Residents of Washington, D.C. are saying “Thank God it’s TGI Friday’s” more than anyone else in America. While technically not a state, the District of Columbia is the part of the U.S. that favors TGI Friday’s by quite a significant margin. New Mexico and Wisconsin are the opposite, avoiding TGI Friday’s more often than not. They’d probably rather hit Olive Garden, Applebee’s, Chili’s, and Outback for the rest of their lives before they sat down for a meal at Friday’s.