Family restaurants across the country have had a tough go of it lately. Theories abound as to why casual dining chains are in a slump compared with the rest of the industry, but the fact is that many customers would rather grab a cheap meal from their favorite fast-food joint, or a higher-quality meal at a fast-casual chain that doesn't require an hour of their time (or a tip for table service).
Still, sometimes you want to kick back at a nicer place with options to satisfy everyone in the family. To come up with our picks for the best family restaurants, Cheapism.com considered factors such as prices and money-saving promotions; the breadth of the menus, including kids' meals and healthful options; and how the chains fare in large surveys that gauge customer satisfaction with service, food quality, and atmosphere. Of course, we were also influenced by our firsthand impressions dining with our own families at popular chains. Here are a dozen family restaurants where your money will be well spent.
Prices may vary by location.
CHEDDAR'S SCRATCH KITCHEN
The basics: Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen is on the upswing after a recent acquisition and rebranding (you may remember it as Texas-based Cheddar's Casual Café). In its new incarnation, this chain spanning 28 states took top honors among "general menu casual dining restaurants" in a Market Force customer satisfaction survey, handily beating stalwarts like Chili's and Applebee's in nearly every category, from value to food quality. As the name suggests, Cheddar's pledges that everything is made from scratch, and the wide-ranging menu includes burgers, steak, ribs, chicken, and fish. The chain is also cementing a reputation as one of the most "price aggressive" sit-down family restaurants. Not only do you get tastier food, patrons say, you get it for less here.
For the kids: A menu of $5 kids' meals sticks to mostly familiar territory: chicken tenders, grilled chicken, pasta marinara, mac 'n' cheese, a junior burger. However, kids have a dozen side choices, including some that are usually reserved for parents, such as coleslaw, baked sweet potatoes, broccoli cheese casserole, and Southern green beans.
For special diets: A four-item "Lighter Side" menu includes lemon pepper white fish with seasoned rice and a garden salad (400 calories) and grilled Baja chicken with rice and beans (490 calories). Cheddar's also boasts an impressively large gluten-sensitive menu that includes salmon, ribs, steaks, and most sides. Vegetarians can order a vegetable plate with a salad and soup, four sides, and a croissant, but other options are scant.
What you'll pay (and how to save): At Cheddar's, there are more than 20 entree choices under $10. For instance, you can dig into a homemade chicken pot pie and two sides for $8.49 — and, as the website notes, this is not a limited-time offer. But watch for promotions, too. For instance, diners could recently get a half rack of ribs or an 8-ounce piece of salmon with two sides for $10 Monday through Thursday. Lunch combos range from $7.49 to $9.79.
Best of the Bigger Chains
The basics: No Cheddar's around? With more than 1,200 U.S. locations, there's bound to be a Chili's nearby to get that baby-back-ribs jingle stuck in your head for eternity. And while ubiquitous eateries like Applebee's aim for the same mass appeal, Chili's and its Southwest-inspired menu edge out the competition with healthier choices, better all-around value, and a renewed focus on what it does best — namely, perennial favorites like ribs and fajitas.
For the kids: Cheesy chicken pasta and grilled chicken sliders are notable kids' menu items, but there are also standbys like pizza, grilled cheese, and quesadillas. Chili's has a wider-than-usual range of kids' sides, including healthier choices like pineapple and celery, Mexican rice, and corn on the cob. A kid-size molten chocolate cake makes a casual dinner out feel more special. Expect to pay $5.20 to $5.50, dessert excluded.
For special diets: Healthier choices are easy to find on the five-item Guiltless Grill menu, including chile-rubbed salmon with rice and broccoli (630 calories) and mango-chile chicken with the same sides (490 calories). A detailed allergen menu offers a lot of guidance for anyone avoiding gluten, nuts, or other ingredients. It also lists vegan and vegetarian-friendly options like a Caribbean salad, bean and veggie fajitas, and a veggie burger.
What you'll pay (and how to save): The famous baby back ribs are the priciest choice on the Chili's menu — a full rack will set you back about $20. Many sandwiches and more modest entrees range from $10 to $15, and fajitas from $14 to $17. Budget-savvy diners can eat on the cheap with a Dinner for Two menu: Select one of five appetizers and two entrees from about a dozen choices for $22. Another strategy: Go midday for a $7 lunch combo menu that includes sliders, flatbreads, and a chipotle chicken bowl.
Best for Small Budgets
The basics: Modest prices and old-fashioned Southern comfort food have become a winning combination for Cracker Barrel, making it a ubiquitous sight right off the highway in much of the country. This is where you come to face-plant into something starchy and decadent without paying a high price — except in calories, that is. Menu stalwarts include buttermilk pancakes, sweet potato casserole, country fried steak, and plenty of "chicken n' dumplins."
For the kids: The usual kids' menu fare is here, including grilled cheese and burgers. Children who want something a little heartier can nosh on smaller portions of the famed dumplings, or country-fried shrimp. Crowd-pleasing breakfast favorites like pancakes, eggs, and biscuits are available any time of day. Expect to spend around $4 to $5 for each child.
For special diets: Cracker Barrel has never pretended to be a health-food destination. A modest "Lighter Twist" menu lists four options, including apple cider barbecue chicken and a country vegetable plate. When it comes to sides, opt for veggies or fruit over dumplings or fries to keep calories in check. Vegetarian options are thin, and if you're gluten-free, you're stuck with mostly sides. Check the food allergen guide for specifics, but note that Cracker Barrel doesn't guarantee against cross-contamination.
What you'll pay (and how to save): Dinner entrees are a budget-friendly $8 to $15, and the bulk of them are under $10. If that's not cheap enough for you, weekday lunch specials are only $6. A rotating menu includes meatloaf and chicken pot pies. Don't waste your time looking for coupons or other promotions on top of the already low prices — Cracker Barrel doesn't offer them.
Best for Cheap Kids' Food
The basics: There's nothing quite like taking the kids out for a nice dinner, only to pay $5 or more to watch them eat half a chicken nugget. At O'Charley's, kids eat free — yes, free! — with the purchase of an adult entree every day of the week. But enough about them: Adults get to choose from a wide range of reasonably priced, Southern-inspired favorites like fried shrimp, Cajun chicken pasta, or a bourbon-glazed filet. There's also a Sunday brunch menu with waffles, mimosas, and even prime rib. Finally, O'Charley's is noted for its pies, so save room for dessert.
For the kids: A grilled chicken salad, steak tips, and barbecue ribs stand out on O'Charley's list of otherwise-standard kids' favorites like pizza, corn dogs, and chicken tenders. On Sundays, they can nosh on waffles and eggs, potatoes, and toast for brunch. On the side, healthier alternatives to fries include broccoli, mandarin oranges, carrot sticks, and applesauce. The best part: Many kids' meals are just $3, so even if you can't snag one for free, you're still out only a few bucks.
For special diets: There is no special menu denoting lighter selections, but there are still plenty of options, like blackened grilled salmon paired with asparagus and rice pilaf (560 calories). A 6-ounce sirloin and peach chutney chicken paired with veggies are also good low-calorie bets. Diners who want to stay gluten-free or avoid other ingredients can find allergen information here. As with many other chains, pickings are slim for vegetarians and vegans, save for a few sides.
What you'll pay (and how to save): Entrees at O'Charley's start at under $10 for simple fare like sandwiches and peak around $20 for steak and ribs. There's also an everyday "Over the Top and Under $10" menu that includes chopped steak, fried chicken, fish and chips, and more. Promotions have included $10 all-you-can-eat chicken tenders on Tuesdays and fish on Thursdays. If you have a sweet tooth, enjoy a slice of pie on the house with the purchase of an entree on Wednesday. Just note that those promotions can't be combined with the kids-eat-free deal.
THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY
Best for Variety
The basics: The Cheesecake Factory is almost comically over the top in every way, from the Egyptian-inspired decor to the gut-busting cheesecakes in every imaginable flavor. But it's the epic spiral-bound menu that really sets tongues wagging. The chain says it offers more than 250 dishes, and they cover just about every possible craving, from pizza and pasta to sandwiches, steaks, and Asian fusion. Choose wisely: The portions are as massive as the menu itself, so chances are you'll have leftovers.
For the kids: There are a dozen wide-ranging choices on the kids' menu, so there's something to please just about any picky palate. Traditional favorites include grilled cheese, corn dogs, pasta, and chicken strips, but little foodies can also tear into Southern fried chicken sliders or grilled salmon. Most dishes include fries or fresh fruit. Prices start around $7.
For special diets: Dieters, rejoice: There are more than 50 "SkinnyLicious" options with 590 calories or fewer across the menu, including soft tacos, grilled steak medallions, and even a pot pie. Need an antioxidant boost? Try the "superfood" selections, like kale and quinoa salad or avocado toast. Frustratingly, there is no detailed nutrition or allergen information online, although the chain pledges to accommodate dietary restrictions. Gluten-free menus are available at the restaurant.
What you'll pay (and how to save): The Cheesecake Factory is on the more expensive end of the family-dining spectrum, with dinner entrees ranging from around $15 to $30. Promotions are rare, so your best bet for budget-friendly dining is lunch — there are several options around $13. Coming for dinner? Try splitting an appetizer and a single entree (trust us, you'll have plenty of food). A happy hour menu also offers several drinks and appetizers for around $6 each.
Best for Special Diets
The basics: Farm-to-wok Asian fusion may seem like a reach for a typical chain restaurant, but P.F. Chang's has settled into its niche with ease. The food may not be authentic, but it's plenty fresh and — unlike most of the competition — able to satisfy a wide range of diets, including vegetarians and more health-conscious diners. Be sure to try the lettuce wraps, which have inspired dozens of copycat recipes online and at other restaurants across the country.
For the kids: Even kids who are skeptical of Asian cuisine will probably be happy to scarf down crispy chicken with honey or sweet and sour sauce (don't worry, it's served on the side). Other choices include fried rice, lo mein, and the gloriously healthy "baby Buddha's feast" of snap peas, carrots, and broccoli. Rice and veggies or fruit come with most meals, which range from about $4 to $6.
For special diets: P.F. Chang's is among the very best of the chain-restaurant bunch for special diets. There are several vegetarian options, including stir-fried eggplant, ma po tofu, and chili-garlic green beans (many are vegan-friendly, too). A large gluten-free menu serves up everything from egg drop soup to ginger chicken and broccoli. Dieters will find plenty of lighter choices under 600 calories marked clearly on the main menu. They include black pepper chicken, orange peel shrimp, and many sides.
What you'll pay (and how to save): Dinner entrees range from about $10 to $25, with many options from $15 to $18. Eating family-style can also help: There's a four-person option for $50 and a six-person option for $70. The lunch menu includes filling $10 rice and noodle bowls, and there are plenty of small plates and drinks for $5 and $6 during weekday happy hours. If you're a frequent diner, join the rewards program. Every $200 you spend will earn you a free entree.
Best for Carb Lovers
The basics: America's best-known Italian restaurant serves up heaping piles of pasta, earning it a certain fondness among patrons that eludes other chains (just check out the hubbub surrounding its gimmicky "Pasta Pass" for proof that some fans can't get enough). Olive Garden is known for its endless soup, salad, and fluffy, garlic-slathered breadsticks, which on their own can fill up many customers. Be sure to ask for a take-home box for your entree — chances are you'll need it.
For the kids: Pasta, pasta, and more pasta, of course. Kids can pick their favorite pasta shape and sauce; just note that side choices are limited to grapes or broccoli. And if you don't have a little pasta fanatic, beware: The only other options are pizza, chicken fingers, and macaroni and cheese. Most selections are $6.
For special diets: Yes, it's possible to be gluten-free in this pasta paradise. A small menu of gluten-sensitive options includes gluten-free rotini and herb-grilled salmon. Check out the "Tastes of the Mediterranean" menu for several entrees under 600 calories, such as shrimp scampi and chicken piccata. Need vegetarian or vegan options? Olive Garden has you covered with an impressive list of selections.
What you'll pay (and how to save): Dinner entrees range from around $13 to $20. However, exploiting the chain's frequent Buy One, Take One promotion gets you a second entree to take home for free. Lunchtime penny pinchers will find a Lunch Duo menu with choices like fettuccine Alfredo and lasagna starting at $7. Either way, you still get all-you-can-eat soup, salad, and breadsticks.
Best for Fish Fanatics
The basics: Red Lobster has been one of America's most accessible, affordable seafood spots for years, and it's recently seen a surge in popularity among younger diners that may be thanks in part to Beyoncé (no joke). Even if you aren't a fan of Queen Bey, it's hard to deny the starchy goodness of those Cheddar Bay Biscuits and gloriously gluttonous promotions like Lobsterfest, Crabfest, and Endless Shrimp. Stick to the Today's Catch menu if you want the freshest choices — selections are locally sourced or recently flown in.
For the kids: Red Lobster offers pint-size seafood dishes that are a refreshing departure from kids' menu standards. They include a lobster and shrimp roll, popcorn or garlic grilled shrimp, broiled tilapia, and even a small lobster tail. For seafood skeptics, there's still mac 'n' cheese, chicken fingers, and grilled chicken. Side choices include oranges, rice pilaf, and mashed potatoes. The big downside to satisfying your little (sea)foodies: Most items are on the pricier side, at $6.50 to $7; the broiled tilapia is $9, and the lobster tail is a cool $10.79.
For special diets: Check out Red Lobster's interactive menu before heading to the restaurant — it lets you sort the options to easily find dishes low in calories, fat, or carbs. shrimp with broccoli and a garden salad totals just 470 calories; another solid choice is the wild-caught flounder with asparagus and a garden salad, at 610 calories. A food allergy wizard on the restaurant's website helps patrons stay gluten-free or steer clear of other allergens. You can even avoid fish or shellfish, with Southwest-style chicken tacos, Cajun chicken linguini Alfredo, steak, and select other choices.
What you'll pay (and how to save): Red Lobster isn't the cheapest place to get grub, so plan accordingly. Most entrees go for at least $15, and indulging in a seafood feast or many crab and lobster dishes can push your bill closer to $30 a person. If you're dining Monday through Thursday, the Four Course Feast can ease the pain. For $17, you get a cup of soup, a salad, one of six entrees, and even a brownie a la mode. Early-dining specials can also help: There's a different deal each weekday before 6 p.m., including $15 for endless shrimp on Mondays and $10 fried fish on Fridays.
Best for Carnivores
The basics: If you're a steak lover, competition for your dollars is stiff. Outback? Longhorn? We give a slight edge to Texas Roadhouse, which sits atop the venerable American Customer Service Index for 2018. Most steaks squeak in under $20 here (definitely not the case at larger competitor Outback), and the lively atmosphere is perfect for families. If the kids are line dancing or tossing peanut shells on the floor, they'll be too busy for a meltdown.
For the kids: Texas Roadhouse supplements its regular kids' meals with "Ranger Meals," which are bigger portions for slightly more sophisticated palates (think steak and ribs), perfect for that kid with the appetite of a horse. Other notable choices include steak bites and chili dogs. Kids also get to choose from a dozen sides including salad, chili, buttered corn, and sweet potato. Regular kids' meals are $4 to $5, while Ranger Meals are $7 to $9.
For special diets: No, vegetarians, this isn't the place for you, unless you want to stick to salad and a baked potato. While there isn't a special lighter menu for the calorie-conscious, dieters can opt for a 6-ounce filet or sirloin (both under 300 calories), 5-ounce grilled salmon (320 calories), or even a grilled shrimp and sirloin combo (490 calories). Several items can also be made "gluten friendly."
What you'll pay (and how to save): Steak prices at Texas Roadhouse range from about $10 for chop steak or a small sirloin to $27 for a 23-ounce porterhouse. There are plenty of other non-steak options for $10 to $15. Check your local restaurant for promotions: Ours had weeklong $9 early-bird specials, an 8-ounce sirloin and two sides for $11 on Wednesdays, and free kids' meals on Tuesdays.
Best for Breakfast
The basics: With a menu that's more unabashedly breakfast-heavy than major competitor Denny's, IHOP wins this category. After all, you probably aren't coming here for the burgers (sorry, "IHOb"). You're here for the fluffy, expertly flipped pancakes (or the waffles ... or the French toast ... or the omelets ... or the crepes). And if a traditional short stack is a snooze, decadent alternatives await, including cheesecake or chocolate mousse pancakes.
For the kids: Breakfast for dinner (or lunch — or, well, breakfast) is always a hit, especially when kids are diving into a "Funny Face" chocolate-chip pancake or eggs and Nutella-topped French toast. Lunch and dinner fare is limited to the usual suspects: mac 'n' cheese, chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, and cheeseburgers. All kids' meals are $5.
For special diets: There is no diet-friendly menu, but calorie counters can try the Simple and Fit platter with turkey bacon, egg whites, whole-wheat toast, and fruit for around 400 calories. If you can't resist pancakes, a trio of original buttermilk pancakes will do the least damage, at 430 calories before syrup or other toppings. An allergen guide can aid those who want to steer clear of gluten or other ingredients, but gluten-free choices are mostly limited to protein — in other words, no gluten-free pancakes for you. Vegetarians can indulge in most pancakes and waffles, but milk and egg ingredients make IHOP a frustrating spot for vegans.
What you'll pay (and how to save): Pancakes start at $5, while the most extravagant breakfast options peak around $10. Sandwiches, burgers, and dinner entrees aren't much pricier — in fact, the biggest splurge on the menu is $14 sirloin steak tips. A "55 Plus" menu offers deals for seniors from $4 to $6, including a BLT and fries, grilled tilapia, or a breakfast sampler. Joining the Pancake Revolution loyalty club can also net occasional deals, including a free birthday meal.
Best for Burgers
The basics: When you just want to sink your teeth into a juicy burger, Red Robin is ready with dozens of options. You can go zany with the "Sir Acha" burger, topped with sriracha onion straws and chipotle mayo, or sophisticated with a citrus harissa salmon burger, complete with tempura lemon wheels. Burgers and many other items come with the chain's signature Bottomless Steak Fries, so come with an empty stomach and get your money's worth. And if you're a burger holdout, don't worry: You'll find chicken, fish, wraps, soups, and salads, too.
For the kids: Red Robin serves up all the kid-approved favorites, including burgers, pasta, chicken fingers, mac 'n' cheese, pizza, and corn dogs. Lesser-seen options include meatballs on a stick and grilled chicken dippers. But the highlight is bottomless sides, including fries, mandarin oranges, a side salad, fruit salad, or broccoli. They'll keep coming until those tummies finally stop rumbling. Expect to spend $5 to $6 on a kids' meal.
For special diets: If you have a food allergy, take note: Red Robin is committed to avoiding cross contamination at its restaurants and has an interactive allergen menu to help guests customize their meal "healthy hacks" to make the menu more diet-friendly. For instance, it will serve burgers wrapped in lettuce or on smaller buns; it also offers grilled chicken, turkey burgers, and veggies or fruit instead of fries. A veggie burger is available, as is a vegan veggie patty.
What you'll pay (and how to save): Burgers and bottomless steak fries run $10 to $15, depending on how fancy you want to get. Most other sandwiches and entrees are similarly priced. Patrons with smaller budgets and appetites will appreciate the five-burger Tavern Menu, which includes several double-patty burgers that come with bottomless fries for $7. Limited-time promotions have included $2 kids' meals on Wednesdays.
The basics: Most family-friendly dining is a casual affair, but what if you're willing to pay a little more for meal that feels a little more special? Bonefish Grill, an upscale but far-from-stuffy seafood and steak chain, could be just the ticket. This white-tablecloth restaurant took the top spot overall in the Market Force survey, and staffers from Time's Money.com give it the highest marks for dining experience in a ranking of the nation's chain restaurants. One of the most popular items on the menu is the Asian-inspired Bang Bang Shrimp, a sweet and spicy appetizer. A brunch menu is available Saturdays and Sundays.
For the kids: There is a kids' menu — make that "Minnow's Menu" — at Bonefish Grill, although choices are limited to fish strips, popcorn shrimp, chicken tenders, mac 'n' cheese, and grilled chicken, all served with fries or broccoli. Kids' meals are relatively pricey, at $7 to $8.
For special diets: A convenient gluten-free menu includes favorites like Chilean sea bass, lobster tails, and even crème brulee. Unfortunately, there's no allergen information online, although there are scattered reviews from satisfied customers who say the restaurant goes above and beyond to accommodate special dietary needs, including shellfish allergies. Calorie counters can stick to grilled fish or 6-ounce steaks to stay under 500 calories, and add veggies on the side.
What you'll pay (and how to save): With many entrees in the $20 to $30 range, Bonefish Grill is the most expensive pick on our list. Save by opting for simpler fare like fish and chips, fish or shrimp tacos, or a spicy tuna bowl, all around $14 or $15. Lunch specials are also available under $15, and a "Hooked on Tuesday" promotion offers a choice of salad, entree, and dessert starting at $16. Members of the loyalty club can get half off every fourth visit (but the discount is capped at $20).