Bad Chain Restaurants VI – Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance as it’s described on the Simply Physcology website:

“Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc.”

Am I feeling discomfort due to cognitive dissonance? Perhaps. But it does make me want to rethink some of my beliefs regarding casual restaurant chains. Some obviously are better than others and that makes it easy to justify eating there. Sometimes though there are places that shouldn’t be much better than the rest of the pack, yet I find myself eating there on occasion and actually enjoying the food, as well as the atmosphere.

Macaroni Grill is one of those that causes me to experience cognitive dissonance.

Macaroni Grill has been on Wolf Road for nearly 20 years, and frankly I’m pleasantly surprised it has lasted so long. The chain itself has had its struggles and has changed hands at least once. Olive Garden and other Italian chains have been eating its lunch (pardon the pun), but it somehow has managed to survive. I think I know why.

I like it, but I shouldn’t. Though it’s better than Olive Garden for example, it’s standard chain fare which I’ve railed against here on the blog many times. I feel guilty and a little hypocritical liking it. But I deal with that conflict by convincing myself that is indeed better. I’ve convinced myself that it’s food is more creative, fresher, more wholesome, and less processed than it’s peers. I’d argue that Macaroni Grill is one of the most underrated casual restaurant chains, if not in the country, certainly in the Capital Region.

But it’s about more than just the food for me, and that’s always an important consideration when one enjoys a certain dining spot. Nostalgia plays a roll.

For me this Macaroni Grill has special meaning. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this on the blog, but from 1992 thru 1999 I worked in construction with a couple of different masonry companies. We did a job at Macaroni Grill. It was a small job. We built the concrete block enclosure for the dumpster. But every time I see that humble dumpster enclosure, it brings back memories. Then about 4 years later, I brought a petite and sophisticated woman I had the hots for to Macaroni Grill on a date, our first date. That woman is now my wife.

Not everything of course is good at Macaroni Grill. There are some duds on the menu. I don’t care for their bread. Their salads are nothing to write home about either, though they are better than the boring iceberg lettuce based salads you’ll get at a standard Italian red sauce joint. And while the kitchen generally uses a light hand, some dishes are too heavy. Plus occasionally the kitchen doesn’t execute them well. But there are some real gems on the menu. And if you’re looking for Italian inspired fare that will please a crowd, or picky eaters, but also has something for more sophisticated palates craving some creativity, Macaroni Grill is a far cry better than Olive Garden and it’s ilk. And while the food doesn’t compare to the best Italian restaurants in the area, it’s better than many, and especially better than the plethora of old school Italian-American places in the area that are serving uninspired fare.

Here’s a few dishes I’ve had there that were quite good, and it’s dishes like these that keep me coming back (these photos are terrible, but I want you to get a sense of the food):

This is a statement our local red sauce joints should be ashamed of. The best chicken parm I’ve ever had was eaten at Macaroni Grill. In an area loaded with Italian-American restaurants, a pseudo Italian chain is doing it better than any of them. A thin, crunchy, tender chicken breast, topped with just enough sauce and cheese, roasted grape tomatoes, and fresh basil.
Here’s another tasty dish. Pappardelle, artichoke, roasted grape tomatoes, pulled pork, mushrooms.
Spaghetti Bolognese. This was wonderful. It tasted fresh and was surprisingly light.

This dish is called “Buffalo Chicken Parmesean” and is obviously a twist on buffalo wings. It was delicious. Breaded chicken, mozzarella, buffalo sauce, hot peppers, celery, gorgonzola cream cappellini.

Like most chains, Macaroni Grill is family friendly. They cover the tables in craft paper, and my daughter loves to color all over it, and sometimes we play tic tac toe or hangman. I also like their house wine which is served on the honor system. They leave the bottle on the table, and you pour as many glasses as you like, only letting them know how much you’ve drunk before they tally up the bill. It’s cheap wine, but this is a chain after all, and it wouldn’t feel right drinking good stuff.

Yes, I’m a bit conflicted about it. But I think I’ve made a good case to “…reduce [my] discomfort and restore balance…” 

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