The #1 Appetizer at 10 Major Dine-In Chains, According to Chefs
Whether you're the type of diner that orders an appetizer, an entrée, and maybe dessert, or one who loves to share plates of small bites with all of your friends, you probably have a favorite app you'll choose again and again. America's famous chain restaurants are probably more beloved for starters like spinach artichoke dip and potato skins than any of their entreés.
Whatever you call them—finger foods, starters, hors d'oeuvres—small bites have been around for hundreds of years, going back to at least the 18th century, according to PBS. Back then, small bites like French canapés and Italian crostini would start a meal. Later, during the Prohibition era in America, speakeasies served small sandwiches and stuffed mushrooms so their patrons wouldn't leave too inebriated and draw attention to the illegal watering holes.
If you're a fan of starters, you're not alone. Chefs across the country love a small plate, and we got them to share their can't-miss bites at all your favorite chain restaurants, so you can dine like an expert.
What better way to kick-off a list of perfect chain-restaurant starters than with Red Lobster's universally loved biscuits. They're so popular the restaurant even makes a boxed mix, so you can whip them up at home. Chef Diana Manalang, owner of Little Chef Little Café in NYC, swears by this starter. "I love the Cheddar Bay Biscuits at Red Lobster," she raves, "they are warm, buttery, cheesy and delicious, just so good."
Maggiano's Little Italy
This Italian-American chain's hearty take on mozzarella sticks is a total crowd pleaser, says Caroline Elston, food stylist and founder of cheese and charcuterie shop Platterful.
Elston raves about the squares of breaded cheese topped with sweet, savory tomato sauce. "I am clearly a big cheese gal, so I would say Mozzarella Marinara from Maggiano's is my favorite appetizer from a chain!" she says. "You simply can't go wrong with a cheesy crowd pleaser. Who doesn't love a warm appetizer to coat your tummy before a big pasta meal—maybe add in a glass of red wine to really top off the experience!"
This top-ranked chain first opened in Florida in 1982, and people have been enjoying its unlimited breadsticks and salad ever since. Whether ordered as a starter, or honestly as a nice lunch, the pairing of fresh salad and chewy breadsticks at Olive Garden is always a hit, says Manalang: "The breadsticks are also served warm and with a hint of garlic butter that makes them perfect for dipping into sauce and dressing."
There was no way the Bloomin' Onion from Outback wasn't going to garner a spot on this list. If you're not familiar, the iconic appetizer is an entire deep-fried onion that you pluck petals from and dip into a sweetly spicy sauce.
Lane Li, founder of Noodle Lane in Brooklyn, says it's her favorite appetizer from a chain restaurant "because I love fried food and think the presentation is cool, unique and memorable." Manalang agrees, saying, "The Bloomin Onion from Outback is a classic. It's like a pull apart onion ring."
It's no surprise this Asian inspired chain came up when speaking with chefs, because there are a lot of people who love a lettuce wrap, and P.F. Chang's version is a healthy, flavorful choice.
"My favorite appetizer would be the lettuce wraps from P.F. Changs!" says RJ Howard, the chef and owner of Indiana's Maggie Lu's Market. "Not only are they an amazing blend of flavors, but the level of textures and mouthfeel is fantastic! You get soft and tender from the chicken, crunchy from the water chestnuts and crisp from the lettuce leaves all enveloped in the delicious blend of Asian flavors! So delicious!"
This upscale spot, also known as Houston's in some cities, serves steaks and a to-die-for burger at about 40 locations around the U.S. The restaurant is also known for its creamy spinach artichoke dip, which has a cult following online that's sparked dozens of copycat recipes. Manalang, for one, is a big fan. "The spinach dip from Hillstone is also a favorite with its cheesy deliciousness," she says.
Believe it or not, the Chinese chain you grew up with in your shopping mall food court has a great selection of plant-based appetizers, and Lanise Herman-Thomas and Janine Smalls-Gueye, owners of VeganHood in NYC, are big fans.
"Our favorite appetizer at a dine-in-chain are the plant-based options at Panda Express, we love their eggplant tofu, veggie spring rolls, and chow mein," according to the pair.
First, there's a lot of love for something you don't have to pay extra for: the soft, buttery rolls your server will bring for the table to nosh on while considering the menu. "When going to a chain restaurant you always go back for something that you love!" says Alida Acosta, mixologist and restaurant general manager at Tap & Bitters in Warren, N.J. "Texas Roadhouse has two things I can never not have when going there. The minute you're seated they give you the warmest, softest buttery rolls with cinnamon butter. They are to die for–you can't have just one."
Chef Manalang in NYC is also a fan: "The buttery rolls with cinnamon butter at Texas Roadhouse always served warm and fresh out of the oven. I'm a carb-oholic so bread is always on my mind."
Acosta also suggests trying another app: the Roadhouse's take on a fried-onion starter. "I also love their Cactus Blossom!" says Acosta. "It's a whole fried onion with their Cajun dipping sauce. It's way too much food but you keep eating it knowing you should stop."
Fish N' Tails Oyster Bar
Fresh raw bar bites and fish in Texas? It's true, and this small chain of eight restaurants is thriving in the Lone Star State. Chef Emerio Viramontes, executive chef of Chef's Palette, located at Canvas Hotel Dallas, says it's his go-to stop for his favorite appetizer – shrimp cocktail.
"If I had to pick a favorite appetizer, it's hands down the shrimp cocktail at Fish N' Tails Oyster Bar," Viramontes explained. "They have seven locations throughout the Dallas metroplex area, and I've been ordering this shrimp cocktail since I moved to Dallas four years ago. Between the quality, taste, and freshness of ingredients mixed with the fact that the spices are balanced to perfection, there's no going wrong with this timeless appetizer."
This sports bar chain, which boasts an extensive beer list, has a menu full of amazing appetizers. Some chefs couldn't pick just one. Visit one of the Yard House's 80-plus locations in the U.S. and try either of these chef-recommended seafood starters.
George Panagopoulos, owner and operator of Dedham House of Pizza in Massachusetts, loves the island vibes of the Coconut Shrimp, saying he orders the app "because coconut reminds me of the tropics, so I feel like I am on a little getaway even when I am right at my hometown location. Plus, it's finger food that you can grub on without a fork & knife!"
Katy Knauff, executive chef and owner of Seattle's Kamp Social House, has a lot of love for the Spicy Tuna Stack, which layers tuna with avocado and edamame. "I love the Spicy Tuna Stack at Yard House because it's fresh and consistently delicious," Knauff says. "I also love that whenever I order it the server always asks, 'You know that it's not a spicy tuna roll like you may be used to, right?' and even that delivery is consistent! I'm a Long Beach, Calif., native, where Yard House was founded, and it's been fun to watch them scale to where they are today while maintaining fresh and fun menu items."