What are the best places to take your family to dinner?
The new issue of Consumer Reports lists the hottest chain restaurants for great dining experiences -- as well as the ones you want to avoid.
The rankings are based on information from 149,000 meals eaten by 66,000 readers at restaurants across the country, and you may not have heard of some of the restaurants at the top of the list.
"A lot of them are quite new," said Todd Marks, senior editor of Consumer Reports. "A lot of them are owned by megacompanies, but they've expanded, making them more accessible to more people. If you're driving along the roadside of America, or outside the New York area, you'll find them."
The rankings were based on food quality, service and ambiance. Consumer Reports ranked the top chains where the average meal goes for about $15 to $19:
Romano's Macaroni Grill
Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy
Red Hot & Blue
The top family restaurants, which were more inexpensive restaurants where most dinners cost under $10, were Le Peep, The Original Pancake House and Cracker Barrel.
Marks said the biggest criticism uncovered by the survey had to do with noise, crowds and long waits. Among the worst offenders on noise and long waits was The Cheesecake Factory. Fifty-seven percent of visitors reported that they had to wait more than 10 minutes, and 22 percent waited a half hour or longer.
When contacted by ABC News, The Cheesecake Factory released a statement that said: "The Cheesecake Factory is the #1 upscale casual dining restaurant group in the United States. Being a very popular restaurant we have some waiting time. We do not take reservations as we treat everyone the same … as one table gets up one is seated. Also, we offer over 200 menu selections and 50 desserts and have something for everyone! We work hard everyday to make sure that our guests get a great experience that has them continue to come back and be our word of mouth advertisers."
Marks said chains like The Cheesecake Factory were victims of their own successes. People are so desperate to eat there that they will sit through interminable waits, which also leads to crowds and noise.
The Big Picture
A big trend the survey uncovered was takeout, with 90 percent of chain restaurants offering the service, Marks said.
"The hottest kind is curbside service, where an employee brings the food right to your car so you can race home without leaving your car," he said.
Another big trend is flexibility, with more restaurants willing to accommodate special requests for food preparation.
"Perhaps the biggest shock to me after doing these surveys for 20 years is that the restaurants now include nutritional information," Marks said. "You can now find out how many zillions of calories that burger is, and most places offer alternatives. Even places like Uno Deep Dish Pizza, which now has a flat bread option."
Overall, Marks said the quality of chain restaurants had really improved in the last four years to five years.
"A particular favorite of readers and myself is the Seafish Restaurant Bonefish Grill," Marks said. "It's not cheap, but it's very good."