Sometimes eating at chain restaurant won't leave you feeling dirty and sad inside. Really.

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In high school, I ate fast food nearly every day.

While my colon now involuntarily spasms at the thought, I lunched at Burger King on Mondays through Fridays for the better part of my junior and senior years. And yet, miraculously, I was far thinner than I am now. It was clearly a superpower of youth, one that I am unable to explain. In the words of Madonna, life is a mystery.

I gave up fast food, almost entirely, after watching SuperSize Me. I have Morgan Spurlock to thank for saving my arteries, and for almost succeeding in bringing back the Hulk Hogan mustache. Well done, sir.

Since then, I’ve often said you should never eat at a chain or fast food restaurant, particularly while traveling. Once Rand had to physically restrain me from running into an Olive Garden in Manhattan and shouting at the diners therein, “WHAT IS THIS BLASPHEMY?” while upturning their baskets of endless breadsticks. It’s only a matter of time before I chain myself to a TGIFriday’s, and go to prison for the noblest of crimes: protecting my fellow Americans from mediocre food.

And yet – (much like the time I noted that Billy Crystal was kind of hot towards the end of When Harry Met Sally, I CANNOT BELIEVE I’M SAYING THIS) there are times when I think that eating fast food is entirely forgivable, particularly while traveling. There are a couple of caveats, of course:

  • It can’t be a chain that exists in your hometown. Or state. Better you don’t even have it in your country.
  • At least try to order something interesting, okay? No, chicken nuggets aren’t interesting. They are an abomination. A really yummy abomination. Like those those conjoined M&Ms I once found. Or any snack cake made by the Hostess Corporation.
  • Street food doesn’t count as fast food. Street food is always awesome, even when it causes severe gastric discomfort.
  • If you get a kids’ meal, you must send me the toy.

During our last few trips to New York, I actually sought out two chains, voluntarily and while sober. No, they aren’t the best places to eat in New York. But they are world’s better than the mutant KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Huts that are popping up everywhere (Seriously? You aren’t even going to dedicate a storefront to one single crappy cuisine? You have to foist three upon us at once? That’s like punching someone, eating the last brownie in the pan, and revealing the twist to The Sixth Sense all at the same time. So not cool.)

Here are the two chains at which I will forgive you for eating. They can be found in New York and London, amongst other places, and they’re branching out quickly. Pray they don’t come to Seattle, or my all my plans will be ruined.

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Pret a Manger

The number of times Rand and I have landed in London, bleary-eyed and starving, is now too many to count. It was on one of those days that we first wandered into a Pret, at the recommendation of our friend Jane.

And perhaps it was the jetlag and the British Airways chicken curry talking, but we found it to be FRIGGIN AMAZING. It’s like 7-11 for foodies. They have shelves and shelves full of sandwiches, and not those god-forsaken egg-salad-with-wilted-lettuce-on-white-bread abominations that you find at an actual 7-11. NO. They have the sandwiches those sandwiches could have become if they had applied themselves more and gone to a good college. A Vietnamese baguette with grilled chicken and cilantro. Brie, basil, and tomato on crusty bread. And yes, they even have an egg salad sandwich but it would smack the eggs from that other egg sandwich BACK INTO THEIR SHELLS WITH ITS AWESOMENESS (I say this as someone who has not eaten the sandwich in question. Because I don’t like egg salad. But still, I know the one from Pret is better).

And there’s more. I once had a salad there studded with tiny little crayfish and thin slices of salmon – a particular variety which I suspect is only available in the U.K. Another had tabouli and olives and roasted red peppers, and by the time I was done with it, my undying affection, too.

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They have little bags of popcorn with sea salt, and all manner of cookies and cakes and bars, including a gingerbread man that I bought in London that was later eaten in Barcelona by this man:

 

Damn it, Kenny. You owe me a little cookie man with chocolate buttons.

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And, as if that wasn’t enough, the copywriting on the packaging is phenomenal. That’s right: EVEN THE NAPKINS ARE BRILLIANT.

This is what happens when you let writers be awesome.

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Clearly, when I’m starving and looking for a bite in New York or London, I’ve no reason to go anywhere else.

Unless, say, there’s a Le Pain Quotidien close by.

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Le Pain Quotidien

Originally started in Brussels, Le Pain has stores in Europe and beyond (currently more than 18 countries), and I’ve visited locations in London, New York, and Los Angeles. They have vegan options, too, and I can tell you firsthand that they don’t suck. This, coming from a girl who endeavors to eat bacon at every meal, is high praise.

VEGAN-TASTIC!

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They have salads and tartines (which is a fancy word for open-face sandwiches) and a pastry selection that nearly made me pee. The food is good, if a little pricey -I once paid $20 for a salad at the Covent Garden location. It was a really good salad, but still.

The salmon tartine at Le Pain.

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But what’s really magical is this:

 

I love that the label actually includes a little chocolatey fingerprint design.

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They call it Noisella, but that’s only because they don’t want to get sued. It’s basically Nutella, which is pretty damn magical on its own, but it’s ORGANIC. And they bring A WHOLE FRIGGIN JAR OF IT TO YOUR TABLE AND THEN THE MISERABLE FOOLS JUST WALK AWAY.

I mean, they just leave it there. And you can do whatever you want to it. Presumably, everyone is respectful and responsible and doesn’t reach in with their bare fingers (even though no one is watching and you totally could) because that would be wrong. So deliciously wrong.

I just licked my monitor.

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So instead you simply dip your spoon in as far as it will go and pluck it out, so that it is so heavily coated with chocolate awesomeness that it in no way resembles a spoon. And after a frenzy of eating during which your mate can’t actually bear to look at you, you fall into a blissful sugar coma, while still managing to threaten to cut your husband if he tries to pry the flatware from your cold, sticky hands. You will be buried with that spoon. Along with several jars of Noisella.

It’s what the pharoahs would do if they lived in modern times.

“Ramses, I swear to me, I’d better find at least three crates of that off-brand Nutella in my tomb when I die, or I will send a plague of locusts on your ass. None of that dessicated cat in jar crap, okay?” ***

***I clearly know nothing about ancient Egypt. Moving on …

The point I’m trying to make is this: Sometimes you eat an entire jar of chocolate hazelnut spread and forget what your point is.

No, wait. That’s not it. Maybe … sometimes Billy Crystal is hot? Yes. That was my point. Sometimes he is. Sometimes a stopped clock tells the right time. And sometimes chain restaurants are good.

Full list of categories:  Food » Restaurant Round-Up » Restaurants
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Comments (43)

  1. 1

    I just wrote about eating at Pret in London and how no, I do not care that it’s a chain and that there are better London restaurants because damn it, Pret is good, and it’s what I want when I go to London. So no judgement from me there!

  2. 2
    Mark Fogarty says:

    While my wife an I don’t travel nearly as often (or as wide-flung) as you and Rand, we also vow to not eat at chain restaurants, searching rather for the hidden mom and pop gems scattered throughout a city. However, three exceptions (thus far) to this philosophy… Shake Shack in NYC… In-N-Out Burger out West… and Big Bowl in Chicago.

    Love your blog btw. One of the highlights of my day is seeing new posts from you in my blog reader. I’m not sure if that’s a glowing compliment of your writing skill… a sad indictment of my pathetic life… or a combination thereof.

    • 2.1
      Everywhereist says:

      Combination thereof! Combination thereof! No wait … Compliment of my writing skill! Compliment of my writing skill!

  3. 3

    Both meals look awesome! Which one did you like better? I wouldn’t be able to choose!

  4. 4
    Janet T says:

    8:10 AM PST, and I’m starving after seeing your pictures (yes I had breakfast)

    oh and those are the greatet napkins ever!

  5. 5
    Derya says:

    Pain Quotidien has a chocolate espresso tart that is magical.

  6. 6
    Ellis says:

    If you like pret, you should try “EAT”, also all over London. Similar to Pret, but better hot options, like pie and mash :)

    • 6.1
      Everywhereist says:

      Ah, I have been to Eat, and I liked it, but they don’t have U.S. locations, so I left it off the list!

  7. 7
    Melanie says:

    I would have gone to that first place just because of the napkin. Love it! When people come here I tell them the chain they must try is Jimboy’s. It’s a fast mexican food, but it’s actually quite tasty. I don’t eat there anymore, but if you don’t live here, you have to try it once. When I was in Texas I went to Whataburger. I wasn’t impressed, but had to try the Texas institution. I avoid chains and fast food like the plague. But I get a hankerin’ for Taco Bell occasionally, just out of nostalgia. And the boyfriend and I are using an Olive Garden certificate he got from his folks, on Friday. I told him, “Let’s do this! Nasty Italian night is on!”

    • 7.1
      catcat says:

      When my folks are in town I like to take them to a nice Italian restaurant. But when I got a coupon, we go to Olive Garden.

  8. 8
    Ruth says:

    Next time you’re in London I recommend Byron Burger, which is a chain but has very delicious burgers and organic fresh ingredients. We were all like “we are Americans, surely we will not be impressed by this foreign hamburger” but really it was everything we wanted in a hamburger. A+ A+ would hamburger again.

  9. 9
    Sloane says:

    Love your blog, read it every day! Is that your man in the mirror of the Kenny picture? Is he picking his nose?

    I’ve had Nutella on toast for breakfast every day this week, maybe in the interest of health I should invest in Noisella, since it’s organic and all.

    • 9.1
      Everywhereist says:

      Yes, that is my man, and no, he’s not picking his nose (weirdly, I double-checked on the large resolution version of the photo before posting it. Yes, I check for things like that). I think he was gesturing to his teeth to tell Kenny, “Show us your teeth when you smile.” And it worked, evidently.

  10. 10
    Jo says:

    I had a delicious cheese and ham croissant and chocolate croissant at Pain Quotidien in Pasadena. Man, it was expensive ($20). But sooo yummy. I can’t wait to try Pret a Manger. P.S. I just scrolled back up to see your husband not picking his nose. Your friend has a lovely smile (:

  11. 11
    Desiree says:

    There is no need to insult the fine sandwhiches at 7-11! Some of them have lettuce in them now and I’m still bent on having you eat one!

    • 11.1
      Everywhereist says:

      I did write that in honor of you. :)

      I’ll tell you what: you eat an entire salmon, and I’ll have a bit of that sandwich.

  12. 12
    Tom says:

    I loved Le Pain Quotidien when I was studying abroad in Brussels. But there are times, especially when you are in Ljubljana, Slovenia, that you come across a Dairy Queen and you just need to have a Blizzard.

  13. 13
    Philip says:

    You should come to Tokyo with us some time. Convenience store bentos will make you question everything you hold true. Or I could just write about them for you next time I go.

  14. 14
    Sarah says:

    Another good one to try if you’re in France is Flam’s. They specialize in this traditional dish called Flammenkuchen that’s a bit like pizza, but without sauce and made with a sweeter dough. You’re literally SUPPOSED to eat it with your hands. It’s absolutely wonderful. I tried it with bacon and onions for dinner and then sampled one topped apples and other with chocolate for dessert, which sounds a bit odd, but is incredibly delicious. I got to try it twice in Paris and Strasbourg when I traveled there with a student tour group last summer, and I would definitely go there again whenever I make it back to France.

    Also, I absolutely love your blog! It always makes my day when I read it. I love your sense of humor and writing style, and it has definitely affirmed my belief that I want to travel as much as I possibly can, see as much as I can possibly see, and do as much as I can possibly do when I graduate high school next year.

  15. 15
    Meg B says:

    Mmmm…those pics looked yummy!

    I like to visit local fast food joints just to see what the fuss is about. I’d never had chicken on a biscuit FOR BREAKFAST until I went to BoJangles in North Carolina. And I tried In N Out Burger when I went to CA but unfortunately, I don’t eat red meat and they had no non-meat option so that sucked.

    Your fast food visits are way cooler.

    • 15.1
      Andi says:

      Next time ask for a grilled cheese at In N’Out; I eat hamburgers but I still occasionally get their grilled cheese. It has the same tasty sauce just minus the meat. They have a whole ‘secret’ menu, including animal style fries which are amazing!

  16. 16
    Tom says:

    Im hearing ya, I am sitting here in Australia dreaming about In-N-Out Burger in California

  17. 17
    KDK says:

    Both of these places are downstairs from my office. I agree they are both solid NYC fast food choices. Also, one time I found and allen wrench (the thing one uses to assemble Ikea furniture) in my Pret Salad. Every other time it’s been an enjoyable experience.

  18. 18
    Mara says:

    In the early 1990s (cough) if it weren’t for Pret, my husband and I would have turned into sad, starving, grad school corpses in London (which begs the question if anyone would actually mourn the loss of two English graduate students, but I digress). I am congenitally and culturally unable to swallow the greasy slop that passes for food in inexpensive British pubs; thanks to Pret, I haven’t had to suffer, even in Leiceister Square.

    And the last time I was in a Pain Quotidien (in Georgetown) I saw Paula Deen, wearing full makeup and false eyelashes and tucking into her own jar of Noisella. As if I weren’t already about to expire from the awesomeness of all those irregularly shaped sugar cubes!

  19. 19
    Frances says:

    chipotle Mexican Grill vegetarian burrito bowl….healthy, uses local ingredients, price is right

  20. 20
    laura says:

    Le Pain Quotidienne is very good! We have one in Lille and the restaurant is really cute in and of itself, which is an added bonus.

  21. 21
    Andi says:

    When I lived in London, I would go to Eat or Pret a Manger probably 3 times a week, mainly because they were near my work and university, and I felt healthier eating out there than a real fast food place plus it was yummy. But I did get a little tired of it, but now you’ve made me miss them! Those two places are quintessential London for me.
    My first time in Paris I was looking for somewhere to eat a chocolate croissant and I saw Le Pain Quotidien, not realizing it was a chain. Lo and behold, I had the best chocolate croissant there! Warm and gooey..mmmm. Heavenly.

  22. 22
    RiderWriter says:

    This is fascinating – and making me hungry. Good thing we are well-stocked with genuine Nutella here! I’ve never gotten to eat at Pret or Pain, but would certainly be interested. I agree with the “not eating food you can find at home” mantra while traveling. On my last trip (Jacksonville, FL) I actually said this to my friend while she was trying to think of a place to take us for dinner. No problem, she says, before suddenly exclaiming, “There’s this great seafood place on the beach!” I get all excited and then comes, “It’s called Joe’s Crab Shack!” My heart sinks… apparently she doesn’t realize that a) that IS a chain, and b) there’s one 15 minutes from my (and her former) n’hood at a mall in St. Louis. Oh, well! :-) (What’s funny is we did go there and it was actually quite good)

  23. 23
    Andy says:

    I miss Pret Manger so much. When I lived in London, it was my go to place when I needed to grab a quick lunch on my way to the office, or on the not so rare occasion I was running late, breakfast as well. I was the odd American who would bring veggie sushi for breakfast. If not for Pret Manger and Mark and Spencer’s prepared food section (shout out to the three bean wrap!) I may have starved to death at the office. A girl can’t live on tea alone, though I sure tried.

  24. 24
    elizabeth says:

    i spent a summer studying in england and ate pret at least 4 days a week! i love it. and now i miss it.

    next time you are in england, you should try the prepared foods section at either marks & spencer or sainsbury. i think i learned all of the grocery stores/easy food places within my immediate vicinity because the food in college was so bad. there are only so many plates of “meat” and “white sauce” with a side of bread and potatoes a girl can eat.

  25. 25
    Eithne says:

    I think you absolutely should get a pass on fast food eating when travelling. I used to fly regularly out of London Stansted airport in the early hours of the morning … the only thing that would get me out of bed was the lure of a cheese and tomato croissant at Pret before boarding my flight.

    Both Pret and Pain Quotidien affirm that chains don’t necessarily need to suck. In Australia I like Grill’d for burgers (really good burgers – and beer!) and in Ireland coffee from Butler’s (there’s one at Dublin airport) where they give you a free chocolate truffle with every coffee purchase.

    Yes, my favours can be bought.

    Oh, and let me just add – I have a real fear of egg sandwiches, but will make an exception for the ones at Pret. So good.

  26. 26
    Somie says:

    Oh, my dear, delicious entry as always. Seriously pressing my face up onto my phone as I try to view the deliciousness on an iPhone screen.

    I agree after living in a college town that had most non chain restaurants and then being in the city and jersey, I just can’t do chaIns anymore. Not that I don’t crave a double cheeseburger from mcDonalds once in a blue moon or ….breadsticks and salad from olive garden…… (pauses for reaction) I prefer to go to small businesses. Actually if you ever get a chance wichcraft is a good chain and so is piyo piyo. Chains all had to start somewhere, right?

    So…. Hungry… Damn this train ride….
    Have a great weekend!!

  27. 27
    Jesse Schlabach says:

    Last Friday I actually went down into the Hong Kong MTR (subway) to get Pret a Manger’s new pepper cilantro chicken toasted sandwich. I felt a little silly going back up the subway stairs and into the daylight with my sandwich in hand but I didn’t regret a bite.

    I do disagree with your comment: And, as if that wasn’t enough, the copywriting on the packaging is phenomenal. That’s right: EVEN THE NAPKINS ARE BRILLIANT.

    While I definitely agree that it’s cheeky, Pret is apparently not as militant about their grammar. (Pret’s environment department is militant, we’re making headway). This is an unfortunately common comma splice; a semicolon would have been more appropriate. Bad grammar on printed matter is a much bigger offense than bad grammar elsewhere. As an American, I expect more from the Brits.

    That being said, when a clearly OCD person will brave the germs of public transit to GET A SANDWICH that will be put in her mouth you know they’re doing something right.

  28. 28
    pretloverbut says:

    I love Pr et too but did you know that the Pret-a-Manger sandwich chain sold 33% of the company to McDonalds in 2001?

  29. 29
    Joy says:

    I am a strict believer of never entering a restaurant while away that I can experience at home, especially chains. I broke this rule in Scotland – twice. I am know to have severe break-downs when I’m jet-lagged. Add to that the fact that I feel asleep on the plane with my contacts in, so I was cranky and couldn’t see. We arrived at the hotel only to be told we couldn’t check in yet. I believe I started to cry. My then-brand-new husband panicked and took me to a Starbucks. He knew a bathroom and caffeine were needed – stat. I still couldn’t see but at least the coffee made me more human. We left Starbucks and explored for a little, though admittedly, I couldn’t see much so it really just made my crankier. And now we were starving and I was not feeling very happy about being in Scotland. I wasn’t much help finding food since I couldn’t see at all. And then out of nowhere, appeared a Pizza Hut. You can not pay me enough to eat in a Pizza Hut state-side. And yet, I ran for the door, thrilled to see something American (like we were in some bizarre land with only bugs on the menu and 12 foreign languages). And I’ll tell you, it was the best darn Pizza Hut I’ve ever had and they even had pizzas I’d never seen before.

  30. 30
    Nneka says:

    Hallo, I live in LA. I recently discovered your blog and think it’s fantastic. I love LPQ and hope to someday try Pret A Manger (or PAM).

  31. 31
    Alex says:

    Smoked salmon doesn’t exist outside of the UK?! I did not know this.

    It’s been raining for near-on 24 hours, but suddenly home feels so much more special.

  32. 32
    Sientje says:

    I”ve just read this blog post (when hungry I find myself searching the web for restaurant reviews, recipes and lists of deliciousness), and I can proudly say that I love in Belgium, home to Le Pain Quotidien. And it’s the best freakin’ breakfastplace imaginable (have you ever tried the Noisella with white chocolate?!).

    Also, in Belgium, the chain is really not that expensive. Jealous much?

    BTW: Love you blog. Love love love.

  33. 33
    Mike Smith says:

    You should try Biscoff Spread. I like Nutella but this Biscoff Spread is simply insane. Trader Joe’s sells it as “Speculoos Cookie Spread” and they even have candy bars filled with it. The cashier at Trader Joe’s said I had found the two most dangerous products they sell.

  34. 34
    Jonathan H says:

    I only just discovered the Everywhereist. Reading through the archives has been a great read – many relatable travel topics and humorous culinary accounts.

    Your post Pret a Manger and Le Pain Quotidien really struck a chord. My guiding philosophy on restaurant selection during travels is nearly absolute: no chains shall be visited. However, I conceded an exception to the rule just recently in Washington DC. I found myself in search of a truly only-in-DC coffee shop experience en route to Georgetown. Just as I was about to proceed up P Street, I came across the unfamiliar and exotic name Le Pain Quotidien (I’m from the South).
    Assuming this was a Dupont Circle original, I thought I’d check some mobile internet references before committing. Alas, I discovered Le Pain to be an imposter. Convinced I had really dodged a bullet, I continued to eschew the multi-locationed in favor of something more exclusive. Elitism reigned that day and eventually I was enjoying some crepes and lattes a stone’s throw from Bill Clinton’s alma mater. Close one.

    It wasn’t until my last day in the city that I had a change of heart. I was running behind on time and had to make a long haul to get to my hotel and then catch a plane. I had been outside on foot all day and started to crave a hot drink. No time for the careful “buy local” considerations, so as I was making the charge up Conn. Ave., I saw another of those Le Pain phonies and deigned to enter. Boy did I have it all wrong. Everything was fresh and actually differed from what I was expecting to be Starbucks in French. My tea was composed of real mint leaves and the menu offered more surprises with organic omelettes, tartines, and brioche.

    After careful consideration, I have decided to amend my rule and will be open-minded to chains that aren’t found on my home turf. I will however continue to think less of people who choose to eat at McCormick and Schmick’s while vacationing in NYC (true anecdote from my parents’ couples trip a few years ago). Really enjoyed the blog, and look forward to staying current on your posts. Safe travels, and here’s to many more discerning restaurant experiences.

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