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Top Ten Mid-Scale Restaurant Chains

Here's how I ended a review of a chain restaurant one time:

Sometimes I want quirky individuality and local color. Sometimes, when I'm tired, I just want a decent, trouble-free meal at a place that keeps the water glasses filled.

I think many of us have been at that point, especially if we have kids. As Happy Eater Rob said when we were talking about the problems with making up this list, "The times I ate in chains was when I was schlepping a kid to and from a sporting event."

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That's pretty much true of me, too. Without a kid at home, I can eat anywhere I want to, so some of the places on this list haven't been visited lately. I also haven't eaten at some of the places some of you recommended, like Kobe.

One caveat about the few chains I've reviewed for the paper: I've heard some chains bring in their best staff from other locations to open a new restaurant, so it's never as good as it was in its first few months of existence. If so, that would give me a slightly skewed perspective, because that's when I would be reviewing.

Remember, these are moderately priced, sit down and be served national restaurant chains. That eliminates Ruth's Chris, Chipotle, and the regional chains like Paolo's.

Here's my list: ...

These are the three chains I reviewed and gave three stars to:

* Bonefish Grill. I praised the grilled fish.

* M & S Grill. I liked it better than its parent company, McCormick & Schmick, because it's a little more intimate. The prices seem to be lower.

P. F. Chang's China Bistro. I like the menu of specialties from a particular province.

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* When I reviewed Romano's Macaroni Grill we weren't giving out stars, and it was a long time ago, but I enjoyed it more than the other moderately priced Italian chains, such as Olive Garden.

* I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Chili's because when we were on the road for my daughter's junior tennis tournaments, she could find food she liked while I had fajitas and a margarita.

* Don Pablo's is another good choice for Tex-Mex. It's a cuisine that chains seem to do very well with.

* I sometimes eat breakfast at Cracker Barrel on road trips for one reason: They serve real butter. Also I have a fondness for turnip greens, pinto beans, and cornbread made with white cornmeal and no sugar. The negative: My husband and I may be the only two people ever kicked out of a Cracker Barrel for bringing in a bottle of wine.

* Our food was decent at Bahama Breeze (Caribbean-style shrimp, chicken, mango, avocado, coconut, lime, pineapple), but it was so big and so crowded we never hooked up with our guests, who were seated in another part of the restaurant, so I gave it a mixed review.

* When I covered the wholesale furniture market in High Point, N.C. for the paper, the only restaurant within walking distance of my hotel was a Bennigan's. (I didn't have a car.) It was cozier than many chains, they were nice to a single woman, and it seems to me I got a ribeye steak there that was pretty good.

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*I shudder to think of recommending a chain barbecue place, but Famous Dave's did get Midnight Sun Sam's vote over several local places for best ribs when he was doing the takeout column for the food section.

(Kim Hairston/Sun photographer)

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