Chain Restaurant Chowder Ranked Worst To Best

Gaining its sea legs in New England, chowder is believed to have emerged sometime around the 18th century, according to What's Cooking America. The briny blend of clams and potatoes — often flecked by bacon bits and a smattering of parsley — gives this silky bisque loads of appeal. But traveling to the boardwalk for the bread bowl treatment isn't an everyday kind of thing, nor do we all live in Boston (Ye Olde Union Oyster House is the ultimate mecca). So, where do we go? Why, the nearest chain restaurant. Where else?

We explored a good handful of dining establishments, from the hoity-toity chophouses to Red Lobster, and suffice it to say; there are some strong opinions. To say the range of emotions expressed towards this creamy soup was vast would be a massive understatement. But tastebuds are a trustworthy source, capable of guiding us down the right path or to pure ruin — the recipes steeped in awards, say, versus the canned intruders that masquerade behind a high price tag. 

Will your preferences prevail in this exclusive round-up of restaurant chain chowders? Grab a baggie of oyster crackers and find out where our 13 contenders fall. Here they are, ranked worst to best. 

13. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

Movie franchises are notorious for spawning an endless stream of merchandise — it's marketing 101. But following Forrest Gump's record sprint across theaters in 1994, the pop culture phenomenon went further than the capitalistic grind of toys and graphic tees. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.'s 22 dining locations invites fans of the film to a banquet of Southern-style cuisine, primarily seafood, and primarily shrimp, with on-the-nose names like Lt. Dan's Surf and Turf or Mama Blue's Shrimp Gumbo. 

In terms of restaurant chain chowders, Bubba Gump's is, sadly, not worth running for. In contrast, you'll want to run away from the wretched sludge. The texture teeters between diluted clam juice and a gluey paste devoid of robust spices, with little of the tender clam bits that define the dish. To truly understand why Bubba's slumps, try imagining liquified mashed potatoes mixed with a boatload of salt. A diner reviewing their soup compared its curdled appearance to "lumpy gravy," speculating that the stew was less-than-fresh as a result of stagnating on the stove: "Even the waitress looked at me as she handed it and asked if I wanted a different one." Nope. 

12. Longhorn Steakhouse

Longhorn Steakhouse wrangles a hefty lineup of Western-style beef, so spying a seafood chowder gave us pause. On its face, the Shrimp & Lobster Chowder is an enticing concept. Per the restaurant's description, you're getting a corn-based stew dolloped with chunky morsels of seafood and a kaleidoscope of veggies, including diced bell pepper and scallions. 

Although it's a refreshing change of pace from the New England style dominating menus, commenters have voiced their complaints about the soup. The problem? Apparently, you get less of the shrimp and lobster in return for excess corn broth. But this isn't the only bummer to anticipate. According to an employee on Tasting Table, the seafood that you do see swimming in there will be primarily shrimp. We love those pink little pinwheels as much as the next foodie. 

Longhorn Steakhouse could redeem itself here on a couple of counts: bumping up the serving sizes in addition to more seafood, so it's not just a peppery corn puree. Admittedly, $6.29 (location varying) isn't totally unreasonable for a cup, but expecting much more in return makes it difficult to recommend this one.  

11. Red Lobster

The glaring issue with the New England Clam Chowder from Red Lobster seems to overlap with Bubba Gump's. The fishy morsels, as one reviewer put it, are outweighed by the floating pieces of potato, and when that happens, you're essentially left with a Loaded Potato Soup. As delicious as we find that starchy stew, the concoction is entirely different from chowder. What's more, those expecting a thick soup with hefty chunks are let down time and time again by the runny texture. When Keith from The Try Guys tasted the chowder for himself, he was horrified to discover how watery it tasted. 

Charging $8.99 for the cup is a bit much, too, least of all when you're essentially drinking a seafood-flavored smoothie rather than a hearty broth that's warmed fishmongers and seafarers for centuries. The tepid flavor is underwhelming since, according to an employee's account, whole cream and butter are used to make it. It makes a can of Progresso look like Ivar's in comparison. At most, you could sop it up like gravy with your Cheddar Bay Biscuits, but choking this chowder down when there's a sea of superior choices fails to compute. You might as well tuck those biscuits in your bag for later to savor with something else. 

10. Joe's Crab Shack

Setting sail for Joe's Crab Shack promises a bounty of seafood dishes amidst glittering views of the water. On the menu, of course, is a classic New England Clam Chowder that's similarly priced to Red Lobster, yet in terms of consistency, a leg up from the former. That said, we'd advise checking out some feedback before hunting down a bowl. 

Leading off our grievances, we were underwhelmed by the clumpy consistency of this clam chowder. A velvety broth brimming with clam chunks and potato is what you want, but it isn't what you get from Joe's. A reviewer who was disappointed with the texture was just as miffed by the meager nibbles of fish: "Not too much clam and, surprisingly, not too much potato either."

Additionally, the restaurant skimping out on the portions seems to stick in diners' craw. "The bowl of chowder had very little chowder in the bottom of the very shallow bowl," wrote one person, adding, "It was also devoid of clams." Gulls tend to circle overhead in any boardwalk setting where chowder is served, but we doubt the seabirds would be interested in sneaking a nibble. 

9. Bonefish Grill

Featuring tender crustaceans bathed in a corn puree (and a savory-sounding "hint of bacon"), the Corn Chowder & Lump Crab seems to be a popular pick from Bonefish Grill. Complimenting a salad or a starter such as the Bang Bang Shrimp is a natural choice for this hearty stew, and the elevated seafood establishment will pour it into a cup or a bowl at your request. Price-wise, it's a decent pick for the budget-conscious seeking out the full monty (an appetizer, a main, and a dessert at the end) without draining their bank accounts, nor is it too filling to eat before your main course. 

We'll grant Bonefish Grill this: even with its faults, the chowder offers a solid shake-up to the usual New England style we opt for. Yet judging the disappointment dripping from the mouth of one diner — "What happened to the crab corn chowder?" — it's clearly evident how the soup has changed, and not for the better. Folks claim the current chowder is nothing like the original recipe from the past. For one, the milky base is missing the density needed to support the crab chunks. For two, the seasoning lacks that peppery fire bouncing off the creaminess. 

8. Bahama Breeze

With appetizers like Crispy Conch Fritters, Firecracker Shrimp, and Whole Jamaican Jerk Wings, there's an island of difference between Bahama Breeze and its surf-and-turf compatriots. The tropical grill, with 43 restaurants at the time of publication, embraces spice-inflected Caribbean cooking, igniting many an appetite. This explains, then, the appeal of the Bahamian Seafood Chowder. At its root, you've got a viscous stew, teeming with spices visibly swirling around large hunks of fish and diced vegetables, the details of which aren't spelled out but are presumably common fillers like potatoes and celery. Doled out in two sizes, a small cup begins at just $4.99. 

For a YouTuber, the broth definitely brimmed with a solid amount of fish, with the seafood tasting authentically meaty — none of the rubbery bite that's a dead giveaway to imitation seafood. That's a must! Where the dish doesn't completely triumph, in our opinion (and reviewers' opinions), is in the consistency. The Bahamian Seafood Chowder nails the inviting tone, but its hit-or-miss quality makes ordering a gamble. Will it be tepid to the tastebuds? Or overly salted, as one diner experienced? Find out at your own discretion. 

7. BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse

Unlike the majority of big chain restaurants, BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse serves its Clam Chowder in a bread bowl, the rustic vessel associated with waterfront havens like Pike Place Market. But for a slightly lower price, the pub will serve it in a cup or a bowl, topping it off with a stirring finish of minced parsley (plus crackers). The family-friendly joint goes traditional in its offering of an East Coast delicacy. 

Even considering that BJ's menu contains an extensive range of entrees, we question the ability of this chowder to stand out from the crowd. We won't deny for an instant that it's silky and smooth, weighed down with a heavy hand of cream. However, it's short on the "clammy" element that usually infuses the broth and without much seasoning to go around. The lukewarm temperature also added to the generic, poured-from-a-can taste, as another unimpressed commenter reported.

For some diners, the store-bought quality is a source of comfort rather than stone-cold contempt. Zapping a mug of Campbell's in the microwave is known to hit the spot, but when you can purchase a can from Target for under $3, paying triple BJ's asking price just isn't it. 

6. The Capital Grille

The Capital Grille, a Darden outpost, is going to be more expensive than dining at one of its sister establishments (Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze, Longhorn Steakhouse — ones we've covered here), but the atmosphere and cuisine are simply untouched. For $10 at minimum, believe that this is a clam chowder worth diving into the finer side for. The menu simply reads, "A New England favorite seasoned with our own blend of spices," which sounds like any ordinary seafood soup to date. And yet, the simplicity is right on target. People who've tried it are consistently impressed. "The clam chowder was creamy, warm, and delectable," one Yelp commenter writes, while another review touts the abundance of the shellfish in their bowl. "The clam chowder soup was full of fresh chunks of clam and potatoes." 

As with any dish, it's guaranteed that customer feedback won't be entirely consistent. One commenter, for example, felt the restaurant overdid the heavy cream at the expense of tasting the clams, so "sea-foodies" (our term) may not be convinced that it deserves the elevated price tag. But unless you're extra picky, this is a chowder that's frankly tough to beat. 

5. Claim Jumper

With a menu as sprawling as it's remained since opening in 1977, Claim Jumper's burgers, salads, and succulent steaks are some of the finest chain offerings. The saloon-inspired joint, despite staking a smaller footprint at 10 eateries at the time of publication, offers a clam chowder good enough for New England. The sumptuous broth, speckled with diced celery and onions, overflows with gigantic bergs of potato and "premium" clams. The ingredients blend but never override one at the expense of another. 

Diners are of the opinion that the chowder from Claim Jumper, arguably, is some of the best on the market. "You will never have better clam chowder than this one," a fan commented on the restaurant's website. Another complimentary review on Trip Advisor enjoyed the "thick and hearty" broth, bringing out the buttery tones from the base (yum) with the briny tang unleashed by the shellfish. 

Let's not forget to mention the generous serving. Say you're hankering for a solid meal, but one isn't necessarily as heavy as a slab of steak or meatloaf. From the sounds of one Yelp user, combining the bisque with a starter was the perfect portion. 

4. Landry's Seafood House

Our next chowder pick, Landry's Seafood House, specializes in the fiery zip of Gulf Coast cuisine. Venture over to the alluringly evocative "Garden & Kettle" section (your salads and soups) for an exquisite example of true-blue "chowdah."  Those who scrape down their bowl to catch every clammy tidbit are in for a feast because the soup here is downright loaded. Landry's doesn't short you on the shellfish, nor does it skimp on the tender bacon crumbles and thick, hearty spuds. 

Compliments to the chef(s). If you can craft an honest Bostonian chowder to make the residents of Beantown blush, then you know you're on the right track. The review in question reveled in decreeing the eatery as "better than Red Lobster," even claiming that the chowder was "just as good as in Boston." As a cup ($9), it's just light enough to slurp on with your appetizer but won't infringe on any space for your Ribeye Valentino later. Order a bowl ($12), and it's great if you're extra hungry or crave it as your primary course. Don't forget to crumble on those Zesta crackers for a starchy crunch!

3. McCormick & Schmick's

Bearing no relation to the global spice empire, McCormick & Schmick's dazzles regardless with a mouthwatering seaside chowder. Gayot, who gave a now-shuttered New York outpost of this West Coast eatery a 13 out of 20 score, touted the "killer" soup among the fine dining destination's stronger points, and we have more than enough praise to back up the publication's positive words. 

One thing's for sure: this clam chowder (New England, of course) is consummately silky. It's "soupy" in just the right way, never congealed or watery, and diners, by and large, encounter the softest morsels of shellfish in their bowls. One customer identified the mollusks in particular as littlenecks, a hardshell variety usually associated with consuming uncooked, according to Cape Porpoise Lobster Co. 

Writing of the clam chowder's excellence, one customer was elated with McCormick and Schmick's gourmet rendition and ranked it towards the top of their list. "Plenty of clams and the soup was hot and thick," they wrote, adding that the helpings are big to boot. 

2. Chart House

Stunning views on land and sea have anchored Chart House in the fine-dining sphere for over 60 years. Allow the New England Clam Chowder, second in line to the top, to continue the waterfront destination's gourmet reign. Choose between a small cup or a large bowl (costing between $10 to $12 at one outpost) that's authentic, rich, and chock-full of cubed potatoes and buttery mollusks. Elevating it further, the establishment provides a hunk of bread in lieu of oyster crackers, which fits the classier, suit-and-tie environment. 

Although the luxurious fish and Mini Lava Cake are more notorious in the public mind, an outspoken contingent has yet to clam up when it comes to recommending the chowder. One reviewer who was extremely pleased with their meal at Chart House personally vouched on behalf of the delectable starter, saying, "I also recommend the clam chowder; it's as good as any I have ever had in New England." Recalled another happy fan, "We had a bowl of clam chowder, which was probably the best I've ever had." Gayot was increasingly favorable to the entree, calling attention to the well-balanced ingredients. 

1. Legal Sea Foods

Launching as a fishmonger on the streets of Cambridge, Legal Sea Foods remains the uncontested big kahuna, tapping our top spot. What sort of voodoo is conjured to create a clam chowder that is truly sublime? The Massachusetts institution is an open book of accomplishments, including boasting some of the freshest (and ethical) catches around. But this bisque, in particular, is extraordinary. Presidents-elect and diplomats alike have savored its superb recipe, described by the folks at Gayot as "creamy yet chunky," with another reviewer claiming it's "worthy of [the] awards." 

Although Legal has packaged the chowder for supermarket shelves, it's not hard to see why tourists and locals flock to its 20+ locations: to sample the real deal is to bask in its greatness. The savory taste is next level. The mouthfeel is pure velvet. The clams, of course, are prominently mixed in, and where would it be without the silky puree of the potatoes? Not to mention, spending $8.50 (for a cup, at least) is far from extravagant in the face of equally-priced big-box versions that sank to the round-up's bottom.  

"If it isn't fresh, it isn't Legal!" is the iconic eatery's pledge, and a statement that's 100% true when it comes to the chowder. Dig in.