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Chain reaction: A chain-restaurant-themed pop-up concept comes to Anaheim

Food and a takeout box from Chain Restaurant, a pop-up concept at the Packing House in Anaheim on Jan. 30.
Food and a takeout box from Chain Restaurant, a pop-up concept from Chef Tim Hollingsworth at the Packing House in Anaheim on Jan. 30.
(Sarah Mosqueda )

If you consider the view from the 5 Freeway on a low-pollution day, Orange County can look like a wasteland of chain restaurants, with places like Outback Steakhouse and Chili’s as far as the eye can see. But while supporting a mom-and-pop restaurant is almost always preferred, a blooming onion has its time and place.

Chain restaurants are comforting in their sameness. It hardly matters if you visit an Olive Garden near its headquarters in Orlando, Fla. or in Irvine. Chances are there will be Tuscan-style architecture (we did say Irvine), upholstered booths, endless salads and breadsticks.

The problem with chain restaurants is that in their effort to achieve consistency, sometimes quality gets lost.

Enter Chain, a pop-up concept that has dared to imagine what chain restaurant food might be like if it was really good.

The idea for Chain comes from actor and writer B.J. Novak, best known for his work on TV’s “The Office,” who talked about his idea for creating a chain-themed restaurant as early as 2018. He has since partnered with Nicholas Kraft and tapped renowned Chef Tim Hollingsworth to make Chain a reality, hosting pop-ups in Southern California since March 2021.

“I grew up in a very small town in Northern California where chain restaurants played a big part in the community, so being a part of the Chain concept felt natural,” said Hollingsworth, who was the chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s the French Laundry before leaving in 2012 to open Otium in L.A.

Chain, a pop-up concept from Chef Tim Hollingsworth at the Packing House in Anaheim.
Chain Restaurant, a pop-up concept from Chef Tim Hollingsworth at the Packing House in Anaheim on Jan. 30.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

On Jan. 30, Chain hosted its first pop-up in Orange County, inviting Chain fans to pick up orders at the Stuffed Potato at the Anaheim Packing House.

Past drops have included loaded potato skins, jalapeño poppers, California avocado rolls and pizookies, ala BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. Saturday’s pop-up featured a blooming onion, a take on the popular Outback Steakhouse appetizer. Chain’s Bustin’ Onion was lightly fried and dusted with nori and bonito flakes and served with Chain’s “famous” black garlic ranch for dipping.

Hollingsworth’s connection to the onion appetizer is personal.

“I have a lot of memories eating at chain restaurants. When I was old enough to drive, I would take my dates to Outback Steakhouse and share the Blooming Onion,” Hollingsworth said.

Joe Wicker and Rob Goldman, who run a food Instagram, @eat_saw_telle, traveled from the greater Los Angeles area to score an onion in Anaheim and said it was worth the drive.

“The nori flavor and all the seasoning with the onion was awesomeand the garlic ranch was so powerful. They crushed Outback Steakhouse,” Goldman said.

Fullerton resident Melissa Hoxing said she heard about the concept from Hollingsworth’s social media.

“Chain doing something very familiar — but with their own spin on it — seemed like an exciting thing I wanted to check out,” said Hoxing.

Fans of Hollingsworth know he isn’t a stranger to elevating popular dishes.

“One key component in my cooking style is that I enjoy bridging the gap between highbrow and lowbrow foods. I think there is an opportunity for a lot of chain dishes to be recreated in higher-end restaurants,” said Hollingsworth. “On the menu at Otium, we served a classic funnel cake with foie gras, strawberry and balsamic. We also had a dish that was essentially a Blooming Onion, served with caviar and creme fraiche.”

Casual dining chains have fallen out of fashion for a multitude of reasons, but Chain’s pop-up sold out quickly, suggesting there can be comfort in the familiar.

Chain, a restaurant-themed pop-up concept from Chef Tim Hollingsworth at the Packing House in Anaheim on Jan. 30, 2022.
(Sarah Mosqueda)

“Chain restaurants can be a place you can count on, a place you know is always going to be the same when you go in,” said Wicker. “Maybe people have a lot of experience of going into a chain restaurant with their family, so you have a lot of nostalgia wrapped up in it.”

Hollingsworth has similar feelings about casual dining concepts.

“I think casual chain restaurants are a great option because you can always count on finding something for everyone. I grew up in a house with four siblings, so chain restaurants really alleviated that stress for my parents to find somewhere to eat that was approachable, affordable and fun,” Hollingsworth said.

Chain plans to stage a pop-up in Orange County again, but no date has been announced. Menu items drop on Chain’s Instagram account, @eatatchain, and must be ordered and paid for in advance. Orders are packed in red boxes. Custom placemats with games printed on them, similar to kids’ menus at chain restaurants, are also available.

The only thing the meal doesn’t include is a sticky booth to slide into with your friends.

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