In the restaurant world, "chain" is often a dirty word. But small, localized chains are often a different story: their growth shows they're doing something right, but the limited footprint ensures they'll keep making food with care. Here, we took a look at the landscape and tried to identify some of the Boston chains we love most. Our list sticks to a few criteria: the brand had to launch in the Boston area and have at least three locations, but none outside the state. Here are some of our favorites - what are yours?
Name: Clover Food Lab
The Formula: An always-rotating array of fast food-style sandwiches made to order using only natural, preservative-free ingredients that are largely locally sourced.
Number of Locations: 5 (plus 11 food-truck locations)
Lunch for One: Think a $6 sandwich or $7 platter; pair it with a cold drink (like housemade hibiscus iced tea) for two bucks.
Menu Highlights: "All" sounds like a cop-out, but it's the only honest answer; the small menu changes daily to reflect what's available.
Tasting Notes: Want to get your hands on some of the same fresh ingredients that Clover uses? The restaurants partner with farms to offer pickup for CSA programs throughout the year. Check it out here.
The Formula: Fresh (not frozen) fast-food joints anchored by a customizable burger menu and kept well-fed by loyal college crowds.
Number of Locations: 5 (including one outpost in a Northeastern University student center)
Lunch for One: A simple cheeseburger goes for $5.25; add small french fries for $2.65 or a frappe for $5.
Menu Highlights: The spicy Stunt Double Cheeseburger ($7.25) heats up two patties with pepper Jack cheese, jalapeños and banana pepper rings. But it's all about the options afforded by a splay of possible toppings, from feta cheese to horseradish sauce.
Tasting Notes: They might be overshadowed by the chain's eponymous sandwiches, but don't underestimate the tasty all-beef UDogs. They are a hungry man's best friend.
The Formula: Come for chef Joanne Chang's eye-popping assortment of pastries, breads, cakes, cookies and tarts. Stay for lunch sandwiches, soups and salads that are actually just as good as the scene-stealing sweets.
Number of Locations: 4
Lunch for One: Most sandwiches are $7.95, but don't leave without popping a mini-tartlette ("lemon lust," anyone?) for $1.25.
Menu Highlights: For sandwiches, we're partial to the rare slices of roast beef topped with tomato, crispy onions and a layer of horseradish mayo. And though picking a favorite pastry is near-impossible, the raspberry crumb bars with sweet jam and streusel crumb topping are totally to die for.
Tasting Notes: The Celiac-friendly spot has a nice selection of gluten-free sweets and can substitute gluten-free bread for most sandwiches.
The Formula: Casual Mexican fare accompanied by a massive, mighty selection of unique tequilas that draw in boisterous after-work crowds.
Number of Locations: 3
Lunch for One: The pricing is moderate - think $10 tortas and $3 sides like plantanos and chile-dusted fries.
Menu Highlights: It sounds simple, but the grilled corn is a standout thanks to a healthy slathering of aleppo pepper and lime aïoli with queso cotija. Tequila snowcones are a fun adult beverage for your inner child, and the two-for-one tipple the Rona Rita is an upturned Coronita beer in a bathtub-sized margarita.
Tasting Notes: Tequila tasting flights are a good way to get your bearings, but if you want to splurge on the "world's finest tequila," drop $100 per ounce on Clase Azul Ultra, made from hand-picked blue agave and aged in sherry casks for over six years.
Name: Petit Robert Bistro
The Formula: French cuisine isn't often associated with chain restaurants. But chef Jacky Roberts offers a pleasant surprise with Petit, which serves sophisticated French at really reasonable prices.
Number of Locations: 3 (plus one downtown location of offshoot Petit Robert Central Bistro)
Lunch for One: You might need a nap afterwards. But rich lunch items like creamy lobster soup ($11), and crêpe gratinée filled with cream spinach ($16) are totally worth having to cope with a food coma.
Menu Highlights: The large escargots are always excellent, and duck leg confit with sausage and braised cabbage never disappoints. But for cutesy overload, get a slice of the chocolate gâteau with an edible Eiffel Tower.
Tasting Notes: The three main bistros offer more traditional environs, but downtown's Petit Robert Central brings a more contemporary interior (courtesy of Restaurant: Impossible designer Taniya Nayak) and menu options - like a "$5 Rendezvous" selection for after-work crowds - that skews a little more on the young-and-stylish side.
The Formula: Despite three locations, these eateries serving polished Latin American (largely Venezuelan) fare with Caribbean flourish still manage to come across like hidden neighborhood gems.
Number of Locations: 3
Lunch for One: Most arepas are $6 (like the jardinera of guayanés cheese, sweet plantains and guasacaca), while sandwiches are about $7, including the pernil galipan of slow-cooked pork with tomato and salsa.
Menu Highlights: The bacon-wrapped dates are addictive, on their own or in a hearts of palm salad. And you'll flip for La Primera burger, a pork and chorizo patty with Manchego cheese, Peruvian criollo salad with rocoto aïoli, chipotle ketchup and truffled-salted fries.
Tasting Notes: Tucked down Shawmut Avenue, away from the busier streets, the original South End location is an oft-overlooked brunch spot. That Sunday selection includes some breakfast offerings like cachapa pabellón, a traditional corn pancake with mechada, tajadas, black beans and queso fresco.
Name: Tasty Burger
The Formula: The Pulp Fiction reference sets the tone for these fun, modern diner-style destinations with creative burgers, eating challenges and plenty of canned craft beer. Also, pool.
Number of Locations: 3
Lunch for One: The signature, special sauce-laden Big Tasty is $5.25, but any pick can be made into a combo with soda and fries for three more bucks. (A little extra for onion rings or a salad.)
Menu Highlights: The quirky "burger of the day" never disappoints, but we're partial to the dripping gorgonzola burger from the regular menu, as well as the chili cheese dog with jalapeño sauce and minty Green Monster shake. And the kids are all right with the "Starvin' Student" combo: a cheeseburger, can of beer and side of fries for just $10.
Tasting Notes: Late-night hours are a highlight here. The Southie take-out location (which also offers neighborhood delivery) serves until 11 PM weekdays and midnight weekends; the Fenway original keeps the griddle hot until 2 AM; and Harvard Square is hopping until 4 in the morning.
Name: Anna's Taqueria
The Formula: Cheap, fast, delicious Tex-Mex from a local chain with few frills but plenty of flavor.
Number of Locations: 6
Lunch for One: Leave the brown bag at home. You could take your lunch break here daily without breaking a bank. Tacos are $3.35, quesadillas are $5.45, and even the 12-in. "super burrito" is priced a modest $6.25.
Menu Highlights: Carnitas burritos are a favorite, but the lengue (slow-cooked beef tongue) will make your taste buds crow for more.
Tasting Notes: Starving? You won't find it on the menu, but ask for the Cubio, and you'll find yourself granted with a whopping 30-in. burrito stuffed with your favorite fixings.
Name: J.P. Licks
The Formula: The Jamaica Plain-based ice creamery combines playful flavors with lip-smacking staples and rounds it out with bold but not overpowering house-roasted coffees.
Number of Locations: 12
Menu Highlights: There are always new monthly flavors available for experimenting - like cayenne-pepper-laced El Diablo, which should cut through January's chill. But standbys like rum raisin, black raspberry and brownie batter are what really shine.
Tasting Notes: Play office pet and pick up a "sundae kit" to bring to the company break room.