Americans now spend more money dining out than on groceries — and we generally like what we get for our money when we eat out, according to the new American Customer Satisfaction Index restaurant report released on Tuesday.
"Restaurants across the board, full service and fast food, are doing a better job of providing higher-quality food and better service than they have since we started measuring this two decades ago," said ACSI managing director David VanAmburg.
We sometimes make fun of them, but fast food restaurants do a good job of keeping their customers satisfied. Fast food restaurants scored 79 out of 100 points, up 2.6 percent from last year. The results are based on a survey of nearly 4,800 customers collected in March.
Price and speedy service have always been a strong selling point for fast food restaurants, but the new focus on quality ingredients is helping boost customer satisfaction.
"It's still not the level of quality of a sit-down restaurant, but it's better than it has been," VanAmburg told NBC News. "We're seeing a bigger variety of healthy choices — more salads, more organic and fresh ingredients — and that's all for the good."
Once again, Chick-fil-A is the top-rated fast food chain with a score of 87, up one percent from last year. Papa John's comes in a distant second at 82, even though it gained five percent. Little Caesars had the biggest improvement in the entire fast food category, up 9 percent to 81, landing just below Papa John's.
Panera Bread also scored an 81 and Arby's jumped eight percent to 80, following a major overhaul of its menu and remodeling of its stores.
Chipotle Mexican Grill took the biggest hit, dropping six percent to 78. This followed widespread reports of food-borne illnesses at some of its stores. The ACSI report noted: "Quality issues can be challenging, particularly for food services companies, which could elongate Chipotle's recovery time."
Other chains: Dunkin' Donuts and Subway (80), Domino's and KFC (78), Pizza Hut (77), Starbucks and Taco Bell (75).
Hamburger chains typically score below the industry average, but this year they all showed some improvement. Burger King and Wendy's tied at 76, and Jack in the Box scored a 74. Once again, McDonald's came in last at 69, but it was up three percent from last year. This was primarily due to the popularity of its new all-day breakfast menu, the report said.
Customer satisfaction with full-service restaurants took a slight dip last year, scoring 81 out of 100, down one percent. But these restaurants remain one of the highest-scoring industries measured by the ACSI, and one of the most consistent.
"We certainly like dining out at full service restaurant chains, but they tend to be more costly and that drags down satisfaction," VanAmburg explained. "You're generally getting better food than fast food chains and better service, but that comes at a price, so expectations have to be set accordingly."
Diners said full-service restaurants have improved their variety of food items on their menu. Customers also gave these restaurants high marks for getting their orders right and cleanliness. But they felt the speed of service could be better.
Cracker Barrel, the combination restaurant and retail store, took first place with an ACSI score of 83, up four percent from last year. Darden's LongHorn Steakhouse and Texas Roadhouse tied at 82. Olive Garden (also a Darden brand) scored an 81.
Other restaurants: Red Robin (80), Applebee's and Red Lobster (79), Ruby Tuesday and TGI Fridays (78), Outback Steakhouse (77), Chili's Grill & Bar (75) and Denny's (74) were at the bottom.