Would you trust a chain restaurant to cater your special day? I thought not.

There are a few celebrations that you really don’t want to screw up by going to a really crappy restaurant.

Wedding receptions, anniversaries and birthdays probably top the list.

And that’s why I felt so awful because I organized a super-special girls night in honor of my friend Kat’s birthday and things were not what I expected.

We’ll just start off by saying it was her 29th (wink, wink) and pick up from there.

When we arrived at the establishment and were seated, I started handing out birthday party crowns and sparkly necklaces to get into the mood.

We were just falling into the spirit and that’s when we met our arrogant, grim-faced server.

Oh, you’re probably wondering where we went.

In hindsight, I wish I had been more insightful and clever in choosing the establishment, but we ended up at the most convenient spot for all the gals at the recommendation from my friend’s husband.

A place I thought would be fool proof since it’s a national chain, The Melting Pot.

Did you know that there is an extremely large experiential difference between visiting a chain restaurant and a local establishment? This was an incredible eye-opener for me. I truly never realized there was such a broad difference in taste, service, ambiance and price.

And you’d think I’d have picked up on this before, since I travel all the time with the family.

We just don’t patronise the chain restaurants when we’re on the road because we’re looking for something a little more authentic.

If we’d been in Ogden, Utah or Sandusky, Ohio I’d have been reaching for a sauerkraut pizza or exclusive microbrewery pilsner.

Instead we were in a fondue joint located in Central Florida.

Last I checked, fondue was a preferred comfort food for snow-covered mountain top ski resorts. In Florida, if you want melted cheese, you just have to transport it from the grocery store to your home.

But it was where the birthday girl wanted to go, and I would be the last person to deny her.

Honestly, I really expected something spectacular based on the price points for each course, its location – so close to other Orlando hot-spots and the online reviews.

What a let down.

Here’s the difference between local establishments and national chains as far as I can tell:

Consistency – At a national chain your meal will taste the same no matter where on earth you order it. That’s a good thing if you like the food the way it’s served and couldn’t care less what the natives are making. It’s a problem when you want to make changes, like having veggies exchanged for bread or ice in your wine.

Ambiance – Chain restaurants tend to all look the same inside. This was a plus for us at the Florida fondue place since it was so extremely different than the more common beachy, surfer and sunshine interiors we’re used to. The grills/heaters at the table were also a very cool touch.

Price – A fast-food chain like Subway will price itself in line with local fast-food fare. But a luxury establishment, like a fondue restaurant in Central Florida, can charge much more because of its novelty. In our case, I felt the restaurant misrepresented itself as a higher-quality food chain instead of merely a specialty shop. Our mistake.

Service – Servers at a local establishment immediately start to build a relationship with their customers. It is often much more distanced at a chain unless you identify yourself as living nearby. Our Melting Pot waiter was condescending and disinterested without change, which was at odds with our server at Universal Studio’s Margaritaville a few weeks earlier. I actually still keep in touch with her and we’re getting together soon on a “service industry day” next week.

But let’s face it. When you’re choosing your food, the bottom line is whether your expectations are being met.

If you’re looking for an authentic southwestern meal in Albuquerque you’re most likely to go to El Pinto instead of the local McDonalds.

But if you’re in Arizona near the Grand Canyon and you just want a familiar meal you’re better off hitting the local Subway.

As far as the Melting Pot, I could tell our waiter saw us as an obstacle he’d need to overcome before the end of the night. And since I’m obviously the money gal in our group, he immediately sucked up to me, practically ignoring the others.

Bad move.

Since we meet-up at restaurants at least once a month, my girls won’t accept that kind of behavior. They went out of their way to ask for the service they deserved, not letting the waitstaff slack off just because 80% of the other customers were from out-of-state.

A meal that should have taken two hours dragged on for four because we weren’t attended to and were made to wait at every request.

I wouldn’t have minded if it were worth the wait. But unlike my tuna tataki served at the Coral Reef Restaurant or the incredible Prosciutto e Melone pizza at Via Napoli Ristorante, both located at Disney’s Epcot theme park, our birthday fondue fell flat and seemed forced.

Maybe next time I’ll call in the local brigade instead, go with my own instincts and get something that’s not only personalized to our tastes but also supports our community.

How about you?

[poll id=”99″]