I wasn't always this way. I grew up in a house where going out to eat was a luxury rarely realized and Chick-fil-a was too expensive. To this day, I don't really care for Whataburger (a SIN in Texas!) because I didn't grow up eating it. It didn't have a 99 cent menu. My mom worked for most of my life, so I ate what she cooked- baked chicken, spaghetti, canned veggies - and I was very picky.
As I had my own income, I was able to decide what and where I wanted to eat a little more. I developed a Starbucks habit and was thrilled to have Chick-fil-a at my school and close to my work. And then I met Andrew. A seafood lover since birth who rarely ate salads. We influenced one another's tastes quite a lot and very fast. Something happened and we started watching Food Network. Bobby Flay was our shared favorite, with Emeril a close second. We were able to travel to Las Vegas, eat at both of their restaurants, and a love of food grew from there.
Andrew attended culinary school and had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco for a week with his classmates. I think that is what made him realize the amazing things that local, trained chefs had to offer. Since significant others weren't invited on the trip, he did his best to share his love with me once he got home.
I don't remember the moment that we started saying no to Chili's, that Denny's stopped being on the radar, and that a trip to the drive-thru only happened when necessary. But that's the way it's been for quite some time. We eat at local-chain restaurants whenever possible because I feel that food at the bigger chains are only step above what I could purchase at Costco and fry up at home myself for much less money. We seek out restaurants with awards and accolades anytime we travel (and in our own city, too). It doesn't have to be expensive; I've sought out donuts in Chicago and had Korean BBQ from a small restaurant adjacent to a convenience store in Atlanta. Eating at a restaurant of a known or celebrity chef has become a feather in the proverbial cap and when I can say that I've eaten at Kevin Gillespie's and Mike Isabella's and Jose Andres' restaurants and someone knows who that is? That's the equivalent of reading the smartest book or having the hardest to get bag in my mind. Or whatever else makes people happy. I've become someone who goes to new restaurants and reads about food for fun.
At e by Jose Andres in Las Vegas - the plate is a cast of the chef's hand and that's a raspberry tart flower | "Jewel box" with dehydrated beet jewelry. This was a 23 course meal. Yes, 23. I made a photobook for Andrew out of all the pics.
There is always a new place to try or a dish to get. Need help finding somewhere good? Look at Eater.com. It covers most major cities and has a new list of the Eater 38 every few months (I've only been to 16/38 on the newest Houston list but they have a new editor and I have some beef with some choices on this list!). Yelp is also a great resource to see what's new in the area. Well-trained chefs start kitchens all over the country all the time and they are dying to get their businesses off the ground. For about the same price as going to a chain, you can check out one of these places and help a chef achieve their dream, as cheesy as it sounds. I encourage you to do so next time you have a chance.