There's no need to sugarcoat this one.

Consumers named Cheesecake Factory their favorite casual-dining restaurant in a survey that Market Force, the customer intelligence solutions firm, released last month. Market Force polled more than 1,600 consumers to learn their takes on casual restaurants in five different categories: breakfast, steak, Italian, seafood, and general menu.

Survey respondents ranked chains by considering service, food quality, and value. Cracker Barrel topped the ranks on service, while consumers pointed to Red Robin as the most kid-friendly restaurant. Other runners-up to Cheesecake Factory in the general menu category were Ruby Tuesday, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Chili's.

"One thing that tended to be a differentiator in the survey was whether the experience was more than just a meal," says Cheryl Flink, Ph.D., chief strategy officer at Market Force. "Cheesecake Factory really led on that. It's an intangible, but they are creating something besides the basic mechanics of good food, good service, and a clean, inviting atmosphere. That's an important thing that they're able to deliver on."

Cheesecake Factory had $1.68 billion in sales last year, and ranked ninth among the top 50 full-service restaurant chains by sales.

Offering good value and having good specials also piqued consumers' interest. TGI Friday's topped the chart for presenting good value for the money, while survey-takers nodded to Chili's as the best casual-dining restaurant when it comes to value, promotions, and coupons.

Rounding out the favorites were Maggiano's (Italian restaurant); The Capital Grille (favorite steakhouse); Pappadeux (favorite seafood restaurant); and Mimi's (favorite breakfast restaurant).

Almost half of consumers surveyed (46 percent) say they are visiting a casual-dining restaurant five times a month, and 57 percent say they will plan to spend at least $10 per person during a visit. While these stats are encouraging, when compared to 2013 dining visits, 28 percent of consumers say they are eating out less this year, and only 12 percent are dining out more.

Tablet Dichotomy

Market Force also looked at the use of tabletop technology for placing orders in casual-dining settings, and found that tabletop gadgets are heavily preferred by Millennials, but often rejected by older generations.

"Millennials really love technology, and they're concerned about bringing technology into every single experience they have rather than just being able to get away from it," Flink says.

While Millennials believe the use of tablets as an ordering tool will reduce error and speed up service, their generational counterparts think the opposite. The use of tablets also decreases the opportunity for restaurants to upsell, which Flint says is not necessarily a good thing.

"Many casual dining restaurants try to differentiate on their service levels," she explains. "They also use the opportunity at the table to drive upselling and ticket size, introducing tonight's specials or suggesting a wine pairing or appetizer to start. [With tablets], they do lose that opportunity."

By Sonya Chudgar

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Industry News, Technology, The Cheesecake Factory