J.D. Power and Associates (Westlake Village, Calif.) has released the 2004 edition of its Restaurant Satisfaction Study, finding that highly satisfied customers are visiting restaurant chains more frequently, recommending them more often and are spending more money at quick-service and family/casual dining chains.

The study evaluated overall customer satisfaction levels at major chain restaurants across four regions of the country: Midwest, Northeast, South and West. The study based overall restaurant satisfaction on customer dining experiences in four factors, which are closely related in importance: environment (24%), meal (30%), service (26%) and cost (21%). For its study, J.D. Power defined quick-service restaurants as those with inexpensive food ordered at a cash register or selected from a food bar and paid for prior to the meal. In family/casual restaurants, meanwhile, the meals are moderately priced, ordered and served to seated customers during lunch or dinner, paid for after the meal and, in many cases, also cater to children.

In the family/casual element, Olive Garden (Orlando, Fla.) led the way in the West and Midwest, garnering the top nod in the Midwest for its environment but heading the list in three of the four categories out West: environment, meal and service. Patrons in the Northeast, meanwhile, favored Outback Steakhouse (Tampa, Fla.), ranking the chain tops in environment, service and cost. Southern diners, though, favored Carrabba's Italian Grill (Houston), with Cracker Barrel Old Country Store (Lebanon, Tenn.) and Romano's Macaroni Grill (Brinker International, Dallas) in a tie for second with Outback.

On the quick-service side, Panera Bread (St. Louis) took top marks in the Midwest and Northeast. The sandwich maker led the Midwest region in environment, meal and service, and actually managed a clean sweep of all four factors in the Northeast. Papa Murphy's Take N' Bake Pizza (Vancouver, Wash.) managed the sweep, as well, in the West. Chick-fil-A (Atlanta) took the top position in the South, followed closely by Sonic, (Oklahoma City, Okla.).