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Big restaurant chains dip in customer satisfaction

A Subway sandwich artist making a sandwich.
Andrey Rudakov | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A Subway sandwich artist making a sandwich.

We're eating out more and getting a little more particular about where we go for those meals.

Quality is becoming more important than price, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index released on Tuesday. ACSI analysts believe both of these trends are the result of improving economic conditions.

"In a weaker economy, consumers respond to price, but as the economy improves, quality becomes more important to restaurant customers," ACSI chairman and founder Claes Fornell said in a statement. "This is good news for smaller chains and individual restaurants, which customers associate with higher quality food and better service."

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The survey found that the average American went to a fast-food chain or restaurant four times per week last year, a 60 percent increase since the end of the Great Recession.

Full-service restaurants are doing a better job of making us happy—up 1.2 percent to an ACSI score of 82—which puts them slightly ahead of fast food chains (80). They do a great job of getting the orders right and providing high quality food and drinks. They've even improved the speed of getting food on the table significantly from last year.

The survey shows that we are even more satisfied when we go to restaurants that are part of a smaller chain, such as Panera and Chipotle. The score for these restaurants jumped 2 percent to 84.

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At the same time, satisfaction with the five largest full-service brands dropped. Top-rated Outback Steakhouse (down 1 percent) and Olive Garden (down 4 percent) had an ACSI score of 80. Red Lobster (down 6 percent) and Applebee's (down 5 percent) both rated a 78, while Chili's (down 5 percent) scored a 74.

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What about pizza?

We sure do like our pizza and for good reason. It's relatively cheap and the quality is high. It's also easy to customize, and delivery options at most chains makes it very convenient.

"Pizza simply offers a very satisfying, quick dining experience," said David VanAmburg, ACSI's managing director.

Four large pizza companies topped the list of the major fast-food chains in this survey: Papa John's (unchanged) and Pizza Hut (up 3 percent) tied at 82, Little Caesar (down 2 percent) and Dominos (down 1 percent) both scored 80. They outranked every other large fast-food chain in the country.

And in the fast-food category ...

Subway, which had held the top spot in this category for a number of years, dropped 6 percent in this survey to 78 which ties Wendy's. Burger King and Starbucks tied at 76, but the coffee giant dropped 5 percent from last year. Dunkin' Donuts dropped 6 percent to 75. KFC had the biggest decline in customer satisfaction, down 9 percent to 74. At the bottom of the list: Taco Bell at 72 and McDonald's 71, both were down 3 percent.

VanAmburg told CNBC McDonald's has been in last place all but one year since the index started measuring fast food chains 20 years ago.

The full report is available at ACSI.org.

—By CNBC contributor Herb Weisbaum. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @TheConsumerman or visit The ConsumerMan website.