Today I had lunch at Applebee’s. Every time I pull into the parking lot, I feel a mix of emotions: hunger, usually, combined with shame, homesickness, and, well, usually more hunger. Let me talk about the shame: why do I go to Applebee’s, when I live in a town where a hundred other restaurants could give me a better culinary experience? Where there are places that for half the price of the Mac and Jack Cheese dish I could get fresh vegetables, individually prepared, locally grown, organically tended?
Well, for a couple of reasons, paramount among them that Applebee’s feels like a little piece of home. You have to understand the town I came from to understand why: Applebee’s was the Big Dinner Restaurant of Choice in my town. After the Italian restaurant was taken over by the Amarillo Grill chain, Applebee’s became my family’s standby for Sunday lunch or dinner. It was an easy place to meet, a place my grandparents liked just as much as my mother and sister and I did, a place where everyone could get something they liked for not a whole lot of money. When someone was on a diet, there was always something tasty on the menu for them; when someone had a birthday, they always had a dressed up chocolate cake to offer. When my dad came to town, they had a good drink menu. When we wanted a place to eat before a Friday night date: Applebee’s provided the right mix of “I care enough to spend something on your meal” and “I don’t want to have to dress up.”
Beyond that, there’s something really comforting in the practicality of Applebee’s foods. Even their newest trendy dishes are simple things, with touches that remind me of what we might do at home, if we all wanted the same thing for dinner ever. For instance, today, I had that Chedder Jack Mac and Cheese (minus the chicken). Do you know what the crumbly topping on it is? It’s crushed up Ritz crackers. Hi, that’s the kind of resourceful cooking that I grew up on. It’s not fancy and it’s not award winning, but you know, at the end of the day, it’s tasty.
Yes, yes, I could make everything on the Applebee’s menu at home, and I could make it healthier, and I could make it lovelier, and I could probably make it tastier. But sometimes I don’t want to. Sometimes I want a hassled but smiling girl in a ridiculous striped shirt and apron to bring me three free refills and try insincerely to upsell me on dessert, and I want to listen to other people talking about the tastiness of their Chicken Strip Baskets and Orange Chicken Skillets. I want to look at the “random” mish mash of neighborhood trinkets on the wall (all of which could have been gleaned from local garage sales but which probably came from The Great Applebee’s Warehouse in the Sky) and try to pick out which are the actual local tidbits. I want to hear aged pop and watch muted sport on the bar televisions and, you know, just hang out like I’m back in Kansas for a minute.
That’s it, that’s my defense of Applebee’s. I’m not going to open a franchise anytime soon (though whoa, I can’t imagine the kind of money they make), but… I’ll probably still drop in, once a month or so, to my friendly neighborhood bar and grill. Try the pasta.