In Defense of Applebee's

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When Seneca asked, "When shall we live, if not now?" he was not in Jamestown, N.D. His rhetorical question was meant to defend the convivial, selfish-together pleasures of a lavish meal. I am certain there are lavish meals to be had in Jamestown's homes. At the North Dakota Farmers Union, headquartered on a leafy little campus in Jamestown, I met a man named Mark Watne who is perfecting his own home-made pizza dough, crisped in the oven before the toppings are added, toppings that can add up to a naughty-sounding cheeseburger pizza or a light one with fresh vegetables. Watne is a solid 44-year-old of Norwegian heritage, a father of three with closely cropped hair the color of khakis accidentally laundered with a red T shirt. An agriculture expert at the Farmers Union, Watne knows milling so well he can tell you how pizza dough will turn out differently if it's made from bread flour vs. all-purpose flour vs. pizza flour, which I didn't know you could buy. Though Watne is kind enough that I probably could have invited myself over, my own Southern formality met his Scandinavian reserve head on, and so I had none of his pizza.

Instead, like most business travelers, I was confined to restaurant food, and in towns the size of Jamestown (pop. 15,500), that means "casual dining" establishments. Before the era of chain dining — of Applebee's and Outback and that graybeard T.G.I. Friday’s (founded 1965) — business-traveler dining was different. I like to imagine that a gentleman in a Cary Grant suit stepped from his plane (itself stewarded by a pillbox-hatted attendant who had served gin martinis) and drove to a local place to eat crunchy fried chicken and flaky blueberry pie. I like to imagine the gentleman then retreated to a downtown hotel where he ordered whiskey in a heavy-bottomed glass cold from a surfeit of ice cubes.

Was it ever that way? Probably not, but today it is much, much worse. Driving into Jamestown today is much like driving into any American city of less than a million people: the outlying Comfort Inns are soon followed by an onslaught of billboards with ensorcelling pictures of the steaks and pastas and chicken Caesars available at the fungible establishments calling themselves O’Charley's or Olive Garden or, if you’re very lucky, Carrabba's Italian Grill. (Check out the July issue of Consumer Reports for detailed ratings on 103 U.S. restaurant chains; Carrabba’s was named top Italian chain, and it tied for third overall behind the pricey Capital Grille and Ruth’s Chris steakhouse chains.)

Of all these, "Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar" is king, and it's the only large casual-dining chain with an outlet in Jamestown. Since its founding in Atlanta in 1980 — when it carried the delightfully whimsical name T.J. Applebee's Rx for Edibles & Elixirs — Applebee's has become a beast. "With nearly 1,700 restaurants," says, "it is the largest casual dining restaurant concept in the world" (Ruby Tuesday, by comparison, has just 880 locations). Note the language: Applebee's is much more concept than restaurant. It serves food grounded in no particular ethnic or regional cuisine in settings bewilderingly overstuffed with pop-culture images and gimcrack Americana. The following items are affixed to the walls of the Jamestown Applebee's:

-Minnesota Vikings memorabilia.

-Some old-looking tennis rackets.

-Pictures of Darin Erstad, the Los Angeles Angel born 32 years ago in Jamestown.

-A slalom ski.

-An old-timey sign reading SHIP STORES, EST. 1851.

-A giant photograph of Marilyn Monroe.

-A carousel horse.

If you look at any one of these items, its placement in any restaurant designed primarily for adults might seem ridiculous. But your eyes aren't meant to fall on any one thing; you are meant to be enveloped in a sort of ur-American nimbus that recalls every place and no place. Applebee's outlets tend to be built in suburbs that have no distinct identity on their own — no distinct "neighborhood" — which is why Applebee's slogan ("Eatin' good in the neighborhood") is so brilliant. It recalls the exact thing that's lacking.

I'm sure Jamestonians like seeing pictures of Erstad on the wall, but a big part of the allure of Applebee's for small-town residents is its connection with the larger American culture. "When Applebee's opened here, people really thought Jamestown was finally on the map," says Robert Carlson, president of the Farmers Union and a Jamestown resident. Carlson chuckled at this — he prefers local food — but he appears to be part of a vanishing, romantic minority. Applebee's was packed both times I went — even at lunch, nearly every seat was filled. The local restaurants — places Darin Erstad might have actually visited when he was growing up — were struggling with a couple dozen customers.

Applebee's' sense of disembodiment, of radical anti-locality, extends throughout its menu. A "Tuscan Shrimp Salad" bears only a notional relationship to Tuscany, where I have never seen the discordant, more-Asian-than-Italian marriage of almonds, shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes, hot peppers, sweet peppers, and soft lettuce. Were I on Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, and was delivered a steak as bland as the Applebee's "Bourbon Street Steak," I would leave, drink three or four Hurricanes, and call it a day.

Which brings me to the bar at Applebee's. The only meaningful difference between casual-dining restaurants and fast-food restaurants is that the former serve alcohol. (My Tuscan Shrimp Salad was nearly as fast as anything I could have eaten at McDonald's: it was delivered in under nine minutes.) But I found the Applebee's bar to be a ripoff. When I asked Cory, my bartender, for a margarita, he said proudly, "We have several!" (Everything said by Applebee's employees is uttered with unnecessary volume and transparently coached enthusiasm.) Cory then presented a huge drinks menu that is the effervescent color and style of a toddler's book. Four margaritas were listed, all containing "Applebee's signature margarita mix."

But I didn't want any mix; bottled mixes tend to be mostly high-fructose corn syrup. Rather, margaritas should be tart and spare. Ideally, they should have just three or four ingredients:

1 1/2 parts tequila
1 part triple sec (I like Cointreau or, if I'm feeling flush, Grand Marnier)
1/2 part freshly squeezed lime juice
Optional: salt for the rim

This 1 1/2-1-1/2 ratio is age-old and not to be messed with. And this ratio is what I told Cory I wanted. He looked at me in worried confusion, as though I'd asked him to pour tequila directly into my mouth. I imagined what he was thinking: A margarita like that would be far more costly than the ones Applebee's serves, since a pure one contains only liquor and juice, not shelf mix.

Cory walked to the side of the bar and hesitantly made my drink. It took him an eternity in Applebee's time — three or four minutes — and when he brought it to me, he didn't look me in the eye. I took a sip from the glass (which he had forgotten to salt) and tasted a cloyingly sweet dross. He had clearly added "Applebee's signature margarita mix," after all, and I couldn't stomach it. I ordered a vodka martini instead. The martini was watery, but I was too embarrassed to order a third drink, so I struggled through sobriety. I was beginning to hate Applebee's.

And yet. And yet. Two confessions: I cleaned my plate of the shrimp salad. It was a too-busy mixture of flavors, but the lettuce was clean; the shrimp were well seasoned and not overcooked; and the dressing wasn't too heavy. I didn't care for the Bourbon Street steak, but I ate most of a "Veggie Patch Pizza" even though it dishonored the very idea of pizza since the "ultra-thin" crust turned out to be a tortilla. I went back to the Jamestown Applebee's even after I had what I needed for this piece.

Applebee's succeeds — it brings even a food snob like me back — because it's reliable. All good cooks, from the chefs at the most expensive Manhattan palaces to the grease-slingers at a highway McDonald's, know that we want restaurant food to taste the same every time we eat it. Can local places deliver that standardization? Not always. Not usually.

On my first evening in Jamestown, before giving in to Applebee's, I had asked Ryan, the clerk at my Holiday Inn Express, if any there were any local restaurants nearby.

"You mean, like, locally owned?" he said. It was obviously not a question he often gets.


"Well, there's the Frontier Fort. Just go up the street and turn right at the light." And so I did.

The Frontier Fort is why Applebee's exists. Its food is more consonant with the local culture — the main offerings are beef and bison, which are both raised within a very short drive of Jamestown — but my meal was prepared with indifference. My bison sirloin was so tough and flavorless that I couldn't finish it; the fries tasted of old grease. And apart from the two deer heads on the wall, virtually every other decoration at Frontier Fort was supplied by national beer companies; the clockface read "Miller Lite, A True Pilsner Beer." The undersalted cole slaw was delivered in a plastic Dixie cup; the Heinz 57 bottle had old congealed sauce around the rim.

When I was a kid, my dad used to take my brother and me to the Western Sizzlin in our town of Pine Bluff, Ark. Like most people, we called it "Sizzler" and — like most people — we thought the best part of the meal was the "Texas Toast" that came with the steak. The toast was just a slice of white bread grilled for a few seconds and rubbed with butter and garlic, but it was an incredibly thick slice, unlike any you could find in a grocery store. I would bite into the rich, crunchy-then-chewy bread and deeply envy Texans.

The Frontier Fort served similar bread, but I can't call it Texas toast. It was just a regular slice, the kind you get in a Wonder pack. There was nothing effortful about it. It ticked me off. But now I understood Applebee's, which doesn't strive to inspire — it strives never to disappoint.

Eventually I did have a good local meal in Jamestown. In fact I can highly recommend The Brass Rail, downtown, which serves local beef cooked properly and decent ribs (not "Riblets," whatever they are, which Applebee's pushes). But I will go back to Applebee's in the future. I will order only beer to drink, and I will avoid everything but the basics — hamburgers and salads. But it will taste the same every time, and it will feel like it's supposed to, a neighborhood that's nowhere and everywhere.