Last week I did something I'd never done before: I had lunch at Applebee's Neighborhood Grill and Bar.
It wasn't that I'd never been to an Applebee's before. I had, dozens of times, the visits usually consisting of me getting off work at a neighboring chain restaurant; ordering the biggest, medium-rare Bourbon Street steak with all the trimmings and several shakers of Applebee's "Perfect Patron" margaritas with extra olives and limes, then proceeding to enjoy my evenings in a delicious haze of steak -- and Patron Silver.
Being at an Applebee's (specifically the one at 410 South Colorado Boulevard) during daylight hours was an eye-opening experience for a service-industry vampire.
The first thing I noticed was that an Applebee's looks different in the daylight. I saw tables other than the high-tops at the bar, and the '90s top-forty hits were now nostalgic rather than contemporary. There were also items on the menu other than beef and booze.
Applebee's got its start as T.J. Applebee's Rx for Edibles & Elixirs in Decatur, Georgia, in 1980. Owners Bill and T. J. Palmer -- who were apparently going for an apothecarian feel to their restaurant and bar -- opened a second location, then sold their company to W.R. Grace and Company, with Bill Palmer staying on to preside over the Applebee's subsidiary, eventually becoming its biggest franchisee. The name was changed to its current form in 1986 -- a good idea -- and in 1988 franchisees Abe Gustin and John Hamra bought the rights to Applebee's from W. R. Grace, forming Applebee's International Inc. In 2007 there was a merger with IHOP Corp. (yup, the pancake folks), forming DineEquity Inc.
The Applebee's story sounds a bit like a bible passage about someone begetting someone else, who then begat another someone. And I can say that I have begotten many a night of festive revelry at Applebee's with bar trivia fueled by alcohol and fellow service-industry employee bonhomie.
But not today.
The service during lunch hours at this outpost in Glendale, where many recent Applebee's innovations have been introduced, was excellent: My iced tea and coffee didn't run dry; the other diners were few, far between and rather less raucous than I remember; and the lunch specials seemed a good bargain at $6.99 for a "Pick 'N Pair" dual choice of soup, salad, pasta and half-sandwiches.
I ordered French onion soup with a half Classic Clubhouse Grille sandwich, as well as lemon shrimp fettuccine with a fiesta chicken chopped salad. And for good measure, I also tried the grilled chicken wonton tacos appetizer (which is new) and the maple butter pecan blondie for dessert (an old favorite).
While I waited for my food, I had a few minutes -- precisely fifteen -- to fondly recall my time working in food service. There were many times that the work was hard, sweaty and unrewarding, but hanging out with my coworkers after hours with a lot of cursing and way too many drinks made the work far less unbearable. The Applebee's shakers of margarita were a smooth, nearly perfect blend of sweet, salty, sour and liquored, and I loved nothing more than to make that first cut into a juicy, Cajun-spiced steak and watch the blood run on to a mess of fried red potatoes and sautéed onions. It was all about the little things, and although Applebee's wasn't the finest restaurant in the world, it was a convenient little nook of pleasure wherein I could eat, drink a lot and be merry while not having to bring anything to anyone, cook anything, or clean up.
And this day, all I had to do was eat. My lunch arrived and I was glad I'd ordered the tacos: The crispy wonton shells, the salty but well-seasoned diced chicken and chilly, cilantro slaw topping were a good mix of textures, flavors and temperatures. The fiesta salad was another worthy choice, with a sweet, tangy cilantro vinaigrette-y dressing on the finely-chopped romaine, fried tortilla strips, diced chicken breast and corn-black bean salsa.
The lemon shrimp fettuccine looked like it had been benched for a bit while the other dishes were prepared -- the sauce had seized up -- and the grilled shrimp were far too salty, but the addition of fresh tomatoes and spinach to the cheese sauce made the fettucine tasty enough.
The Classic Clubhouse Grille sandwich was just a regular club sandwich with Applebee's honey barbeque sauce added -- not bad, but not great. In American chain restaurants, French onion soup is rarely anything special: au jus-based broth with a dollop of moist onion slices topped with a white toast circle and a melted glob of what is usually either Swiss or provolone cheese. I this case, it was provolone, and the cooks had missed the final step of making sure the cheese cap was adequately toasted.
I'm relatively certain the maple pecan blondie dessert used to contain walnuts instead of pecans, but the swap was a welcome one, since I remember the profusion of walnuts making the sweet, dense cake square slightly bitter on the back end, and the pecans add a more buttery note. My server brought the maple butter sauce on the size, and since the cake, vanilla ice cream and sauce all come on a hot grill plate, it was seriously entertaining to pour the sauce over the whole thing and it bubble.
Again, it's the little things.
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They added up to an enjoyable meal at Applebee's -- one I could appreciate in a sedate, sober fashion.