©2015 Chris Terrell
How the Mighty Have Fallen!
I’m not a big fan of chain restaurants.* The food is generally uninspiring and pretty much the same. There are but so many ways one can deep fry something or slap a Bourbon barbecue sauce on a slab of meat. I guess my biggest compliant is one of value, which is interesting because the marketing departments for places like TGI Fridays or Applebee’s have convinced people that they offer good food at a good price. But by the time, you’ve had a couple of Summer Squeezes (real drink from the Applebee’s bar menu) and some Churro S’mores (real appetizer from Applebee’s menu), and….
OK, I have to stop here. This thing called Churro S’mores is a real appetizer, or “app” in Applebee’s-speak! It consists of some kind of bread with a toasted marshmallow and chocolate dipping sauce. This is listed in the “bar snacks” section of the menu. Really?! Why the hell would I get this at a bar?! What full-grown, gainfully employed, self-respecting American male is going to drink a martini and eat this concoction?
OK, sorry about that digression…..
And so you order the Bourbon Street Steak and the Bourbon Street Chicken and Shrimp (both real items—these guys obviously love New Orleans!), Triple Chocolate Meltdown (real) for dessert, and now you are out about $60 for a party of two after tip. You’d be better off to go to a local mom-and-pop restaurant. The food would be better, and you’d be helping the local economy.
But the more important question is how did I end up at an Applebee’s on a Sunday afternoon? The short answer is: soccer. This past weekend, I fulfilled my annual paternal duty of taking one of my sons to the state soccer tournament in Decatur, Alabama. If you’ve ever been to Decatur, well you’re not missing much, and this comes from someone who lives in Alabama, so I’m used to being under-whelmed. Our team did better than expected, but after the last game on a Sunday afternoon, we were hungry. Someone suggested Applebee’s. I could have easily protested but my food-snobbery is well established amongst the soccer parents. I relented mainly out of curiosity. I saw this as a sociological experiment. What makes people go to Applebee’s? Am I missing something? Can it really be that bad? Maybe it has improved since the last time I went to one on a business trip on April 23, 1997.
The staff was pleasant enough and the beer was cold. But the food? It is what it is. I got the Thai Shrimp salad, which was not too bad after I added a bit more salt and pepper. More importantly, the kids enjoyed it and had a good time. At the end of the day, I was not completely disappointed because my expectations were met. I mean really, I don’t go to McDonalds expecting seared foie gras and black truffles.
By now, I’m sure the casual reader of this blog is thinking, “this guy’s a real snob,” and I probably wouldn’t blame you. But I’m not. I eat in hole-in-the-wall BBQ joints; Mexican restaurants, hot dog stands and love every bite. The difference is that these are restaurants owned by real people who love what they do. Not some homogenized chain restaurant with a menu created by marketing lackeys.
But then again, chain restaurants are as American as apple pie. It all started in 1940 along the Penn Turnpike, where motorists could turn off the Pike and pull up to a building that resembled a New England town hall with a painfully bright orange roof and turquoise blue cupola. Howard Johnson’s or HoJo for short. This was arguably the first franchised restaurant, founded in 1925 in Quincey, Massachusetts, by Howard Deering Johnson. It was famous for its fried clam strips, chicken pot pies, “Frankforts” (HoJo’s version of a hot dog), and 28 flavors of ice cream (including peppermint stick). I grew up on HoJos. No road trip to Florida would be complete without dinner at HoJo’s, where my mom would invariably order the fried clam strips, while I quivered in anticipation of the peppermint stick ice cream that came with a sugar cookie shaped like a delta wing jet plane. They also had a birthday club, and I recall going to the local HoJo’s for my annual complimentary birthday cake.
At HoJo’s peak, there were over 900 orange roofs across America. Today, only two restaurants remain.
|How the Mighty Have Fallen Too|
I really have no way of knowing if the food at the HoJos of my youth were any better or worse than your local Applebee’s today. I do know that they just felt different—full of youthful promise. Only in that optimistic era could you have a restaurant as garnish as a HoJos. There’s a reason, Howard Johnson’s figured prominently in an episode of Mad Men. The title of that episode is Faraway Places. How apropos.
So here’s a modest proposal to myself. The next time I’m asked to go to an Applebee’s, I won’t complain or make some snarky comment. I’ll just squint and pretend it’s 1975, and I’m five years old eating a chocolate birthday cake with some peppermint stick ice cream.
That sounds pretty inspiring, don’t you think?
* Fast-food joints are excluded from my definition. Who doesn’t like a good fast-food burger now and then? And besides, we all know these are not really restaurants.