Even among those who respect the fine American dining tradition that is the chain restaurant, Applebee’s is derided. As MEL’s own Rax King, queen of kitsch and lowbrow eateries, once said, “People shit on chain restaurants, but those things get popular for a reason — except Applebee’s; they made a deal with the devil.”
I think King is wrong. Most other chain restaurants have something in particular going for them — Olive Garden has its breadsticks and pounds of pasta; Chili’s and TGI Friday’s have their wacky fried concoctions; Cheesecake Factory has its vague sense of fanciness to mark a special occasion. Applebee’s has none of this, except maybe a second-tier shot at the fried foods. Instead, what Applebee’s has is pure, accessible ambiguity. That’s why it works so well.
I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Last summer, pop-country musician Walker Hayes released the track “Fancy Like,” which pivoted on the chorus:
Yeah, we fancy like Applebee’s on a date night
Got that Bourbon Street steak with the Oreo shake
Get some whipped cream on the top, too
Two straws, one check, girl, I got you
The song’s popularity was bolstered by TikTok, where it became a viral dance hit. Soon after, Applebee’s began running commercials featuring the song and some of the TikToks with it. And thus, it became a part of official Applebee’s lore. If anything, though, the song’s success seemed to only make people hate on Applebee’s even more.
Now, I don’t particularly care for the song and dance, either. It’s also worth noting that Applebee’s, as a corporation, probably isn’t the greatest — last month, an exec at the company sent out an email saying that it was good that gas prices were rising, as it would make their employees more desperate for money and willing to accept low wages. (He was, at least, fired.) I do, however, think the song gets to the core of why I, like countless others, enjoy a good Applebee’s date night. As an establishment, Applebee’s is a place where you can eat off a menu that seems designed by an alien with the intent of understanding and reproducing American culture, and generally speaking, that alien nailed it. There are the classics like boneless wings, mozzarella sticks and burgers, as well as a few bizarro offerings. What exactly is a “riblet?” For what reason do they serve something called a “chicken wonton taco?”
Frankly, it doesn’t matter — it’s probably good as fuck, and I’m going to eat it, anyway.
I don’t care if it’s all made in a microwave, either. My microwave doesn’t make food taste as good as theirs, and the prices are modest enough that I’m not offended by it either way. Many Applebee’s locations continue to offer a “2 for $20” menu that includes an appetizer and two entrees, though some places have upped that price a bit. Fun and fruity cocktails cost around $5. Sometimes Applebee’s even does a promotion where they have a specific drink every month that costs a dollar. You have to drink three of them to get a buzz, but so what?
It might not scream romance, but that makes it almost even more intimate. You can luxuriate in the people-watching and random sports memorabilia at one of their 8,000,000 tables, ordering whatever you want without worrying too much about taking up space or spending too much money. There’s no pressure to get the “best” items off the menu or ensure you have some experience to write home about. Really, you can just enjoy being with your partner, and isn’t that more enjoyable than some stiff, fine-dining date where you push a $40 endive around your plate?
In another line from “Fancy Like,” Hayes mentions that he often likes to buy his girl Wendy’s, but that when he gets paid, he likes to treat her to Applebee’s. Presumably, thanks to the brand deal, Hayes can now afford more than Applebee’s, and I haven’t a clue whether he continues to dine there. Nevertheless, the line reflects the reality for many Americans. Wendy’s and Applebee’s are what the people eat. Sure, Applebee’s isn’t everyone’s favorite restaurant — but that’s not why people eat there. They eat there because it’s an affordable place to go where the expectations are low. It allows people to get the sit-down dining experience on a budget. It doesn’t have any particular theme, and it doesn’t have to.
When Hayes refers to date night at Applebee’s as “fancy,” it’s obviously a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also an embrace of the lowbrow. It’s not about the food or the ambiance. It’s just about having a place to be.