Today brings news that if you so desire (and if reservations are still available) you can plunk down $375 for a plate at the Times Square Applebee’s this New Year’s Eve. Denizens of the Internet are responding to this price tag with the expected invective. Some of it is funny—“Yes, there’s an Applebee’s in Times Square that is charging $375 per person for New Year’s Eve but you do get to keep the restaurant.” But all of it is snobbish and unsavory—even more unsavory than Applebee’s Honey Pepper Chicken & Shrimp. More importantly, it misses the point, and virtue, of Applebee’s, which this 42nd Street special perfectly encapsulates.
To consumers well acquainted with fine dining, Applebee’s can seem like a simulacrum or a parody of a fine-dining restaurant. The menu and television commercials advertise “spirited cuisine,” “deep, rich flavor,” and also—paradoxically, if you know how much good food actually costs—entrees that start at $9.99. But Applebee’s—and T.G.I. Friday’s and Chili’s and Ruby Tuesday’s and other faux-fancy chains—serve a crucial role in America’s food ecosystem and even, I’d submit, its democratic life. (For the record, the history of T.G.I. Friday’s is uniquely fascinating—it began on the Upper East Side as essentially the first singles’ bar.)
A fabulous New York Times article several years ago mapped how culinary trends find their way onto the mainstream American palate, using salted caramel as a case study. It turns out it’s a little like that famous Scarface line about first getting the money, then the power, then the women. Except instead: first you get the top New York restaurants, then you get the nice food magazines, then you get the advanced food chains, then the more mainstream food chains, and finally your flavor ends up being sold, in some form, at Walmart. An exemplary Stage 3 chain is The Cheesecake Factory while an exemplary Stage 4 chain is Starbucks, so you could make the case that Applebee’s sits smack in the middle.
What is Applebee’s menu currently dominated by? Entrees include Bourbon Street Chicken & Shrimp; Cajun Shrimp Pasta; Blackened Tilapia “lightly rubbed in Cajun spices”; and, yes, “Bourbon Street Steak.” Enough hints? Well, last April, Applebee’s rolled out Big Flavors from the Big Easy (as well as Big Fun Drinks Worthy of Big Easy Flavors, which apparently is a euphemism for margaritas). This is right on time according to the culinary trends map: After Katrina in 2005, fine dining in New Orleans was seen to be making a comeback in 2006 and 2007 and beyond. Do you think it coincidental that Applebee’s announced its Cajun-inspired menu a month before Bravo announced that the next season of “Top Chef,” currently airing, would take place in New Orleans?
I fail to see how this isn’t a salutary thing for American culture. New Orleans is a great American city that recently has played an outsize role in food trends (I dare you to find a list of hot American restaurants that doesn’t mention Cochon, which opened in 2007). Why shouldn’t Americans get to sample its cuisine—even a bastardized version of it—without traveling to Louisiana and/or paying through the nose?
Which brings us to Times Square. Times Square is the Applebee’s of New York City: Totally exaggerated and despised by the locals, while undeniably containing elements of the actual city; it is how a ten-year-old would envision New York if you described it to him. (This has been true even as the city, and Times Square, has changed: Before, it was the crime-ridden, morally bankrupt promenade of porn theaters representing the crime-ridden, almost literally bankrupt city of the time; now it is the squeaky clean, flavorless, corporate, undistinctive center of what many see as Bloomberg’s New York.) You may not like it, but guess what—lots of tourists do, and they see it as “authentic” New York, and if it’s a way for them to experience that New York in a cheaper, bastardized, but in some core sense real way, who is anyone else to begrudge them?
As for the decidedly un-Applebee’s-esque price point? I have no doubt that in London, in Paris, in South Beach, and even right in New York City, much richer people will be spending much more this December 31st. And they won’t even have a view of the ball dropping.