I unironically love chain restaurants. I’ve always loved them, but my affection grew significantly when I hit legal drinking age. Living in New York City, it’s not unusual to shell out upwards of $18 for a cocktail at a fancy bar. Happy hours exist, but many end right when I leave work—or as early as 5:00, which is just cruel.
Not at chain restaurants, though. It’s seemingly always happy hour at Bubba Gump’s or Olive Garden or Texas Roadhouse, with cartoonish-sized goblets of alcohol going for $7 or $8. The cocktails tend to have silly names like “Pink Punk Martini,” a real drink at TGI Fridays, or the “Presidente Margarita,” a classic at Chili’s. At these establishments, no one (at least none of the employees) judges me for ordering an appetizer sampler for myself or pounding back a Skinny Lime Margarita, a Bubblegum Daiquiri, and a Mudslide for dessert. At chains, you can come as you are and leave when you’ve had your money’s worth of stale mozzarella sticks and the finest bottom shelf liquor.
No chain restaurant has leaned into pleasing customers like myself more than Applebee’s. Last October, the venerable chain announced a $1 margarita—“dollarita” special—for “Neighborhood Appreciation Month.” At first, it appeared to be a one-off, but almost every month since Applebee’s has graced its restaurants with drink specials such as the “Dollarmama,” a $1 Bahama Mama; $2 Absolut Vodka Lemonades; $2 Dos Equis; and, in my opinion, the ultimate: $1 L.I.T., or Long Island iced teas (shouldn’t it be L.I.I.T. or L.I.2T.? Call me, Applebee’s).
First introduced as last December’s drink of the month, Applebee’s brought it back for June to “kick off summer.” “The DOLLAR L.I.T. features five spirits—vodka, rum, gin, tequila and triple sec—mixed with sweet and sour mix, topped with a splash of cola, and served in a 10-ounce mug over ice,” the press release boasts.
You may have seen Applebee’s promoting this drink with cutesy, tongue-in-cheek (? I hope) tweets like, “A $1 Long Island Iced Tea. The perfect drink for that friend who always ‘forgets their wallet.’”
You may be wondering how it’s possible to make money like this. Are the bartenders putting the alcohol in with a dropper? Are they using cheap vodka banned in most countries over fears it will make you go blind? I had only tried one of Applebee’s specials before—the Dollarita—and it tasted like straight-up margarita mix containing no actual tequila. I was convinced it was impossible for the DOLLAR L.I.T. to actually get you lit, and I needed to investigate.
To perform this investigation, I went to a Brooklyn Applebee’s after work on a Wednesday night. My colleague Peter came along, presumably to take photos but really to make sure I didn’t do anything in an inebriated state that would get us all sued. As a serious journalist, I took notes the whole time.
Once seated, I promptly ordered both Peter and me L.I.T.s on Applebee’s electronic menu, an iPad-like device that allows you to order alcohol and play games like slots and solitaire (except you can't actually win anything). When the waitress (whose name I regrettably forgot) arrived to check our I.D.s, I could tell that we certainly weren’t the first to order the L.I.T. during her shift, and that she couldn’t wait until her shift, June, and/or her time employed at Applebee’s to be over. Peter spotted two of his friends who, naturally, were drinking L.I.T.s.
The L.I.T. arrived in what looked like a stein made for babies. The drink was a green-brown color that looked a lot like sewage. I sipped and was immediately flooded with doubts about the alcohol content. It tasted like watered down Coke and triggered memories of the time a bartender didn’t card me at Disney World and then served me what was definitely a virgin Piña Colada.
Regular Long Island iced teas taste like shit because they contain only alcohol, and you only order one when you want to get plastered via a single drink. These facts made the apparent lack of booze in our beverages all the more irritating and forced us to ponder what it was exactly they were putting in these things.
Nevertheless, I finished my first drink in minutes; Peter took considerably longer. As the ice melted I wondered if the “second drink” made infamous on The Office is an actual phenomenon. When the waitress came over, I barely had to say anything—she already knew I wanted another.
By this time, we had to order food to maintain the facade of respectability necessary to order several more L.I.T.s. Peter and I both ordered cheeseburgers and fries. Looking around at the other patrons, many (but not all) had the same baby steins in front of them.
The second didn’t taste any more alcoholic than the first, despite vigorous stirring. In my notes I wrote, “[I] feel like I could drink 20.”
The next note reads: “Am I drunk? I kinda feel like I’m drunk.”
The burgers arrived and were objectively terrible. The buns were maybe Key Food-brand and I was actually kind of glad the chef seemed to have no knowledge of what “medium rare” means. While the food was truly disgusting, I appreciated it nonetheless, because miraculously I was beginning to feel something, something which made me grateful to no longer have an empty stomach.
Before ordering my third L.I.T., the waitress informed me that there is a three-per-customer limit. I was floored, I hadn't noticed any mention of a limit in the ads for the promotion. I immediately cooked up a conspiracy theory that the waitress hated me and didn’t want me to enjoy all the L.I.T.s god intended. That said, according to an Applebee's spokesperson, "All Applebee’s restaurants are locally owned and operated, and drink limits vary by location and local and state laws. In all of our restaurants, we encourage responsible service of alcohol. Our franchisees implement their own responsible service of alcohol practices, which include monitoring consumption and exercising judgment with regards to drink limits." O.K., fine.*
Peter kindly donated his drink to me, which was fine for our experiment but wouldn’t work in a real-life scenario. He then suggested a better workaround, we could simply go to another Applebee’s, conveniently located just a ten-minute walk away on the same street. We agreed to leave after my third.
At this point, my tipsiness was readily apparent. I tasted something come up my straw that was not L.I.T. but I ignored it and steamed ahead.
Peter was only 25 percent of the way through his second L.I.T. at 9PM when the restaurant pretty much emptied out. Peter gave me the rest of his second drink and I finished it with ease.
“OK,” my notes say at this point, “I am drunk.” We paid the bill and headed to the second location.
At the second location, I ordered my fourth official L.I.T. while Peter smartly swore off the abomination and got a beer. The waitress, whose name I probably never learned, brought them promptly. There was no mention of the three-per-customer limit.
According to my notes, these still didn’t taste like alcohol. I was drunk, but I ordered a fifth for good measure.
“Ooookkkk,” I wrote in my notebook, once again noting a total inability to detect alcohol content (other than the increasingly obvious effects the L.I.T.s were having on my behavior).
By the fifth L.I.T., I was not blackout drunk, but I was at the point during a pre-game session when you need to cool things down or you will vomit when you arrive at the bar. I was at that fateful point when a college freshman during orientation week learns their limit, and crosses it.
My notes said I could drink more, but my notes were lying. I could not drink more. The crash from both the alcohol and the sugar was imminent.
By 10PM, my notes become practically illegible. I had achieved my mission, and it was time to go.
At this point, I should show off the receipts that prove I achieved this state for a shockingly low price. But sadly, in my drunkenness, I completely forgot to keep the receipts from not one but both Applebee’s locations. I quickly texted Peter to see if he—slightly more sober than I—had somehow remembered:
If nothing else signals how drunk I was, my non-sarcastic “Hahahhahahaahhahaha” upon realizing that I would not be reimbursed for this escapade was a big sign.
On the way home, I did what I normally do when I am drunk and alone: listen to SZA. I scribbled my final note at 11:19PM: “I feel like I AM SZA.” This was, on many levels, false.
When I started on this journey, I didn’t think the DOLLAR L.I.T. was capable of any actual lit-ness, but I was proven wrong. Despite tasting more like watery Coke than a real Long Island iced tea (gasoline and regret), the Applebee’s DOLLAR L.I.T. is not to be played with. I was tipsy by the end of L.I.T. #2 and properly drunk by the end of #3.
Getting drunk for $3 in the year of our lord 2018 isn’t easy, and I’m still amazed it was actually possible. If anything, the experiment only heightened my love for Applebee’s and all chain restaurants. As millennials bogged down by debt and the prospect of never owning homes or retiring, these establishments and their cheap alcoholic offerings are a small, yet significant, respite from our dystopian reality.
*This post has been updated with a response from Applebee's regarding the rules surrounding drink limits.
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