I took a tour of some of America's finest chain restaurant bars so that I could not only drink a few affordable beers, but also learn more about how we no longer value the simple pleasures of cheap, greasy food and good service.
Perhaps it's my advancing age, my predilection for playing the sourpuss, or merely my growing disinterest in ceremony of any sort, but I'd rather eat in the shit end of a strip mall than get gussied up for a night on the town in the kind of genericly chic hotspots that now litter America's cities. The
lamentations of my colleagues as far afield as London over the insidious creeping dread of gentrification are now as familiar to journalism as Beyonce think-pieces, pointless aggregation of Daily Showclips, and Oxford commas.
We've bitched about gentrification's florid fare and prentitious air of exclusion, but what's the alternative? The aggressive gourmet flatulence of trendy urban neighborhoods makes me long for the affordable, bland, but comforting chain restaurants of my youth. I'm talking about the kind of place where the ads implore you to "let your hair down," "unwind," and "be family."
Those sentiments seem trite, but are actually what we crave the most, especially here in America. We want to belong, we want to be accepted, and we want to get drunk on cheap liquor. Those aren't virtues anymore when fancy gastropubs charge $17 for a burger and $8 for a pint of beer. We are being robbed of the one thing that makes us American: our love of inexpensive, generic bullshit.
The first Denny's in Manhattan opened not too long ago, and features a $300 version of their popular Grand Slam meal that comes with a bottle of Dom Perignon. We can't even pray at the altar of the classic American diner without being reminded of what we don't have. Are well-heeled day traders in Manhattan going to pop in for bacon and eggs, with a side of champagne? What's next, a Happy Meal that comes with an XBox?
Reveling in popular culture, while also suckling at the sweet, sparkling teat of opulance is de rigueur these days. Restaurants sell gussied up versions of comfort food and charge through the nose for it. But what about just having normal comfort food? Can't I just pleasure myself on top of a greasy plate of "grub" while knocking back a few discounted Happy Hour beverages? That beautiful disaster exists solely in the safe, sanitized vortex of the suburban chain restaurant.
In order to enjoy the perks of the chain experience, one has to travel outside the city center, even in LA. Los Angeles is the prototypical American metropolis. Less a contained city, and more an ever-growing collection of discrete communities of single-family homes separated by wide boulevards and freeways. Nowhere is this more apparent than in what Johnny Carson called, " Beautiful Downtown Burbank."
There are 104,391 people who live in suburban Burbank—a town most famous for its TV and movie studios, and its high concentration of chain restaurants and big box retailers. Burbank is a place that has the foresight to dedicate an entire stretch of their city to a "mall district." Not a financial district, jewelry district, or warehouse district. A mall district.
On the blessed American holiday of Labor Day, I ventured to sample the best Happy Hours in walking distance of Downtown Burbank and bask in the death rattle of egalitarian, chicken-fried culture.
BJ'S RESTAURANT AND BREWHOUSE
My photographer, our friend Alison, and I arrived at the first bar around 3 PM, a faux-brewery famous for the Pizookie—a pie-sized cookie some nuclear physicist, zany futurist, or civil engineer thought to put ice cream on top of. Besides the brewhouse shtick, BJ's focuses its advertising on a sense of inclusion. The front page of their website features a crawling panorama of customers—babies, minorities, the aged, men, women, hep cats, and square pegs. During our visit, a Maserati was parked in a section clearly marked "No Parking," which meant that the extremely wealthy (and the shameless scofflaw) were also welcome for Happy Hour.
Few things symbolize America like convenience, which is what places like BJ's are meant to provide. That unique trait in our DNA that demands that everything be simple is a modern phenomenon, one that came into favor after we licked the Nazis in World War II. Sorry that I'm too tired to wait an hour for a hamburger. I just got done saving the world.
Central air conditioning, TV dinners, supermarkets, drive-thrus, suburban shopping malls, freeways, cable, and mass-market pornography all came to prominence in America after our grand tour of Europe was through. These creature comforts assist in helping us forget the dangers of leaving the house.
True awareness of reality should mean getting up every morning and murdering your food, wiping your ass with tree branches, and praying your village isn't in the throes of the annual Viking rape and pillage/pagan blood orgy/block party.
Everything in America is artificially controlled—from the climate down to the traffic patterns—to distract us from how hard life is supposed to be. If we could mandate when the sun set every day, we'd do that too. We want existence to be safe, tidy, and easy to manage. Chain restaurants give us that, plus more stimulus than we know what to do with.
What unites all chain restaurant bars is the unquestioned primacy of the television. These establishments seek not only to mimic the traditional American bar's focus on sporting events, but also try to improve on them by cramming enough TVs onto the wall to ensure that everyone gets to watch whatever the fuck they want, even if that includes reruns of Ray Donovan or those Adam Levine Proactiv commercials.
In the case of the Burbank BJ's, that meant that there were monitors screening SportsCenter's coverage of NFL training camp, a couple midday Major League Baseball contests, a monster truck rally, cable news reports on ISIS, and a very special episode of The Steve Harvey Show in which America's Favorite Black Funnyman helped some garden variety nerds score with the ladies. But we didn't come just to watch reenactments of bad dates. We came to drink... cheaply.
BJ's offers a robust Happy Hour menu with beer, wine, and specialty cocktails. The arbitrary rule I set down for the day stated that we would only have one drink per person and a shared appetizer. I got a beer, and Alison chose to sample something called a "no guilt Cosmo," which is a pink diet drink that tastes vaguely like alcohol. Despite my rule, I wasn't leaving BJ's without getting a little baby sip.
I ended up feeling plenty of guilt anyway, when I fully accepted the true horror of drinking a zero calorie alcoholic beverage at 3:00 PM on a Monday. If you don't at least feel a twinge of shame sucking down pink booze from a novelty glass while the sun is out, you aren't a real American. Our Puritan forefathers would have wanted it that way.
Befitting an establishment that seeks to make all feel welcome, we were pressured into keeping our menus after ordering, as though we might randomly want another helping of avocado egg rolls, a Pizookie, an entire pizza, or whatever was left in the fridge at closing time. Places like BJ's are expert at making their patrons reconsider their decision to eat with restraint.
When one chooses to abstain from gorging on fried items, it's usually not because they actually want to be healthy, so in most cases, it's not a long journey to ordering another round of potato skins. No one at BJ's is going to stop you from expressing yourself through food, so it behooves you to take advantage.
Again, "guilt" is the operative word. Society shames us into ignoring our baser nature, our inherent need to always have more. At an American chain restaurant, the Cosmos are guilt-free, but so is everything else. When I asked for the check, the waiter smiled broadly and asked, "Ready for the worst part?" He was right about that. The worst part was being forced to leave without feeling satisfied or ill.
As we waddled out the door, a server assured her table that they were "out of the splash zone." What a comforting thought.
Islands is a chain of beach-themed family establishment with branches in California, Nevada, and Arizona. On that day, they were hawking Summertime Happy Hour, which offered "stress relief" from 3 PM to 7 PM. The tropical motif is more important than it might seem at first glance. The chain restaurant, at its core, must be reassuring, pleasant, and evocative of people, places, and things that make the diner feel content. The ocean is a great option for chain decor, because the vast majority of this sprawling, predominantly landlocked country doesn't ever get to see it. For a family in Nebraska, it's a novelty.
Couples ate quietly, marking time before their next awkward car ride or grocery store excursion. "Counting Blue Cars" by Dishwalla blared from the overhead speakers. "Tell me all your thoughts on God," the singer requested. I think I've found her, and she's a waitress at Islands.
Befitting my glorious surroundings, I ordered a glass of white wine. For the rest, a vodka soda and a cabernet sauvignon. Perhaps too classy for Islands, but certainly the exact drink I needed to relieve the remainder of my "stress."
We washed it all down with a quesadilla plate. Not exactly island food, but chain restaurants aren't beholden to irritating concepts like "theme" and "consistency." If people want Mexican food at a bar covered in Hawaiian memorabilia, they're going to get it. In our case, we also got a rubber band amongst the edible items. I gnawed on this for around ten minutes before acknowledging that what was in my mouth wasn't actually food. I still tipped generously. After all, was it my server's fault that I got a rubber band in my meal?
BUFFALO WILD WINGS
For some, the holy grail of chain restaurant bars is the decadence and sophomoric eroticism of Hooters. For others, TGI Friday's commitment to whimsical approximations of Americana does the trick. Then, there's the Applebee's people. The Applebee's crowd wants their drinks as blue as possible, to be able to "eat good in the neighborhood" without incident, and not much else.
B-Dubs, then, strives to be all things for all people. The female servers are clearly chosen partially for their attractiveness, but they aren't as systemically sexualized as they are at Hooters (they even hire male waiters!) It's masculine without being threatening. The decor is fun, yet modest. There's not an impenetrable selection of colorful beverages. The food is not overly complicated or showy. There's burgers, fries, beer, and a TV screen for every man, woman, and child in the zip code. The menu asked the rhetorical question, "What is better than fried cheese?" Nothing, my friend. Nothing.
The televisions were even more omnipresent than at BJ's. Here, the food truly takes a backseat to the experience. There was an especially bloody fight on in one of the side rooms. For some reason, the sight of a man's blood makes me want to get drunk even more than usual. It's probably some primal expression of manliness that I can't ever hope to understand. It was still Happy Hour, so I decided to break my one drink rule and order two large beers to satiate my craving.
For the first time all day, our server carded us, which was a shock to the system after breezing through the previous two locations without a hint of concern for the legality of our enterprise. She informed us that a colleague at a restaurant across the street neglected to card what turned out to be an undercover federal agent. Her blunder cost her $15,000, even more for the restaurant, and sent her to jail. Pharrell's "Happy" was our signal to depart, as our time in this establishment just couldn't get any better. We'd peaked early.
After its 1990s heyday, Chevys has slowly but surely lost much of its luster, but within its walls, there's still a bit of magic to be found. On their home page, they advertise the " Good Life," a noncommittal charge to chill the fuck out. Their greatest claim to fame is El Machino, a contraption that spits out fresh tortillas. Besides being a mini tourist attraction, it also makes really great tortillas.
Chevys can also boast that it is notoriously affordable. In my college days, a plate of nachos at Chevys cost around $6. Today, they cost $10. Considering the immense portions on offer, and the likelihood that what you ingest will not leave your system for a fortnight, that's still quite a deal.
As a great man once said, "When in Rome, order a margarita." So we did. Chevys margs taste like they're mostly sugar, but their nutrition facts page sadly doesn't list their alcoholic beverages. Only in hindsight did I even care. In the moment, all I wanted to do was live that Good Life I'd heard about.
CALIFORNIA PIZZA KITCHEN
I chose to conclude the evening at California Pizza Kitchen. There was no Happy Hour deal, but they did offer a free small plate if patrons signed up for their iPhone app. In many ways, CPK is the end of the simplistic chain restaurant, and signifies where American leisure habits started to change. The restaurant interiors are light and airy, and almost frighteningly clean. Giant floor-to-ceiling windows allow diners to look out onto the street, and for the street to stare back.
Conspicuous dining, random chrome accents, sparse decor, and visible kitchens are all modern high-end restaurant trends, but CPK and brethren like Cheesecake Factory have been able to replicate that design on a massive scale. CPK is a facsimile of a fancy restaurant, which is borderline cheating. It's still a chain, but it's a chain that's a tad embarrassed by its status.
To eat, I got two flatbreads, one of which was gratis, thanks to the aforementioned small plate deal. They were modest, yet flavorful; a far cry from the ostentatious burgers and Mexican-inspired dishes we had at our previous destinations. I was pretty drunk, so everything tasted great anyway.
Based on the small diamond ring on her finger, I assumed that our server was married. I silently commended her for her willingness to start a family on what likely isn't a massive income. I was sure to be extra friendly to her the rest of the night.
To drink, I ordered prosecco, a nod to the news story that birthed this adventure. Sure, it's not a $300 bottle of Dom at Denny's, but it was similarly an absurd affectation that singled me out as "one of those people." I felt like a prick, but isn't that why places like this serve silly drinks? Isn't that what has led to the farm-to-table, gluten-free, artisanal phenomenon—an aching, unceasing yearning to tell the planet where you stand?
At California Pizza Kitchen, I stood—pinky out and head up my ass. Maybe I didn't earn this indulgence the same way my war-ravaged relatives did, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the spoils anyway.
This sort of prosperity, satisfaction, and material opulence became the birthright of all future generations of Americans to be born after V-J Day. I can, and I should, have my own car. I should be able to support myself with a stable job, buy a house, and squirrel away enough money to retire in my 60s.
Our birthright came to be known as the American Dream, a catchy marketing term to goose up the superiority complex of the nation. While the Germans, Japanese, British, Italians, and French were busy sifting through the remains of empire, the United States was stuffing themselves on Big Macs and McHale's Navy.
The same sad bastards who had to queue up at the soup kitchen for his daily allotment of gruel could now warm up a pre-made meal, watch Donna Reed, and drink themselves to sleep all in the comfort of a room that was constantly 72 degrees. We did it because we were fed up eating dirt. A nation of poor, illiterate sharecroppers harboring a fierce obsession with superstition could at long last guarantee a certain basic level of satisfaction. Can you blame us for taking it a bit too far?
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