Applebee’s For Cocktails?
Our intrepid reporter actually tries the happy hour at six different Applebee's.
As this happy hour column reaches its first birthday I thought it would be fun to throw a curveball and stray from the neighborhood corner bars, rock and roll clubs, locally-sourced restaurants and classy lounges that have comprised a year’s worth of happy hours and profile Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar™. Under normal circumstances I would avoid national corporate chains at all costs, but there’s just something about their birthday song, plus $2 long islands all day long!
You read that right, $2 long island iced teas all day, every day at Applebee’s. If I wanted to take it easy I might just leave it at that, but I decided to dive head first into this birthday celebration and visit six (of eight) Milwaukee-area Applebee’s. I was determined to try all ten flavors of the $2 long islands. Below you will find an image of my hand painted $2 Applebee’s Long Island Iced Tea Spectrum Of Taste. (Spoiler alert: Raspberry takes the cake.) But there is more to Applebee’s than cheap artificially-flavored drinks. To start my journey I stopped in at the most centrally-located franchise, in the heart of Westown inside the Shops at Grand Avenue Mall.
It was the first time since 1984 that my beloved Milwaukee Bucks would open their season at home and I was having a pre-game drink at the nearby Applebee’s (275 W. Wisconsin Ave.). My search for the best $2 long island began with The Original, which is a solid balance of sweet and booze. Their signature drink comes pre-mixed, with the flavors added after the initial pour and the ratios varying from franchise to franchise.
While their drink specials run all day, Applebee’s does have a happy hour food menu. It includes half-off select appetizers from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. to close, Monday through Friday. I was not in that time period before the Bucks game, so I went with their pepper-crusted sirloin and whole grains, one of six menu items under 600 calories. Not that I’m watching my weight, just that the fire-roasted grape tomatoes and portobellos looked delicious.
I instructed the bartender that I wanted my steak medium rare. What came back hardly resembled the image on the menu: the steak was a warm grey instead of a familiar pink. This disappointment foreshadowed the Bucks performance that night after a mega-hyped off-season. But like the Bucks, Applebee’s food items got better after this poor start.
Since Applebee’s brands itself as the Neighborhood Grill and Bar™ (did I mention that?), each franchise makes an effort to incorporate some local flair into their decor. The downtown location is adjacent to Milwaukee’s entertainment district, only a few blocks from the Riverside Theater, and has a Hollywood-theme. Sitting at the bar eating my recently frozen steak, sipping a Pomegranate Red long island (slightly better than The Original), I couldn’t help but think of one of the final scenes in the Will Ferrell–Adam McKay Nascar comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.
The next night I left my girlfriend’s old place in Bay View around a quarter to midnight. The Holt Avenue location was closing at 12 a.m. so I took a short drive down I-94 to the Oak Creek Applebee’s (7135 S. 13th St.), which is open until 1 a.m. on weeknights. It’s just off the freeway next to a La Quinta hotel. As I turned into the parking lot I had a flashback to St. Patrick’s Day 2008.
It was my final year of college and my friends and I were on a roadtrip down to Miami for Spring Break. On St. Patrick’s Day we stopped at Louisville and stayed at a suburban hotel off the freeway next to an Applebee’s. A woman at the front desk recommended we check out 4th Street, Louisville’s downtown dining and entertainment district. When we got there we discovered police checking IDs just to get into this quadrant of public space. One of my friends, a white guy in a button-down shirt and slacks, was admitted, but myself and another friend (both of Latino origin, though it hardly shows in me, I’ll admit I essentially look White) were denied entry due to “excessively baggy clothing.”
We returned to our hotel incensed. It was a quarter to midnight and our last resort was to get a drink at Applebee’s. The hostess told us they were about to close but we could stay for one. The bartender was super friendly, gave us a warm welcome as we took our seats at the bar and even poured us complimentary shots of Wild Turkey. We told him about our experience at 4th Street. He sympathized and said we could stay for a few more while the staff cleaned up the place.
We ended up staying for almost two hours. Then the bartender had his girlfriend, a server at Applebee’s, drive us to a (real) neighborhood bar that was hosting a big St. Patty’s Day bash, complete with heated tents and green beer. Upon our arrival the bartender introduced us to some older women, ordered us a pitcher and vanished into the night. The next morning I woke up on our hotel room floor with one of the worst hangovers of my life, not sure how we got home or whose lipstick was on my collar.
Would my twilight visit to the Oak Creek Applebee’s rekindle the magic of that fateful night in Louisville? Of course not, but the half-priced Grilled Chicken Wonton Tacos were a delicious surprise. Also, an eccentric server who looked like an 80s rock star brought my half-priced Green Bean Crispers out (“Did someone order a plate of Green Bean Crispers?” I raise my hand. “Oh yeah you did! Here they come dude!”) The Crispers were lightly breaded and pretty watery, like most frozen vegetables, and come with a lemon aioli, which was more like a lemony tartar sauce. At the downtown Applebee’s I was told to try the Wildberry long island, though it’s not on the menu. Sure enough, the bartender in Oak Creek fixed me one and it ended up being the second best of the bunch.
This Halloween did not exactly capture the wanderlust of last year, when I discovered GGOOLLDD and danced the night away with my love. Instead, my girl and I spent all weekend moving her and the kids out of their old apartment and into our new place in Walker’s Point. In the middle of cleaning her oven I went to ventilate the room, but before I knew it one of the heavy old windows fell on my hand and smashed one of my fingers.
A few days later I stopped in at the Bay View Applebee’s (270 W. Holt Ave.), not far from the scene of the accident, and the first thing my friendly waitress Gina said was, “Oh wow, what happened to your finger!?” I told her the story. It had swollen considerably and I requested fresh ice for the cold towel I was wrapping it with. “It’ll feel better after a couple long islands,” I added.
I was in afternoon happy hour range so I ordered a couple of half-priced apps, the Crosscut Ribs and Onion Rings. The smoky chipotle sauce was solid and the ribs were enough for a meal. The basket of thick onion rings was huge for $2.75 and I ended up taking most of them home. The ribs came with yummy spicy cucumber coins and Gina happily brought me an extra serving. With my laptop in tow and Applebee’s standard free Wi-Fi, I was able to get some work done (despite my injury) while tennis legend Rafael Nadal battled Kevin Anderson at the Paris Masters on the screen above me.
At a meeting a couple weeks ago a friend recounted a poor experience he had many years ago at the Southridge Applebee’s (5100 S. 76th St. in Greendale, not to be confused with Greenfield… or Green Acres). Though he longed for the handheld remote speakers they used to offer each customer (so you could pick which TV you wanted to hear), he wasn’t as keen on the moldy bottles of Beck’s he was handed from a cooler that had long since stopped working. My lunch visit last Friday was decidedly better.
The Strawberry-Kiwi long island that bartender Kevin fixed me was the strongest $2 cocktail. A lively character was Kevin, who when I asked about the soup of the day, replied, “It’s Clam Chowder, duh. Fish Fryday.” Though it was heavy on the potatoes and not so much on the flavor, the chowder sufficed as a $7.99 pairing with the hearty Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad.
While enjoying my meal I first took stock of the other beverage options available at Appelebee’s. While they no longer carry Beck’s bottles, they do have Heineken, Corona, Corona Light, Blue Moon, Guinness, Michelob Ultra, Sam Adams, Miller Lite, Budweiser and Bud Light. Though they vary slightly from location to location, you can also find bottles of Lakefront’s Riverwest Stein, Eastside Dark and Fuel Cafe, as well as Ale Asylum Hopalicious (allegedly Wisconsin’s best-selling American Pale Ale), Central Waters Mudpuppy Porter, Sprecher Black Bavarian, Madtown Nutbrown, Berghoff Reppin’ Red, Tyranena Bitter Woman IPA, and Angry Orchard cider.
Tap beers also vary by location but you can count on Miller Lite, Coors Light, Bud Light, Blue Moon, Spotted Cow, Sam Adams, and Smith and Forge. I’ve also spotted Stella Artois, Hopalicious, Lakefront IPA, Leine’s Red and a Leine’s seasonal, which was Oktoberfest at some places and Snowdrift Vanilla Porter (highly recommended) at others. They also carry a couple varieties of wine and other cocktails, the most expensive being the top shelf Long Island Iced Tea.
On my first visit to the downtown Applebee’s I was informed that on Mondays after 4 p.m. all burgers and fries are only $6.99. Applebee’s might not be a culinary destination, but I trusted that they could at least put together a solid burger. On a Monday at the Wauwatosa location (6750 W. State St.) that thesis was proven correct. I ordered a Strawberry Splash long island and a Blazin’ Texan burger, seared in onions and jalapeños, topped with BBQ pulled pork, white cheddar and fresh jalapeños. The bartender did not ask me how I wanted it done and it was probably for the best. It was a delicious mouthful of meat that I washed down with a Mango Tango long island, a top three flavor.
For some reason it took five trips to an Applebee’s to be informed of their other all-day drink specials, $2 rail mixers and $3 margaritas. After finishing my meal I noticed a giant Applebee’s logo in front of the desk on ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown set, a reminder of the massive reach of the corporate chain, which left me with a pang of shame, though that could’ve been the large burger I just wolfed down. My spirits were raised when I heard their employees sing a cheerful birthday song to a table in the back.
Aside from the occasional childhood trip to State Fair, my familiarity with West Allis is minimal, though my curiosity peaked this year after hearing that local filmmaker/rapper/performance artist WC Tank moved to the oft-derided suburb. My midday stop at the West Allis Applebee’s (2865 S. 108th St.) yielded no clues about the suburb’s charms, whatever they might be. Instead, the building, which it shares with a Dunkin’ Donuts, is smack in the middle of a corporate black hole, surrounded by the likes of Perkins, Starbucks, Home Depot, KFC, AT&T, Qboda, Auto Zone, Buffalo Wild Wings and Chuck E. Cheese’s. Not to mention, the Very Cherry long island I had there was the worst of the bunch.
After reading up on Tank’s move I learned that it started as a joke but ended up giving him mental space, someplace quiet and detached from his familiar urban landscape. Like Tank’s relocation, this journey started out as a joke and I also found a quietude. It was rather strange actually, all of the Applebee’s were very quiet, no matter how many people were there.
I did not begin this journey with hopes of discovering something great about Applebee’s. Nor did I believe I could be swayed to reconsider my distaste for the predictable, stale, suburban values that Applebee’s represents. But the fact is, Applebee’s is a place where you can get drunk and eat appetizers for cheap. Do I recommend supporting this giant national chain over a local business? No way. But I did find some humanity and a little quirkiness amid this corporate chain which gave me something to give thanks for at this time of the year.