I don’t remember exactly where I was when I stumbled upon what would become my favorite internet article of all time, “We Went on the World’s Worst Bar Crawl So You Don’t Have To,” published by Buzzfeed (back when they did stories that mattered) on March 5, 2015, but I know at that moment I swore to go on a similar quest someday, an homage if you will. It only took me six years.
The premise of the article was two intrepid journalists finding out “ what happens when you hit seven chain restaurant bars in one day in search of the grossest cocktail,” the buried lead here being, of course, that these aren’t just any chain restaurant bars: they are Times Square chain restaurant bars (now, much as you gravitate towards movies and television shows where you recognize the locale, is my enthusiasm for this piece biased because I’ve sadly been to the Times Square TGI Fridays not once, but twice? Absolutely).
The results of this piece can only be summed up by a word the internet has made sure holds no meaning anymore due to overuse, but I’m happy to trot out here because no other word works: iconic, delivering such classic gems as “the flavor reminded me of the hard lemon candies my great grandmother kept in a glass jar in her kitchen mixed with notes of dish soap,” “Outback Steakhouse is definitely the kind of place where you can peer through the shadows, looking for a handsome stranger,” “peach and coconut are not great flavor friends,” and my favorite, “the ambiance was kind of like a yacht club in Idaho built by people who have only read about the sea in children’s library illustrated editions of Moby Dick, so like, nautical, but misinformed.” Editor’s note: I’ve borrowed the descriptor “nautical, but misinformed” on several occasions, most notably when I heard one patron of a bar in Milwaukee tell another patron that “this place has the freshest lobster rolls you’ll ever taste.” I can go on, but I won’t. I’ve read this article, though, at least forty times (no exaggeration…if anything, I’m underplaying my hand here), and it ages like a fine wine.
How does one find a profession where they get paid to make themselves feel more sophisticated than they are by shitting on middle-American institutions? This is my dream career. If you want an example of what I mean, I urge you to check out Caity Weaver and Rich Juzwiak’s “Best Restaurant” series from Gawker. It’s a god damn delight, and I occasionally still find myself asking, “would this be a good place to bring a doll?” when checking out new dining establishments.
Last spring, my cousin Mikey was down visiting, and we decided to embark on a chain restaurant bar crawl of our own. Now, since we decided to complete this treat of an assignment on a Wednesday during the workweek, we could only hit three locations (the holy trinity of Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, and Ruby Tuesdays). The rules were simple: you must order the type of drink that only exists on chain restaurant menus (i.e., any cocktail with Mountain Dew). That’s it. That was the only rule. Here are the results.
Editor’s Note: I diligently wrote down the names of the drinks in question right after this bar crawl occurred. I now cannot locate that document, so aside from TGI Fridays (where the drinks we ordered were simply named what they were), you’ll have to make do with descriptions rather than proper names. This is why professional writers recount their experiences immediately, not a full nine months after the fact.
Our Asheville Chain-Restaurant Bar Crawl
Stop One: Applebee’s
The Applebee’s we chose as our inaugural stop is off the Smokey Park Highway in Candler. After walking in and getting seated, my immediate reaction was that everyone but our table believed that the insurrection was warranted. It was also very dark. And aside from our table, everyone there seemed to be there for some sense of duty—there was a real lack of joy from the crowd at the Candler Applebee’s, which is fine—not everyone has to be having a good time always—but there’s a weird juxtaposition between tables full of people staring at their phones and ignoring each other, all while drinking the same neon blue beverages decorated with blue, gummy sharks (seriously, 90% of the patrons had ordered this very special special).
The Drinks: A blue horror that came with blue, gummy sharks.
Obviously, we had to get the signature blue-shark drinks the masses at Applebees were joylessly sucking down. Spoiler alert: it was a mistake. I hate coconut with a passion, and though there didn’t purport to be any coconut in this cocktail, it’s all I could taste. The other flavors? Sugar and spoiled Juicy Juice. I have white trash drinking habits, so the fact that I was unable to finish this cocktail should tell you something. That being said, it packed a punch. I felt light and breezy when I walked out of the dim Applebees and into the sun before going to our next stop. Editor’s note: It was 100% overcast that day, but I’m taking creative liberties here.
I don’t know that I’ll be returning to Applebee’s, which used to be the one chain restaurant I liked most. I just found it depressing. However, the “Asian” boneless wings we got were solid.
Stop Two: TGI Friday’s
When it comes to chain restaurants, I have the most disdain for TGI Fridays, where I was once an employee for an ill-advised two months—I was never officially “let go” from TGIFriday’s employment, but one week just found myself not on the schedule, and I guess it still stings. The TGI Fridays in Biltmore Village is an impressive brick structure reminiscent of the entrance to Disney World. Because of my predisposed disdain of both this particular chain and my growing disdain for Disney as an entity, I didn’t have high hopes, but you know what? TGI Fridays won me over. The place was well lit, the bar seemed fun, and they were playing some solid late-90’s pop (playing both Sugar Ray and Smashmouth as soon as I walk into an establishment will almost always make me stay).
Do you know what else we often under credit? An excellent server. Ours was enthusiastic, fun, and sold the hell out of the drinks we ordered and some soft pretzels with beer (bier?) cheese.
The Drinks: One Fireball Margarita. One Cotton Candy Cosmo.
A fireball margarita sounded maybe-good-maybe-gross and also the epitome of a chain-restaurant cocktail. I enjoyed it. I have no sarcastic quips to give. The fireball blended right into the very sweet sour mix, and aside from a tiny hint of cinnamon, it tasted like a too-sweet margarita (which is my preferred margarita). Also, cinnamon, citrus, and tequila are flavor friends. My cousin and his wife went on a vacation once where instead of doing the shot of tequila, lick the salt, suck the lime combo, they did a shot of tequila, lick some cinnamon, and suck on orange. They brought this newfound combo to Thanksgiving one year, and it was a hit.
Mikey got the cotton candy cosmo. A martini glass arrived stuffed with a mound of cotton candy. Our server then poured the cosmo over the cotton candy. This was not well thought out, as the cotton candy immediately dissolved under the cocktail in a very upsetting fashion. Otherwise, though, it tasted like a too-sweet cosmo.
I know we like to give chain restaurants shit for not knowing how to make drinks, but I one time had a bartender at a supposedly very fancy wedding venue make me an old-fashioned with Splenda.
I would 100% return to the Biltmore Village TGI Friday’s. I’d 100% get a fireball margarita again…if it hadn’t been a school night, I would’ve had a second.
Stop Three: Chili’s
The Chili’s on Tunnel Road is slightly less depressing than the Candler Applebee’s, which almost made it worse? Like, at least the Candler Applebee’s had a gummy-shark fuled ennui that was so ridiculous it was charming. The Tunnel Road Chili’s was just super sterile in decor and crowd. Perhaps it was unfair to judge Chili’s in any capacity while I was still coming down from my TGI Friday’s high, but that’s the way the baby back ribs crumbled.
The Drinks: Some sort of “berry smash” and one giant beer.
I bitched out here. It was past nine on a work night, which is late for me, and I was scared of what one more sugar-heavy cocktail might do to my stomach. So I went for a beer (Sam Adam’s Cold Snap…an old favorite), but in the spirit of a chain restaurant bar crawl, I gave an enthusiastic YES when the waitress asked if I’d want to upgrade to a 22 oz. Mikey got some kind of berry smash cocktail, which, if I recall, wasn’t bad but wasn’t good—like the Chili’s it was consumed in, the berry smash was wholly immemorable.
- I didn’t feel God in that Chili’s that night.
- Don’t go to Chili’s after a rousing good time at TGIFriday’s—it can’t compete.
Chain restaurants get a bad rap. I think part of it is well-deserved, and part of it is us trying to feel fancier than we are (I also think chain restaurants suffer a bit from this…like, I’ll never make fun of McDonald’s and actively love McChickens, but there’s no self-serious grandeur from McDonald’s the way it is with some chains, which are essentially fast food but with pretenses). Chains are reasonably priced, I get the appeal of knowing what you’re going to get when you go there (see again: McChicken which tastes the same ANYWHERE), and honestly, I’d rather hang out somewhere sort of tacky, but with friendly staff and solid music selection, any day over a dive bar where the hipster bartender makes their disdain for you know because their need to still be “punk rock” at 33 is more important than the fact that they work for tips.
Writing this post has actually inspired me to text a friend I have dinner plans with this week and non-ironically suggest The Outback Steakhouse—I mean, I’ve never had a Bloomin’ Onion, and what better time than now?