Wednesday, August 20, 2008

“healthy indulgence rebranding”

As of this writing, that exact phrase appears in only one place on the Web, as far as The Google knows, anyway. I can't decide whether the reporter, Kim Severson, was having a little fun with hyperbole, slightly misquoted someone, or really did get a peek behind the curtain. But at first read, it sounded entirely believable.

The phrase makes its Web debut in a piece featuring Julia Stewart, once a waitress at IHOP, now chief executive of the company that owns IHOP and recently absorbed Applebee's, which, hand-waving about independently-owned franchises aside, means she oversees the feeding of nearly two million people a day. (One measure of the corporate overlord nature may be found in the anecdote about an IHOP in Vermont, whose owner needed special permission to offer maple syrup.)

It's been years since I've eaten in an Applebee's and decades since I've eaten in an IHOP. It's less food snobbery, I think, than it is a revulsion for the robospeak that seems to be required of the employees in such establishments. It makes me feel as much a part of the assembly line as the machine-wrapped silverware set-ups and the faux-local photography cluttering the walls. I don't mind grabbing a bite at McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy's -- maybe the difference here is that the burger outlets don't try to pretend that there's anything special about you or your "dining experience."

There's another piece, too. Futile as it is, like most other efforts to Fight The Man, I look for ways to resist the homogenization of America. Few things in life discourage me as much as traveling several thousand miles, only to see all of the same exact places. I still think shudderingly of the ridiculous squabbling that we'd have on business trips -- should we have dinner at Chili's or Applebee's or TGI Friday's?

The article both reminds me why I've stayed away, and, strangely, makes me want to visit. Maybe it was the hint of humanity that Ms. Stewart let slip when talking about the risks of making even the tiniest of changes when updating the menu: "Don’t get me started on the mozzarella stick."

I know what she means, but still, suddenly: mmmmmm, mozzarella sticks.

And really, it doesn't take any effort to recall -- with fondness -- the first specific menu item that ever lodged in my mind: pigs in blankets.

With blueberry syrup, of course.

Well, when I think about it, more likely "blueberry" syrup.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

(This comment from a regular, going anonymous due to alcohol-induced self-mistrust. But you can probably guess who it's from.)

I used to love going to IHOP and I would quite happily go there again tomorrow, provided I was sufficiently hungover and wishing to have an experience that was an exact duplicate of a previous breakfast. I'd probably order exactly the same as last time, through pure instinct (and "blueberry" syrup may be involved).

I feel the same way about Chili's and TGIF, and Ruby Tuesday and other chains (although Applebees was terrible as I recall). You go there when you want Comfort Food and you'll invariably get it.

The benefit of being able to visit another city without fear of the Unknown Meal is something that should be balanced against the (legitimate) disadvantages that you list: blandness and creepy uniformity. Let's face it, the UM can be pretty scary sometimes.

But absence doth make the heart grow fonder, and all that. So I expect that after a couple of weeks of IHOP, TGIF and other four-lettered binging I might feel differently.

One thing I do remember from my time in the US is that there *are* alternatives to the big chain restaurants. And some of them are fucking terrible.

Maybe there's something wrong with me, but whenever I went to an Authentic Mexican restaurant I (along my fellow diners, it must be said) were confronted with kind of swill of molten cheese and refried beans. All they had to do would be to add the diced carrots and it would have looked exactly like Real Vomit. To be honest I much preferred the fake Mexican joints like Chipolte and what-have-you.

And then there was that time I went to a Thai place. The less said about that unpleasantness the better.

Some time after the Therrible Thai I visited New York, and about 10 minutes after walking out of the hotel, I was in an excellent restaurant enjoying a wonderful green chicken curry. Damn that was good. Did I mention that the lack of good Thai food was the absolute worst thing about living where we were the US?

OK I'm rambling so I'll finish here, except to agree that there is certainly a place in this world for the chain restaurant, for those times when you just don't want to have to think.