Casual dining chains are taking over—sprouting up throughout the city—and pushing their “more is more” philosophy with over-the-top add-ons. As soon as you are seated at Applebee’s, the hostess tells you about the specials. But at Applebee’s, they don’t even bother with such euphemisms as “specials.” She levels with you, announcing, “Here’s our promotion,” while holding open a spiral-bound booklet, like a teacher reading a story to her class. This story is mostly pictures of thick sirloin steaks topped with different kinds of melted cheese. The main push is the one with shrimp and “parmesan,” which looks gooey and creamy—a significant feat for a grating cheese.
An innovative take on surf ‘n’ turf perhaps, but they’re not the first to throw shrimp around as a condiment. The mesmerizing ads for Ruby Tuesday’s Surf ‘n’ Turf burger reveal this is more than just a gimmick—it’s a gimmick movement. Casual Dining restaurants like the Olive Garden, Chili’s, and T.G.I. Fridays are all sticking the crustacean in funny places. Does shrimp make things fancy? They seem to be tacked onto already self-contained dishes to create a stir. Chili’s’ $13 “Citrus-fired Chicken & Shrimp,” which involves something called “margarita grilled chicken,” sounds like two different dishes.
I have long been intrigued and bewildered by this movement. I never knew a steak, much like an ice cream cone, would benefit from a topping, or warranted cheese selection—let alone shrimp! I was finally compelled to find a date for Applebee’s. He pretended to be coerced, but clearly relished an excuse to relive his teen years in suburbia. There was guilty pleasure for me, too—chain restaurants were never part of my life, aside from Denny’s when I visited my grandfather in Florida. The Applebee’s on DeKalb and Flatbush in Brooklyn felt like an exotic road trip.
The truth is there’s no discernable logic to eating this way in New York City. It’s one thing to see tourists opting for the familiar in Times Square—sad but understandable. But New Yorkers, even timid ones who don’t care for adventures in various ethnic cuisines (the best way to eat cheap), can have far superior meals for the price of casual dining—or less—in sit-down restaurants with decent service. Applebee’s is the most successful of the chains, and the appeal can’t be the prices. Appetizers are around eight dollars, and the average entrée is about sixteen. One would be much better-off eating pub food at Telephone Bar, burgers and Southwestern at Jackson Hole, or comfort food at Mama’s Food Shop. As my date said, “it seems like the only reason people come here is because it’s on TV.”
Following the reading of the “Sirloin Steak Toppings” promo, we took in the rest of the colorful menu and ordered the Onion Peels, Appetizer Sampler, and, of course, the Shrimp ‘n’ Parmesan Sirloin—medium-rare. Abandoning all pretense of journalism at that point, I was consumed by the enticing mental image of my appetizers being lowered into the deep fryer while I sipped ice water through a straw. But when the elevated platter of mozzarella sticks, quesadillas, dip, and chicken wings arrived, it lacked luster, failing even in that gross-but-decadent way. Everything was rubbery and crazy salty. I re-focused on my mission to experience steak, shrimp, and cheese—together at last.
When I set eyes on The Promotion, it bore no resemblance to the version so tirelessly advertised. The steak was thin and black at one end and coated in lumpy, separated cheese, which tasted as strong as blue. Tiny shrimp were suffocating under their coagulating comforter. I carved out a bite from the thicker end. There was no hint of pink inside and it tasted like salty cheese and garlic powder. Maybe I should’ve gotten the Chicken Fried Chicken. Then I noticed a sign on the table: “Add Shrimp to any dish $5.99”
Hmm . . .