There’s something comforting about the familiarity of chain restaurants.
Whether an Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill is in Spokane or Fort Worth, Texas, you can presumably expect the same menu, the same standard of service and a similar atmosphere. (At last count, there are currently 820 Applebee’s in eight countries, making it the fastest-growing casual dining chain in the world.)
One way this chain has distinguished itself is to cleverly customize the decor at each location, giving it a neighborhood feel. For instance, at the Valley store, the entryway is crammed with memorabilia from the three area high schools, including a West Valley band uniform hanging from the wall.
Inside the restaurant’s signature brick facade, the walls are crammed with eye-catching bric-a-brac - everything from old Spokane Indians programs and Lilac Festival collectibles to a wall featuring local heroes. (I didn’t know former Texas Ranger Bump Wills went to Central Valley High School. Or that Seattle advice columnist Jennifer James was a West Valley grad.)
The dining room wraps around the inviting bar area, where daily drink specials are offered and televisions seemed to be perpetually tuned to sporting events.
The service during my meals was unfailingly friendly and eager to please. Our waiter at the new South Hill location kept apologizing for being a nervous rookie, but as far as I was concerned, he was perfectly competent. I even overheard him graciously offering to accommodate a table of senior citizens who had their hearts set on BLTs. “If we have the ingredients, we can make it for you,” he assured them.
The attractively priced menu is one of Applebee’s big draws. Items are separated into sections that include munchies (nacho and buffalo wing-type fare), entree-size salads and sandwiches (with six variations of burgers). There are also more substantial meals, along with a selection of low-fat entrees and a rotating list of seasonal specials.
I’m convinced the key to an enjoyable experience at a chain restaurant - at least for me - is to order carefully. You’re usually safe in choosing the signature dishes or the more straightforward meals. In my visits to Applebee’s, there were some big hits and a few misses.
For instance, the riblets were absolutely outstanding. “Riblets” are taken from the meatiest section of the ribs, so they’re slightly stubby in appearance. But them bones are covered with falling-off-the bone tender meat. The barbecue sauce has a smoky-sweet flavor and is thick enough to stick to the ribs.
A riblet basket ($6.79) with fries was more than enough for lunch, but diners with big appetites might want to order the platter ($8.99) that comes with more than a pound of ribs, fries and cole slaw.
I also liked the chicken fajitas ($8.99), primarily because it showcased char-broiled breast meat that was well-seasoned and still moist. The dish was served with an above-average guacamole (it contained chunks of avocado, which indicated that it was freshly made) as well as sides of sour cream, cheddar cheese and a fresh but fairly bland pico de gallo salsa.
Most of the entree-sized salads feature that nicely prepared white meat. The blackened chicken salad ($7.29) was loaded with diced hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes and shredded cheddar. Next time, I’ll ask the kitchen to lighten up on the dose of cheese. There’s also a grilled chicken Caesar ($6.99), an Oriental chicken ($6.99) and a Santa Fe chicken salad ($6.79), which sounds like a fajita without the tortillas.
I noticed a lot of the items at Applebee’s were weighed down with cheese and bacon, and sour cream, so I was anxious to sample from the low-fat entrees. Unfortunately, the lemon-chicken pasta ($7.59) was overwhelmed by a funky, fake butter flavor, something that reminded me of the sauce on a Budget Gourmet frozen dinner. (And, darn it, they were all out of the fat-free cheesecake.)
A Bourbon Street steak dinner ($9.79) featured a sirloin that was supposedly seasoned with Cajun spices. As far as I could tell, however, the main seasoning was salt. The steak was cooked medium rare, as ordered, but it had a stubborn streak of gristle running through it that provided a real jaw workout. On the plus side, the slightly crusty, roasted red potato wedges along with the grilled onions and mushrooms that accompanied the steak were tops.
Salads are priced ala carte, no doubt to keep all entree prices under $10. If you’d like a house salad, a Caesar or a bowl of soup with your meal, it’s an extra $1.99.
I recommend the house salad over the lackluster Caesar. The Cobb-like house salad included shredded cheese, bacon bits and diced hard-boiled eggs served over a substantial plate of greens. By contrast, the Caesar was small and the dressing lacked the acidic zing that is that salad’s trademark.
At Applebee’s, children are treated extremely well. On the kid’s menu there are popular pint-sized dishes such as macaroni and cheese, corn dogs, burgers and grilled cheese for $2.59. For customers under 10, soft drinks or milk are just 50 cents and it comes in a plastic cup kids can take home. Applebee’s also provides crayons and stickers when you arrive and a balloon on the way out.
For the grown-ups, there are at least 10 beers on tap including such sophisticated choices as Northern Lights Creme Ale (made in Airway Heights) and an Alaskan amber. However, I would prefer to choose from a list rather than hear a verbal recitation of selections from the server.
The wine selection, on the other hand, was extremely limited. I thought most restaurants had moved beyond offering Inglenook chablis and burgundy as the house pour. Bright spots on the list were the Columbia chardonnay and Arbor Crest merlot.
I’ll definitely go back to Applebee’s. It has a comfortable, bright atmosphere and solid, reasonably priced food. And, hey, it’s in my neighborhood.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: APPLEBEE’S NEIGHBORHOOD BAR & GRILL Address: 12217 E. Mission, 928-2494; 2007 E. 29th, 535-4400; 680 W. Hanley, Coeur d’Alene, 208-762-1000 Meals: casual American Prices: $5.49-$10 Days/hours: Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight; a brunch menu is served on Saturday and Sunday until 3 p.m. Alcohol: full bar Smoking: the South Hill location is completely nonsmoking, the others have separate smoking areas Reservations: accepted only during the week Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V Personal checks: yes
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