We're catching up on all of our TV that appeared during our vacation, so last night we watched last week's episode of No Reservations, in which Tony visits America's "heartland." In reality, only a few of the cities he visits are actually "heartland" - since when is Austin lumped in with Columbus? - but overall, the episode wasn't as condescending as I feared it might be. Oh, there was a bit of "I can't believe the food's so good/interesting," but, well, it could've been worse.
The most interesting part of the episode to me was a throwaway line - something Bourdain says to Michael Ruhlman while they're sitting in a Japanese restaurant in Columbus. He says something like, "not everybody in the heartland is eating at Applebee's."
Applebee's comes up a lot in pop culture these days. It's the local restaurant in Dillon, TX on Friday Night Lights and it plays a kind of big rhetoric role at the end of the movie Couple's Retreat (which we watched last week - totally funny). In both of those cases, it acts as a sort of shorthand, indicating that the characters who eat there are good, normal, typical middle Americans. There's got to be a little bit of a wink and a nudge here, though, because my real-life impression of Applebee's is that it kind of sucks - it's the least good of TGI Friday genre.
In short, Applebee's is the new McDonald's. McDonald's, with all its Supersize Me-ness, means something different than it used to. It's no longer a family restaurant that can convey something even a little positive about Americans. It's a punch line. Applebee's is almost there - it's got a little bit of punch line in it - but not quite. The entrees might not be healthy, or even that good, but at least dinner at Applebee's involves a waitress.
When, exactly, did this happen? I'm not sure. But I do know that Applebee's has unseated McDonald's. For the time being, anyway.