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Applebee's will see you tomorrow
I am not above chain restaurants, I'm not.
But I spent much of my youth at generic "any town" shopping malls eating generic "any town" chain-restaurant food. So, I try my best to abstain from those places these days (if I can help it).
Which makes Applebee's a little like my buddies from high school. Most of them I never see anymore, but every now and again my parents bring up a name and I think, "Oh yeah, whatever happened to that guy?"
Which was pretty much the sentiment that drove me to accept the company's offer for a media tour and tasting. After the restaurant closed its Fig Garden location (its first in the state), I needed to know: What's going on with Applebee's these days?
For one, the restaurant has a new look. The oldest of the Fresno/Clovis locations (on West and east Shaw Avenues) recently got makeovers, with new red exteriors (to stand out from all the strip-mall beige) and more muted, modern interiors. Gone is the Americana clutter (Sidenote: They got rid of it all at a sidewalk sale I am seriously sad I missed), replaced with large-scale photo murals of Fresno State football, the Fresno Fair and the Rodeo.
To be straight, it's still Applebee's.
But Applebee's gets a bad wrap (even from me). This is nothing like the caricature you expect from watching "Office Space" and "Waiting" a bazillion times. For instance, the new menu, which launched last Monday, is good. I'm as shocked as you.
The Grilled Jalapeno and Lime Shrimp was fresh and light (at 300 calories) and sans anything deep fried. The steak on the Chipotle Cream Steak and Shrimp was as well-cooked and tender as any I've had (at a chain restaurant, for sure).
Also: None of it was microwaved.
"We have microwaves, but we do a lot of prep back there," says area director Jeff Ward. That's everything from the potatoes to its seasonal salads. Yup. I said seasonal.
Other stuff to note:
* The restaurant is open late: Until midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. After 9 p.m., it kicks into late-night mode, with a special menu ($1 jiggle shots! $5 Dos-a-Ritas. That's a margarita made with the Most Interesting Man in the world's favorite beer) and games like BINGO and trivia.
People ask me about late-night spots all the time and it's a small list. It's nice to know there is another alternative.
* While it is a chain, the place does take its place in the community seriously. It offers school tours (where children learn how a restaurant operates and get to see how a meal is prepared, from the order slip to the table), dining-to-donate events (including an Applebee's pancake breakfast it calls its Flapjack Fundraiser) and a kids reading program.