Moving away from Spanish Harlem—my home for seven years, the longest amount of time spent in one apartment in NYC—was difficult for a lot of reasons. It was home to one of my favorite restaurants, it sheltered a super dive bar responsible for many stumbles home down 2nd Avenue, and it had an Applebee's, one of the most unexpected places to get a generous buzz and a full belly for $20—if that.
Where I grew up in Connecticut, chain restaurants existed but weren't part of the regular dinner routine in my family. Sure, there was the occasional trip to Bertucci's—where they'd give kids raw dough to fling around—or even a stop by California Pizza Kitchen when we were at the mall. But by and large, I wasn't exposed to the joy of sticky franchise chicken wings and overly salted industrial french fries until I lived in Spanish Harlem and the city's super eco-friendly Applebee's opened in the newish shopping development on 1st Avenue. It was there that chalices of sugary cocktails, foot-tall glasses of ice cold Bud Light and gloppy, oddly-flavorless spinach-artichoke dip became something of a revelation in my life.
And with good reason. During Happy Hour at the bar, by far the best (and only, really—I am not endorsing a dinner here) time to visit, drinks and appetizers are half off and domestic draft beers are $3. Droopy chicken quesadillas, oddly dense mozzarella sticks and the restaurant's signature pretzel—butter-slicked and accompanied by beige beer cheese and bland mustard sauces—are finally worth their price, averaging around $5 over their typical double-digit (and therefore ludicrously expensive) price tags. Show me a regular bar that's serving the same portions for the same prices and...I'll probably be really excited—so do share!
So yes, the food kinda sucks, but you're getting an America-sized portion of it. Sometimes quantity trumps quality—especially if it's on the cheap.
Maybe my shitty taste in happy hours comes from a perceived childhood trauma. For someone whose parents wouldn't even let her eat the organic, hippy fruit leather at the local health food store—let alone the Fruit By The Foot enjoyed by my classmates—the options at Applebee's were somewhat revelatory. How are the mad scientist chefs able to imbue the gift of 1,060 calories to one order of pretzels? The mystery might never be solved and after a few rounds of drinks, I don't even care.
Inexpensive comfort food is one thing, but it's the cheap drinks that seal the deal. Aside from the $3 beers—20-ounce glasses wonderfully named "Brewtus" (I was somebody's dad in a past life)—their potent margaritas, Bahama Mama's and Long Island Iced Tea goblets are all half off, as are wine and well drinks. But if you're not guzzling all the liquors simultaneously, you aren't really doing it right.
Applebee's won't be achieving Michelin-status (ever) and yes, I appreciate that there are more "quality" options to be found both in Spanish Harlem and beyond. But it deserves a tip of the hat for feeding and beer'ing locals on prices many people can afford and giving them ample opportunity to actually experience said deals. Happy Hour at my once-local Harlem location runs from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily (yes, daily) and that's true of many NYC Applebee's locations, making it one of the more generous offerings in the city. Their commitment to getting customers drunk is truly unparalleled.