Chain Restaurants and the Snobbery Surrounding Them

News recently broke of Applebee’s parent company deciding to close 160 Applebee’s and IHOPs. The decision is due to declining sales, largely the results of millennials, who seem to be killing everything. DineEquity has decided to take Applebee’s back to how it was — all you can eat deals and the 2 for $20 menu–and stop trying to have menu items to appeal to Millennials.

I am a millennial and I haven’t been to an Applebee’s in four years, which makes me part of the problem. I have, in the past year, been to IHOP, Red Lobster, Cheddar’s, and the greatest of all chains, Village Inn. I also made it to a TGI Friday’s and a Chili’s (too) in the time since I’ve made it to an Applebee’s. I live in the largest city in Wisconsin and am the type of cool, hip millennial — I compost and there’s currently an IPA from a Wisconsin brewery in my fridge —  they are trying to appeal to, but is inevitably killing the restaurant.

I have an odd fondness for casual dining chains.

As I enjoy bringing up, I grew up in Iowa. Many of the chains mentioned were in the area I grew up in and I have many memories tied to going to those restaurants. Breakfast on the weekends with my family at IHOP, going to Applebee’s and Olive Garden for a nice dinner, eating at Chili’s with my mom the evening before we visited Rockford College, eating Village Inn whenever we damn well felt like it because pie is good, blasting Billy Joel from my mom’s car in the parking lot of the Cedar Falls parking lot while dancing with a friend at 11 p.m..

Red Lobster is more emotionally tied to a good memory as it was often the choice of food when my dad was in town after my parents divorced. The Red Lobster in Waterloo with its muted blue color scheme and coastal decor comes to mind when I sit down at one of the gussied up restaurants in the chain in the Milwaukee area. As I sink my teeth into one of the Cheddar Bay Biscuits, memories of me, my sister, and our father seated in a booth, making “Blazing Saddles” references and talking about school come to me.

Cheddar’s, a chain I learned about while attending Michigan State University, provided me some comfort while traveling through Iowa in November. While the mistake was made of playing Michelle Branch’s “Breathe,” I found I enjoyed my food and it did exactly what I needed it to do, which was provide me with a filling, tasty meal in a comfortable setting that also helped stave off my migraine.

When I eat out, I don’t frequent larger chains.

This largely comes from most of the chains having restaurants in the suburbs, while I live in the city (Applebee’s has a location in Milwaukee near where I worked a couple of years ago, but I always forgot about Applebee’s when I got lunch and instead went to Rocky Rococo or a Jewish deli with a location in the Grand Avenue food court). There are several wonderful locally-owned restaurants in the Milwaukee with delicious food. Two of my favorite Milwaukee restaurants are in walking distance of my apartment, which is convenient as I hate driving. I am also a granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing, composting Millennial, so I am immediately inclined to support local businesses. The bigger issue for me is I actively enjoy cooking and use it as a stress reliever, which is the main reason I don’t go out eating as much as some people.

This would be different if I lived in lots of parts of Iowa. While I can get delicious baked goods at Comet Cafe or Honeypie, my best option in Iowa would likely be the Holy Righteous Village Inn. There are plenty of great locally-owned restaurants in Iowa–Montage in Cedar Falls, Bar La Tosca in Ames, The Brown Bottle in Waterloo, which I admittedly like for its atmosphere–but there’s not nearly the abundance you find in areas like Chicago or Milwaukee. Even in East Lansing, I found myself usually going to chain restaurants when I ate out with my father.

There is a problem with me admitting that I would likely go to chain restaurants more often if I lived in Iowa, which is that it plays into the snobbishness found in urban areas towards chain restaurants. Most people in urban areas think chain restaurants are for the “thems” in Middle America, the type the media keeps claiming Hollywood and liberals don’t know anything about. They automatically assume all chain restaurants are bland, tacky restaurants with a lot of cheesy shit on the walls and the only people who eat there are conservatives.

This was even brought to me by someone who was from Huntington Beach. As he sneered about how people in Iowa are probably depressed and think gourmet food is Olive Garden, I fired back and bought up how a lot of good memories that are tied to those restaurants. I also pointed out he’s from Huntington Beach, which sounds like a SimCity scenario waiting to happen and doesn’t even get an authentic Don the Beachcomber.

And I’m incredibly liberal and happen to love cheesy shit on the walls, especially if it fits the theme of the restaurant (I love tiki bars for this very reason). When I went to Village Inn, I actually enjoyed the cutsey orange signs plastered on the walls while I ate breakfast for lunch, listening to the familiar elevator music. I will be the first to admit there are very bland chain restaurants–I know I’ve been to Ruby Tuesday, but I cannot tell you anything about the food or atmosphere–and some that seem to have bad business models. But some of the restaurants have food I genuinely enjoy. Besides, where else am I going to be able to get a breakfast platter at 10 p.m. and a slice of pie?

What people need to admit is there can be bland food at locally-owned restaurants. Small towns might have greasy spoons straight out of a movie, but the food might not be very good. Even popular, locally-owned businesses can fail to deliver with good food, even though people will continue to throw accolades their way because they perceive a locally-owned restaurant as being innovative. Red Light Ramen has overpriced, bland food with putrid smelling and repugnant tasting drinks, but people will continue to go there because it’s something different and popular from an acclaimed local chef.

Allow people to enjoy the restaurants they like. If you enjoy a national chain, there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean you have to stop voting Democrat or you have no interest in food. If you only eat at locally-owned restaurants, that’s also okay. If you think Red Light Ramen is great, I might lose some respect for your food choices, but you can keep enjoying $13 ramen and alcoholic beverages that assault your tastebuds. There’s no reason to look down at people for eating at different restaurants and maybe chains like Applebee’s will stop trying to reinvent themselves. Maybe we just want what we liked in the first place. Then, maybe the younger generations will come back.

Advertisements

“Descendants 2” (2017)

descendants_two_ver3 Everything is awful in this world, so it seemed like a good idea to indulge in what is my pop culture guilty pleasure.

“Descendants,” which premiered on Disney Channel in 2015, ended up being something I liked far more than I expected. It had flaws, although most of those flaws are solved by reading Melissa de la Cruz’s “Descendants” novels. When the second movie was announced, I was mildly excited and intrigued, which is a feeling that has only grown since reading De la Cruz’s novels. Besides, it can’t be the worst thing I’ve seen this year.

The movie picks up a few months after the first one as Mal (Dove Cameron) is trying to get used to her role as the girlfriend of King Ben (Mitchell Hope). While she starts to crack from the stress, Evie (Sofia Carson) is busy designing dresses, Jay (Booboo Stewart) remains his athletic self, and Carlos (Cameron Boyce) is struggling to ask Jane (Brenna D’Amico) out to the cotillion. Ben eventually discovers Mal has been relying on magic to cope with the pressures of being his girlfriend (and queen to be), and the two have a falling out. Mal returns to the Isle of the Lost and confronts her old foe Uma (China Anne McClain), the seapunk pirate daughter of Ursula. Uma, bitter about not being selected to go to Auradon, teams up with Harry Hook (Thomas Doherty), to try to bring Mal down while Ben, Evie, Jay, and Carlos try to save Mal.

There is a glaring problem with most movie musical spectaculars on Disney Channel and it’s the over-produced songs. This goes back to at least “Camp Rock,” where there’s a song where Joe Jonas is sitting on a tree and there are a lot of background vocals, but he’s the only person in the frame and Demi Lovato is just standing there, listening. The running joke in my family is the leaves and twigs have incredible singing voices because there the audio has this incredible melody, but the only person singing is Joe Jonas.

This problem rears its ugly head during what, otherwise, is the best number of “Descendants 2,” “What’s My Name.” If you listen to “What’s My Name” on the soundtrack, it’s a great hip-hop number the cynical would argue is designed to make people excited for the film. But in the movie, all of the engineering of the number ends up detracting because the audio levels are so horribly uneven, causing some of Uma’s lyrics to become muddled and all of Harry’s verse to be lost.

Many songs for Disney Channel movies seem designed to be big radio hits, no doubt on Radio Disney. I’m sure there are no Disney executives losing sleep about how the production of the songs on Disney Channel movies will affect them, but it is incredibly distracting and I wish, as odd as this sounds, there was an element of realism to the songs.

Aside for three glaring problems, “Descendants 2” manages to be superior in almost every way to its predecessor. It possibly benefits from having the world of the film established already, but there’s a feeling by cutting out the Disney characters people love and focusing on their children, the movie manages to be enjoyable. The movie is even a full minute shorter than its predecessor and feels tighter in terms of story, failing to drag at any moment. Even the musical number that feels superfluous, which comes right at the end of the movie, is a delight to watch.

More importantly, you can tell almost every actor has grown in the time between the first and second films. No actor has improved more than Carson, whose jazzy version of “Rotten to the Core” remains one of my favorite things about this series. In the first movie, Evie was an enjoyable character, but Carson largely felt overshadowed by Cameron, whom I thought was bound to be a star if she kept improving after the first film. In every scene she’s in, Carson seems thoroughly engaged with what is happening around Evie and steals nearly every scene she’s in just by her presence. One only hopes she gets non-Disney Channel acting work because she proves in this movie she has the chops (and before anyone says, “Disney Channel stars can’t act,” I suggest you turn your attention to Cole Sprouse, who is giving a fantastic performance as Jughead Jones on The CW’s “Riverdale.”)

The villains in this movie also seem to be better cast. As much as I love Kristin Chenoweth, I don’t think she’s a great Maleficent. With that movie, it felt more like she was cast for her singing chops than if she was right for the role. Here, the addition of McClain and Doherty makes the film instantly better. Even if there weren’t a number of improvements, their performances are so delightful you could still enjoy the movie. McClain, who has a history as an actress and musician before this film, is, like Carson, so throughly engaged in every scene she appears in, you can’t stop watching her. While villains, as I have often pointed out on this blog, do not need to be written with nuance, McClain’s body language and line delivery brings the character the depth it might not have gotten with other actors. Doherty gives a performance so deliriously over-the-top, the script acknowledges it, and it makes the film better as a result. No one wants to see a muted version of the son of Captain Hook. The character of his father is already a mustache-twirling villain in the animated film–as well as Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the underrated “Hook”–so it makes sense the character here would be the same.

The songs in this film, largely written by people not involved with the first movie, are catchier and seem to propel the plot along better. There even fail to be any hip-hop covers of songs from the Disney renaissance done horribly wrong. The choreography, done by Disney favorite and director Kenny Ortega with Tony Testa, is more impressive and, in many numbers, feels more natural. As always, the costumes are incredible, particularly with three very important dresses during the cotillion. You even get the sense the set decorators had more fun with this movie with clever signs on the Isle of the Lost–although “Chum” listed as a size in Ursula’s Fish and Chips made me think of Chip Zdarsky’s comics.

The film stumbles with the performance given by Cameron, who unfortunately had the most to shoulder in terms of plot. Her lip syncing is not particularly good and she’s largely surrounded by actors who are giving better performances than her. There was one moment when I paused the movie when Evie and Mal are seated next to each other and I came back to notice how Cameron was just there, while Carson is actively reacting to what the other characters are saying. What helps Cameron is she was already really good in the first film–I was predicting her to be a star after the movie–so the movie doesn’t suffer too much by having a pretty decent actress in the lead role. I just hope before the third film–especially since Uma gives a “You’re not gonna believe this” moment–she grows more as an actress, even though she has been working hard on her music career.

The other problem is Hope is just very bland as an actor. I had initially thought it was the result of how the villains were more compelling in the first film, but Ben is a very well-drawn character in the novels. Hope, who has a larger role in this film, barely registers in this movie in terms of a presence, except when he’s singing in “Chillin’ Like a Villain.” Every line delivery is so flat and uninteresting, it destroys every single important moment he has. What’s worse is the audience really needs to care about about him and Mal, and I care a lot more about Evie and Doug and Carlos and Jane than I do about them because of how utterly uninteresting Cameron and Hope are as leads.

While this franchise is not the place to look for originality, it bothers me to no end Uma wants the Fairy Godmother’s wand so she can go to Auradon, angry over not being invited by Ben. I’d like to think they could have gone after some other noted magical object in Auradon instead of going after the one from the first film. It causes the movie to have the problem of nearly following the same plot as the first one.

If you’re not a stickler about your Disney movies and want something, anything, to provide some mindless diversion from the current world, <i>Descendants 2</i> while not high art, is enjoyable. Thankfully this movie doesn’t flounder around, considering Disney Channel only released this movie this year. One hopes the series continues to improve if they make another film and Sofia Carson gets some work outside of Disney Channel.