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

Where Have All the Bad Guys Gone?

Spoilers ahead for “Moana,” “Sing,” “Zootopia,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Big Hero 6,” and “Frozen,” although I assume everyone has seen “Frozen” by now.

“Moana,” the latest animated Disney film, has many of the conventions of beloved Disney movies. It features a princess, toe-tappingly good songs, a comedic sidekick and a weird animal. What “Moana” misses is a villain, although there is an argument to be made that Te Ka, a lava demon, is the villain of the film.

“Moana,” unlike many other post-“Tangled” Disney films, manages to work without the presence of a villain. With nearly every other Disney film struggles with lacking villains or red herrings, “Moana” manages to succeed because it’s structured as an adventure film, with some buddy-comedy aspects.

The disappearance of villains in animated films seems to be a bit of a new trend, one that doesn’t always seem to work. This seems to have been something stolen from Pixar since a lot of animation studios seem intent on stealing from what is arguably the most acclaimed animation studio out there. What seems to be the most beloved Pixar films–“Finding Nemo,” “Cars,” “Wall-E,” “Brave,” “Inside Out,” “Ratatouille”–tend to have no villain. Granted, plenty of other great Pixar movies, ones that I personally prefer, have villains in them, notably “Toy Story 3,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Up.” (For the record, “Ratatouille” is my favorite Pixar film, but Skinner is more of an antagonist and Anton Ego is Addison DeWitt-lite.)

Pixar, however, tends to make movies children and adults can enjoy, ones that even seem to be a little more cerebral. Most children’s entertainment seems to try to pander to kids and dumb things down for them, ignoring how children sometimes have a heightened sense of the world for how it is. Pixar’s approach to movies is similar to Laika, who has produced “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls,” and “Kubo and the Two Strings.” While Laika films don’t have villains in the traditional sense of classic Disney films, the films produced by that studio tend to delve into truly dark territory beyond the picture’s aesthetic.

Even several Dreamworks films feature villains, especially when we consider the “Shrek” films are essentially just parodies of films from Disney’s “renaissance” period. When Dreamworks, the biggest purveyor of the unnecessary animated dance party to close out a movie, still has villains in its movies the question arises as to what happened to villains.

In the Disney films myself and many others grew up with, there is the immediate introduction of a villain, usually noted by their dark clothing. (Think about it: Cruella De Vil, Gaston, and Captain Hook are really the only Disney villains who wear clothing where the dominant color isn’t black or purple.) Disney villains are often distinguished by their desire to stop at nothing to get what they want, be it King Triton’s trident, gold in Virginia, or Esmerelda and state-sponsored discrimination against a specific race of people.

What’s more striking is the motivation of those characters for committing often heinous acts is usually made very clear from the beginning. In the instance of Professor Rattigan in “The Great Mouse Detective,” he is motivated to kidnap Flaversham and his daughter because he knows both of those pieces can help him with his plan to overthrow Mouse Britania. His end game is to rule all of “mousedom” and outsmart Basil, which fuels everything he does in the movie.

 

the-great-mouse-detective-classic-disney-19899694-1280-720

The world’s greatest criminal mind.

 

This isn’t really the case with a lot of modern Disney movies. In “Frozen,” we are initially shown the Duke of Weselton, who has a strong desire to capture the mysteriously cut-off kingdom’s trade resources. Based on everything that goes on in the film, right down to him calling Elsa a monster when her powers are revealed, you would assume he’s the villain.

This is one of modern Disney’s favorite strategies in story telling: the red hering. The villain of Frozen ends up being Prince Hans, Anna’s love interest. While I am all in favor of twists in storytelling, the reveal of Prince Hans being the villain just doesn’t work. He has very little motivation for what he does in the movie other than what is revealed in the film’s third act. Furthermore, his reasons for courting Anna for marriage make no sense. If he just wanted to get close to her and gain her respect, it’s safe to assume he could have just tried to befriend her. It’s well-established in the film everyone in the surrounding kingdoms knows about how reclusive Anna and Elsa have been since their parents’ death, so it’s safe to assume if Hans wanted to just befriend her, she probably would have given him her unyielding loyalty.

A similar thing happens in the plot of “Big Hero 6,” although in that film the issue is more so that the presumed villain was framed by the actual antagonist, which is much more forgivable.

The other common failure of storytelling in modern Disney films is when the villain is a mystery. Generally, as seen in “Zootopia” and “Wreck-It Ralph,” something is wrong with the universe of the film and there is an antagonist who is causing the problem, which the protagonist has to solve. (Arguably, this is also what happens in “Moana.”) In “Wreck-It Ralph,” there are glitches in the games, which seemed to have been caused by Ralph jumping from game-to-game. As it turns out, these were actually caused by the actual antagonist of the film, who also sabotaged the game, resulting in the glitches seen in Vanellope. This one works because in the plot of the film the end results all make sense.

This works less well in “Zootopia,” a film everyone enjoyed more than me. In the world of the film, predators and prey live in harmony, but this is threatened when some prey go feral. After an initial false ending and increased prejudice in Zootopia, it is later revealed the timid sheep who works as the assistant mayor is behind the prey going feral. This ends up feeling very rushed and coming out of left-field for the same reasons why the Hans reveal doesn’t really work in “Frozen.” The motivations feel very haphazard, as if someone realized the final version of script was due to Disney and they didn’t have a villain. While the overall ending of “Zootopia” works, the reveal of the antagonist feels like such a twist, it catches one by surprise for all the wrong reasons.

But having an animated film with no villain can work. Studio Ghibli has made many films with no villains and they continue to endure, never ceasing to be a delight on every viewing. Illumination’s “Sing” is another film that, while not high art, manages to be a fun, light-hearted movie without a villain, although I would like to think capitalism is the villain in “Sing.” The movie is ultimately about a bunch of animals in a singing competition and it fulfills its mission. It’s fun and the plot actually makes sense, even if it seems largely like an excuse to have a bunch of stars singing popular songs from the past forty years.

While an animated film can succeed without a villain, the tendency to not have a villain as seen in classic Disney films can result in films not working because of poor scriptwriting. There is no reason why films should try to avoid a menacing villain as children can handle characters who behave in an almost unbelievable way. After all, we have enough people in the government and other positions of power whose behavior isn’t too far removed from the villains we saw in cartoons as children. Shouldn’t art imitate life, even if it’s to provide an escape?

Hypocrite? Possibly.

I was eating lunch with two of my friends when we were approached by a girl selling tickets for a dance, interrupting my explanation of the theater related jokes in an SNL skit. One friend purchased tickets, while the other didn’t.

“Monica, would you like to buy tickets?” she said with this adorable Girl Scout appeal to her posture.

“No, thank you.” I said, turning to continue the consumption of my sandwich.

“Why not? You should go to the dance.”

“I have…” I searched around frantically for a reasonable excuse. The excuse of I’m seeing a show wouldn’t work since the only show running that weekend only has matinee performances, nor would the excuse of a doctor’s appointment since no one sees their doctor at eight o’clock at night.

“I have essays on theater to write,” I said charmingly.

“But the proceeds for the dance go to the school newspaper, which is in financial trouble,” she said, before leaving.

There were several things that bothered me about her statement. For one, I’m well aware that the school newspaper is in financial trouble. I write for it and am writing a piece on why newspapers are important. Second of all, I’m not aware of there being a dance to benefit the troubled school newspaper. I’m sure I would have heard of something while looking past my computer, out the window to watch either the snow fall or someone being arrested.

But this enticement that the girl gave me made me feel like a hypocrite, similar to the hypocracy I felt going to The New York Times website everyday for my news.

Granted, I don’t feel like a hypocrite for that anymore. You must realize how contradictory it is to be standing on a soapbox screaming “Save print media!” while going on to a website for my news. I get to read the print version of the Times everyday now, thank you. But it never shocks me how many of my fellow writers, even my editors, get their news from a website.

Maybe I am a hypocrite. But my social awkwardness is calling at the moment