Senior year is a time for embracing clichés. We get coffee with our exes, dabble in the pre–professionalism we once condemned, and venture beyond Penn’s campus into the gleaming Philadelphia metropolis. So, on one warm evening last week, my fellow SWUGs and I took a walk down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a promenade that boasts such grand buildings as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Franklin Institute, and City Hall. We marveled at the architecture glowing in the golden hour light and smiled at the jubilant children running through the fountains of Dilworth Park, until we came to the most monumental edifice of the Parkway and our first destination of the night—a place that glittered with the effusive glory of Americana, happy hour, and mozzarella sticks: TGI Friday’s.
We were on a mission, you see, to stop at the best of Philadelphia’s casual dining chain restaurants with a $30 budget, and a time limit of three hours. Wearing cross–body bags and sensible shoes, we emerged from the SEPTA station to begin a trek that would take us to Friday’s, The Cheesecake Factory, Applebee’s, and Chili’s. Hungry for deep–fried apps and thirsty for cheap sugary drinks, we filed through the art–deco entrance of TGI Friday’s and took our seats around the sports bar, perusing the menus with a sense of childlike wonder.
Here, where every day is Friday, and where the waitress told me happy hour is “all night,” we basked in the vintage warmth of red vinyl bar stools and the woody smell of American draught beer as we waited for our $5 drinks to arrive. The seven of us selected from various flavors of margaritas and Long Island Iced Teas. One particularly alluring option was the “Blue Rita,” which arrived in a highball glass with no salt or sugar on the rim. Instead, the fluorescent blue beverage was garnished with a black cherry, which made it resemble a Blue Lagoon cocktail (another blue Curaçao–based drink). Nonetheless, I certainly got my money’s worth in the swift kick of tequila underneath the sugary citrus flavors. As we all sort of stumbled to get down from the bar stools on our way out, I knew I wasn’t the only one starting to question the journey ahead.
We burst back into the rush of the city, and headed down the Parkway toward our next destination: The Cheesecake Factory. A pair of regally gilded escalators led us up to the second story, where the postmodern design hellscape greeted us in all its orange–gold glory.
The Cheesecake Factory is undoubtedly the classiest of the four restaurants we intended to visit, with some patrons wearing suit jackets that stood out in stark contrast to my toddler–like overalls. Unfortunately, this elevation of style means that this chain has no unending happy hour, and that drinks are often full–price. So, to appease our budget, we decided to share a few Mai Tais, which, the waiter excitedly reported, contained a whopping 3.5 ounces of alcohol each. Despite the high concentration of rum in it, this tall orange drink was quite smooth, and certainly one that you could easily chug. As for its efficacy, well, as my eloquent photographer Emily Johnson (E '20) put it, “You can get fucked up at The Cheesecake Factory.”
The elevation of the restaurant gives you a beautiful view of City Hall and other nearby architectural marvels like the Girard Trust Bank (now the Ritz–Carlton Hotel). Doused in the glow of this honey–colored heaven, we all felt like high society, but our daydream was soon interrupted when the waiter delivered the tragic news of our canceled cheesecake order. Despite our shared lactose intolerances, we had all decided that a cheesecake–less venture to The Cheesecake Factory would be nothing short of criminal. But when told 25 minutes after placing our order that all of the available key lime cheesecake were frozen solid, we decided to leave, tails between our legs, for the sake of the schedule.
Just around the corner was the chain we’d all secretly been waiting for: Applebee’s. Notorious for its extremely cheap drink deals and appetizer combo options, this restaurant was the lifeblood of youth sports teams and their parents in my hometown. I expected comfort. I expected homeliness. I expected the full embodiment of the ‘neighborhood’ slogan.
I should have lowered my expectations. We walked into a largely empty, dimly lit sports bar setting, with pennants and posters for local teams exploding all over the cheap wooden walls. A slightly annoyed hostess led us to a long table in the back, where we sat on some rather uncomfortable chairs. Nonetheless, we spiritedly searched the menu for the month’s dollar drink deal, a blue Long Island Iced Tea dubbed the “Adios.” The drink comes in a ten–ounce mug as a gradation of vibrant blue that includes vodka, rum, tequila, gin, blue Curaçao, and Sierra Mist.
Despite references to the boozy Long Island in the description, it would take at least five of these drinks to even begin to say “adios” to my sobriety. Truthfully, this concoction tasted more like Blue Gatorade than a cocktail. The idea of a dollar drink is always fun, until you realize that means there’s not a drop of alcohol in it. We used the Adios to chase down our three orders of mozzarella sticks before mapping out our final procession to Chili’s.
Chili’s never held a special place in my heart. The only time I’d ever been to one was on a grade school trip to an indoor waterpark in northwest Pennsylvania with my family and childhood friends. Even so, I always found the concept of combining ribs and burgers with weighty tequila–based drinks to be a beautiful expression of American flavors. But with a thinning wallet, I had ambitions for only two menu items: a classic margarita and the famed Awesome Blossom—a collection of deep–fried onion petals piled together in the shape of a flower.
As we waited at our table under some especially bright fluorescent lighting, I tried to take in the ambiance, to discern whether this Chili’s would disappoint as the local Applebee’s had. With nearly floor–to–ceiling glass windows on one side of the restaurant, and mirrors above the booths printed with the Baby Back Ribs slogan, the restaurant was undoubtedly more chic and modern than the one I’d visited with my family years ago. The uninviting furniture was made of cold shiny metal and tightly pulled vinyl, with no warmth or coziness to it at all. No, this Chili’s tried to be more upscale, made for the bourgeoisie. “I want my Chili’s to be for the people!” piped Emily.
Our collection of margaritas arrived quickly, but the Awesome Blossom had yet to make an appearance, even after other food orders were served. When the manager approached our table, I knew disaster had struck. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “We just dug through all of our freezers looking for more of the onion petals, but it looks like we just ran out. I deeply apologize for this.” The words cut me like a knife. I drowned my sorrows in what was left of my measly margarita and ordered some beans and rice to fill my stomach. I did not feel God in this Chili’s.
Four drinks deep and three hours later, we descended into the nearest SEPTA station to head home. Grimy with the air of Center City and hazy from the alcohol, we collectively decided that it was time to fall into bed with a bag of chips and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Mission complete, we patted ourselves on the back, and compared notes. Truth be told, we didn’t spend much less or more money than if we’d simply gone to happy hours at bars closer to campus. No, the deep fulfillment of this journey came from its connection to days gone by. More comfortable than a McDonald’s and more personal than a Panera, these American chains bring me back to post–theatre slices of cheesecake in high school and basketball team dinners in grade school. The constancy of their menus and decor make memories from one location transferable to every other, letting you carry a small and clichéd piece of home with you no matter where you are in this country.