Strokes hair and suburban boozing

Hodgepodge. You gotta like the word hodgepodge. Not only is it somewhat onomatopoeic, but it reminds me of Fred Sanford if he were a hedgehog. (Yeah, like you haven't thought the exact same thing!) He makes the rounds, collecting a bunch of junk from the mole (Grady) and avoiding the toad (Aunt Esther), all the while gathering up a hodgepodge and driving a lil' hoopty through the Yorkshire underbrush.

So, yes, I like the word hodgepodge.

I do not, however, like Applebee's. Applebee's, to all of you chic urban hipsters, is the under-60 crowd's answer to Denny's. It is one of a handful of those chain restaurants that try their damndest not to look too much like a chain restaurant. For example, in one restaurant the bathrooms may be to the left of the entrance, yet at another location they are to the right. These ain't cookie-cutter joints, people.

They are the kind of places that offer all-you-can-eat shrimp baskets biyearly and a carbolicious kids' menu; the kind of places that have an appetizer platter-sampler-hodgepodge where everything tastes the same. In fact, Applebee's theme is “hodgepodge.” (All of these places have to have a theme.) I suppose the interior designer for the chain was thinking the restaurant should look like the attic of an “eccentric grandfatherly type.” The walls are lined with fishing lures and sports pendants and pictures of old-fashioned bathing holes and corndollies and wizbangs and stumptwhoopts and frizzledigs.

All of this would be fine, actually, if the food at Applebee's weren't so goddamn terrible. I mean, it's really, really bad, and trust me, I ain't picky. I eat Lunchables fer Crissake. Yet I keep returning, and here's why: I just love the bars in places like this. Love love love 'em. For people-watching they can't be beat.

So last week when my friend and I headed way the hell out into the nether regions of the Bay to find some good chain bars, we were giddy. Usually, we love to go to the Claim Jumper's bar in Concord. The Claim Jumper is one of those places that you have to pause for effect before saying its name aloud, then you invariably have to add an “uhuhuhuhhhhhhhh” directly after, like Lurch from the Addams Family. It's that great. But no, on this evening we felt a pull toward Pleasanton, to the Black Angus. When you say “Black Angus,” you have to sneer a little bit and widen your eyes like you just saw a rattlesnake. (Don't worry, you'll get it eventually. Just keep a practicin'.)

If you wonder if there are people in the East Bay who wear cowboy hats with zero irony, look no further than Black Angus. And I'm not talking about the staff at the restaurant, I'm talking about the patrons. “Jeez,” said my friend Michelle. “I had no idea there were that many cow-pokers in these parts.” Once we ducked past all the wide brims, we found that the bar was jam-packed full of people and there was no seating to be found anywhere. We then telepathically remembered the last time we were here, when we sat next to the bedraggled yet bosomy carnie babe who took great offense to our county fair jokes.

“Applebee's?” I asked, and we were off.

The Applebee's in Pleasanton is right across the parking lot from the Black Angus, plus you have the Macaroni Grill nearby to fall back on, too. This particular Applebee's is laid out in a kind of circle, with a big round bar in the middle and tables all the way around it for the eatin' folk. We plopped down and opened up the tri-fold, pup-tent-sized menus. Invariably, I always do the same joke when I open menus like that, where I make like it is engulfing me completely and I sprawl out in my chair like I am fighting being sucked into it entirely. As my best friend, Michelle knows enough to always laugh, time and again.

The bartender was right friendly. Michelle got some screwy sangria special thing that came in a gigantic tumbler, and I got the worst martini of my life. We also ordered the nachos, which upon arrival appeared to have been deep-fried only after all the toppings were applied. These items were placed down on the bar gingerly by a hot, young lad fresh out of high school. Then he slowly put his hands on his hips and asked, “Ladies, is there anything else I can do?” The pause was pregnant. It was that missing “for you,” you see, that would've made all the difference. I debated being coquettish or staying above board. However, by sitting there flummoxed, saying nothing, we said everything, and he blushed and backed away. By the time he reached the kitchen he was snickering into his hand. Michelle and I just tee-heed it and went back to talking about Rock Star Supernova. The couple to our left was talking half in Spanish, half in English, about their jobs at Costco and how they hoped no one knew that they were an item. They were sharing the appetizer hodgepodge.

Eventually, between bites and sips, I glanced around to see various busboys, wait staff, and other assorted males looking our way and smiling suggestively. Obviously, the word had gotten out about the hot-to-trot duo with the nachos, and we were apparently the big yucks for the night. Well, laugh away, boys! Laugh! You in your khaki trousers and aprons over-laden with ketchup bottles. You with the Strokes haircut and Mt. Diablo sophistication. (Actually, that guy was kinda cute.)

The nachos sunk in our stomachs and the Muzak loop of '80s hits had returned back to “Don't You Forget About Me.” Our time was up. We had been looking to get steeped in a California smallish suburbia experience and we'd had our fill. Besides, I was really looking for more of a “hodgepodge” of interactions with people. But, I suppose, just because the walls of a place bespeak a charming mishmash doesn't mean the clientele necessarily will.

I gave the Strokes water boy a wink and blew a kiss before we left, though. After all, we would probably be back, because even though I hate Applebee's, I always seem to return.

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