Do you know somebody who goes to Applebee’s on the reg to get drunk? If you do, is it your weird Uncle Mustache or sad Aunt Cathy? Or are you chagrined to admit it’s your dad? The only times I ever go there are when I get an oil change at the NTB on West Freeway, and most of those visits turn into low-level purgatorial experiences crowned by some heartbreaking moment of human existence — the in-over-his-head father floundering through another joint-custody weekend, the hordes of post-church diners flaying the dignity from their servers — that I always solemnly vow to never eat there again, whispering the promise with the grim sobriety you reserve for secrets taken to the grave.

But then, every 5,000 miles or so, I realize I have to make my shitty ride last another year (hopefully), and I find myself, yet again, walking from the rubber-and-Armor-All embrace of NTB through Applebee’s front door and into an air-conditioned miasma of Americana bric-a-brac, sports, and sadness, all of it cured in the aroma of fried mozzarella and the chain’s signature red entrée glaze.

To be honest, I don’t know why I’m too uppity for Applebee’s. I mean, I always eat at Chili’s, where I once saw a person change a diaper right next to a plate of baby-back ribs. Picking one of those joints over the other is like trying to argue the superiority of one Kardashian. But we all have preferences, and I prefer to go to Applebee’s as infrequently as possible or at least I did until the other night.

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I went there on Sunday because of an aborted late-night trip to the Walmart on Alta Mere Drive. As I headed west on the frontage road, aiming toward Green Oaks Road, I passed the restaurant slowly enough to read a sign on the door that read, “Now Open Until 2 a.m.!”

I pulled over.

Sitting at the bar, I joined a guy in a button-down shirt, a tattooed couple, and an overweight guy with his head propped up on his arm, staring listlessly at half a draft and an empty shot glass. I ordered a beer and some wings (boneless, of course) and bought the button-down guy a shot because he told some funny stories about growing up in Weatherford. The best one was about an entire summer of high-school partying on the Brazos, which he described as “like in a beer commercial.” I pictured this guy as a senior, class of ’88, beer bong in one hand and a Spuds MacKenzie towel, brown around the edges with river muck, slung over his shoulder. “It ain’t so fun no more,” he said of his hometown. “Except Applebee’s. It’s because you can smoke in there.”

Leave it to a place like Weatherford to still allow smoking in restaurants, I thought, but then it occurred to me that this particular Applebee’s 2 a.m. closing time kind of makes it a bar. Is Reservoir too crowded for you? Lemme tell you about this little place I know on the far West Side. The kitchen’s open late, and they make hand-crafted cocktails — I hear the mudslides are better than the ones at T.G.I. Friday’s.

At around 1:15 a.m., a server started vacuuming the waiting area. The big guy’s face slipped from the heel of his hand, momentarily startling him awake. He looked like a character out of a TABC certification course, specifically the part in which you learn how to tell if a person has been over-served. Is your patron struggling to keep his eyes open? Does he look like someone’s woebegone uncle? If you can answer yes to either of these questions, offer him a plate of cheese sticks.

I’d never suggest that Applebee’s is a cool place to hang out, and during the day, it can be an ideal location for witnessing the concept of life in death. But damned if I didn’t find a new place to grab a nightcap, where the bartenders know or learn your name, where you won’t smell like an ashtray, and where you can try to get over being such a snob, especially if you’re already on your way to Walmart. — Steve Steward

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