A night out with the guys landed us in, of all places, Applebee's in Watertown.
Well, it is your neighborhood grill and bar, right? And that's what we were looking for at 7:30 on a weeknight — a comfortable place to yuck it up, put a few back and have a bite to eat.
Applebee's is the largest casual dining chain in the world, providing the requisite flat screen TVs with sports offerings, Lotto Quick Draw and sports/working man posters along with a friendly, accommodating staff.
I was first to arrive and grabbed an open position at the bar, the main hub of the restaurant. Friendly and outgoing Kristan was right there, suggesting I look over a menu and consider a cold beer. Well trained.
A cold beer on a cold late winter night was not my first beverage of choice, especially with the most exotic choices being Blue Moon and Sam Adams Winter Ale. Bud, Coors and Miller dominate, which tells you something about who this cookie-cutter eatery is looking to serve.
The place was mobbed, so I went over to an employee I passed on the way in who appeared to be assigning tables. I had my eye on a big, round oak table near the bar. He informed me they can't reserve tables, but he'd do his best to keep it open for me.
Shortly, the rest of my party arrived and joined me at the bar. I was just about to give up on that nice oak table when the assigner guy put menus and napkin-wrapped silverware on the table, came over to me and said, "When you're ready. ..."
That was impressive.
Once seated, the young, chatty waitress, Kelcie, took care of us — more like put up with us — patiently spending time to engage our middle-aged men's verbal joshing.
She was a good sport and a good waitress to boot.
I suppose if you're an Applebee's regular, you've got your favorites. But we found ourselves pawing through the many menu pages, complete with colorful, glossy photos of just about everything they serve. And they serve a lot of stuff.
We were about to order the appetizer sampler (mozzarella sticks, spinach artichoke dip, cheese quesadilla and boneless wings) when we spotted something a little more adventurous.
Ultimate Trios allows you to pick three trio-sized items for $11.79. We ordered wonton tacos with chicken, cheeseburger sliders and steak quesadilla towers.
They looked great in the photos, but our interest faded a bit with their actual delivery.
The sliders, little cheeseburgers, had a prepackaged taste, almost like they were made somewhere far away, trucked in and warmed up in the microwave. The pasty bun gave it away.
Quesadilla "towers" were supposed to be rolled quesadillas cut in half on the bias and placed upright, but they arrived looking somnolent and a little sad and offering little flavor. They looked nothing like the spiffy photo that convinced us to order them.
The wonton tacos were the best of the trio, crunchy shells with Asian slaw and savory-sweet chicken, but the fillings were so unevenly divided among the tacos that it made sharing difficult.
For entrées, Applebee's offers steaks, ribs, chicken, pasta, seafood and their new "sizzling entrées." For the calorie conscious, there's a category called "Unbelievably great tasting and under 550 calories." All are fairly priced, generally $10.49 to $12.99.
And if you want to keep it under 10 bucks, they've got salads, burgers, sandwiches, sliders and appetizers.
Provolone-stuffed meatballs with fettuccini ($10.49) was a tasty dish. The pasta was cooked a little too much, but the marinara sauce over Alfredo sauce was thick and flavorful. The cheese-stuffed meatballs weren't bad if you didn't think too hard about how they were made (elsewhere) and brought back to life.
A new menu item, Bourbon Street chicken and shrimp ($10.99) is one of their "sizzling entrées." A small breast was Cajun seasoned and grilled just right along with a skewer of blackened shrimp. It came with crispy roasted potatoes that weren't crisp at all and sautéed onions and mushrooms, mostly onions. The entrée was presented on a hot sizzle platter.
One of the most expensive items on the menu, New York strip steak ($16.49) was a modest portion, cooked to a perfect medium-rare. It had a bit of a gray look to it, as though it might have been sitting in a marinade or tenderizer, which would also account for its saltiness. It came with a perfectly cooked baked potato.
The ribs on the baby back rib platter ($16.79) were nice and tender, sticky from being "double glazed" with a mesquite barbecue sauce that could have been more flavorful. Standard fries and cole slaw accompanied.
Our plates were generally devoid of vegetables. Half kiddingly, we brought this to Kelcie's attention. She was nice enough to bring us a plateful of zucchini, broccoli and carrots. It was obviously a frozen and thawed product that maybe was best left in the kitchen.
Desserts had their own photo menu. We were visually tantalized with the maple butter blondie ($4.79) and their dessert shooters ($1.99 each).
We ordered one of each of the shooters: strawberry cheesecake, chocolate mousse and sundae. They were right-sized portions, just enough to satisfy the sweet tooth. But nothing we'd rush back to order in a future visit.
The blondie thing was interesting, a slab of white cake adorned with maple syrup served with a big blob of vanilla ice cream on a hot sizzle platter. You've got to eat it fast, or that ice cream turns back into cream.
A night out for the four of us cost $86.09, pre-tip and pre-beer tab.
The food was good, but nothing stood out as a "wow." We did enjoy the atmosphere, the staff, the laughter and the good times. And I guess that's what you expect from a neighborhood grill and bar.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: email@example.com.
Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar
1283 Arsenal St.
Familiar, friendly and fairly priced
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday
11 a.m. to midnight Sunday