"I heard you have dollar Long Islands," I tell the bartender as I pull up a stool at what is — for reasons opaque to me — America's top-grossing casual-dining restaurant chain, Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar. "Yeah," he answers wearily, "we have a few of those."
Then he scoops ice into a mug, tops it off from a plastic vat filled with a pale yellowish liquid, and finishes it with a squirt of Coke and a virgin drinking straw, with a bit of protective paper on the end to prove it. What I taste next is a difficult flavor profile to describe; maybe gasoline and sour mix on the rocks?
Yet, this is what I've come for — to get lit. Specifically, "Dollar L.I.T.," as the monthlong promotion is known. For the price of a single, albeit delicious, craft cocktail, I could go to Applebee's and drink a dozen mugs of lemon-lime lighter fluid. (Spoiler: I am woefully not up to that challenge.)
Still, at that $1 price point, it's a tantalizing offer, part of a series of dollar-a-drink specials that Applebee's has deployed to bring in millennials who've shunned sit-down restaurant chains. It appears, to some extent, to be working. In just two weeks, the Havertown location sold about 2,800 Dollar L.I.T's, according to Nate Hamilton, general manager there. And on my visit to the Center City Applebee's, it's what almost everyone at the bar is drinking: the couple making out intermittently in the corner, the Villanova and Temple fans watching the game on fuzzy flat-screens, the groups of twentysomethings clustered by the bar. (One exception: A woman sipping a margarita, who asks the bartender for a couple of olives to go with it. He produces them on a toothpick, without comment or judgment.)
When a pack of 10 young men crowd in through the door, a stopover on their way to McGillin's, and throw down a $10 bill on the bar like a challenge, the bartender has their number in one glance. "So I guess everyone is getting the Dollar," he says flatly, then reminds them that, in Philadelphia, it's actually $1.10, what with the liquor-by-the-drink tax. Someone forks over a few extra bucks. Someone else says, "Yo! Venmo him please!" While they wait for their drinks, one mutters, not very quietly, "This has got to be the most watered-down drink in history."
He's not entirely wrong. Getting LIT would require quite a few dollars (and, to be safe, an insulin shot or two). "When you take into account that it's a 10-ounce glass filled with ice, there isn't a lot in that mug," Hamilton says. What is there is well liquor — vodka, rum, tequila, and triple sec — sour mix and cola. In contrast, the "top shelf" Long Island costs $7.49, or $8.49 in an 18-ounce "mucho" glass.
All in all, it's not the worst thing I've tasted; it was not even the worst thing I tasted that night. (That was a single ill-advised bite of a "green goddess" wedge salad that still fills my nightmares: a head of iceberg lettuce drowned in gloppy dressing to cover up the soft yellow-brown parts, then dredged in blue cheese and bacon. The mozzarella sticks, though 900 calories per order, are a far wiser choice.)
I request a second round, and, after just a few sips, regret it. One good thing about a Dollar L.I.T, though, is you don't feel too guilty leaving it on the bar.
Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar
215 S. 15th St., 215-772-2791; 1305 West Chester Pike, Havertown, 610-449-2295; Applebees.com
When to go: That's the beauty of this special – it runs all the time, until the end of December. If you can't make it before the New Year, stop by on any Friday, when the "top-shelf" Long Islands are $4.
Who to bring: Your broke or frugal friends (especially as, if you sit at a table, there's a tablet that allows you to pay electronically and easily split the check). Guys you wouldn't take to Red Lobster. Also, anyone who enjoys looking at Philly memorabilia – the vast array of photos and tchotchkes at each location is unique and locally sourced from historical societies, universities, and other collections.
What to order: If I have to tell you, you haven't been paying attention. (But if L.I.T.s aren't your thing, it's worth noting that there are local craft beers available at many of the local restaurants. On my visit, 2SP, Yards, and Troegs were on tap. There are also other mixed drinks, of course, though on a subsequent visit, a friend's query as to what bourbons were available — "Bulleit, maybe?" — was met with confusion by a waitress.)
Bathroom situation: Applebee's is one of the dampest places I've been without a bathing suit. That goes for the counter, the plastic-sheathed menu, the tidal pool behind the bar that the bartender at one point actually has to squeegee toward a floor drain. The bathroom – a single-stall, unisex affair – is equally drenched.
Sounds like: A tranquil 84 decibels laced with strains of soft adult-contemporary music (think: Lionel Richie) and the occasional interruption from the dining room: "We've got a birthday in the house!" followed by enthusiastic clapping and singing. Some things at Applebee's will never change.