Suburban chain restaurants are invading Manhattan, bringing a guilty pleasure home to the city
On a recent snowy weekday on Carmine Street, tourists and locals alike gathered at clean, florescent-lit, flavored-syrup laden tables for lunch at IHOP. A server and a hostess both estimate the traffic at 50/50, tourists to locals. It hardly matters which is which - once you're inside, you could be anywhere in the world. IHOPs are all the same, and so are the pancakes: heavy, steamy, delicious, plate-sized, soaking up whipped butter and Old-Fashioned Original syrup (not true maple, but the maple-flavored corn syrup that just tastes right).
This West Village outpost of the International House of Pancakes is just one of the recent string of suburban eateries to creep into Manhattan, oblivious to the lawyered, monied objections of select groups of residents. Franchises and fast food joints are nothing new to the city, but in the past few years, there have been several notable firsts. The first IHOP opened in the East Village in 2011, and the Carmine Street locale in 2012 - the blog Eater called it "the IHOP that no one asked for" and filed under the "end of days" category. In 2013, the first Red Lobster outside of Times Square came to Harlem with much PR fanfare, and, one can dream, Chuck E. Cheese-style ball pits filled with cheddar biscuits. In 2014, we'll be graced with a Dairy Queen right by Union Square, and, now that it has reportedly cleared legal hurdles, a downtown Denny's. That's right; the purveyor of the Lumberjack Slam (two pancakes, grilled ham, two bacon strips, two sausage links, two eggs, hash browns or grits and bread - plus it's a registered trademark), a restaurant that currently offers a menu inspired by The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is coming to the land of Danny Meyer and David Chang. Savvy bloggers and born-and-raised New Yorkers roll their eyes as hard as the plastic spoons at Dairy Queen, but the people opening these franchises have surely done their market research, and shall be rewarded with no shortage of customers. Neither can these customers be dismissed as all tourists; the locations are far from Times Square and Rockefeller Center and the Freedom Tower.
These restaurants are invading Manhattan for the first time, but they aren't new to the millions of New Yorkers who were born and brought up outside the city. You can't call them carpetbaggers when they comprise half the population. Let's call them - us, I admit - New Yorkers From Elsewhere. Specifically we're talking about the ones from Small-to-Medium-Sized Town, USA. The places where first dates flourished or wilted over plates of bacon cheese fries at Ruby Tuesdays; where first jobs were flipping burgers and working the soft serve handles at the DQ off Exit 29.
New Yorkers From Elsewhere don't go to places like IHOP or Denny's for the food, really, or even for the all-hours-of-the-day-and-night convenience. We're not tourists; we know that you can get dense, authentic Ukrainian pierogi at at 4 a.m. from Veselka on Second and 9th, or pancakes from any corner diner on 10th Avenue. We go to IHOP or Denny's or Applebee's because when you walk into a place like that, a place that speaks of other-state suburbia with every wheeze of the vinyl padded booths, every crack of the egg-yolk spattered menus, it reminds you that you are from Somewhere Else, and for a half hour you can settle back into your accent and some mediocre but utterly familiar food. It doesn't matter how upscale, how Manhattanized, the classy touches make any particular franchise - you're still eatin' good in the neighborhood, and that means the same thing everywhere in the country. It's fine casual dining - the most glorious of American oxymorons.
Sure, there are arguments against these places. They attract rowdy youths all night long - so different from any other place in Manhattan! They can be noisy and make a whole block smell like maple syrup and bacon! To the former, see above. To the latter, why is this a problem? They're serving up calorie bombs that will turn us all into obese Midwesterners! Maybe don't go there everyday! Or order yours with egg whites, hold the butter. It's Denny's, not the Soup Nazi.
In reality, no one is shoving popular-movie-themed short stacks down your throat. There will always be a disgustingly wide array of culinary options in NYC, and the people filling those booths at the Olive Garden are just as likely to be making reservations at Babbo for the upcoming weekend. They just can also appreciate a place where you go not to be seen, or to be cool, or even to be ironic - there's no irony in a vanilla cookie dough Blizzard, only heaven - but to eat from a menu that offers free refills and a taste, however rubbery, of home.