Perhaps you hold fond memories of going to TGI Fridays with your family as a kid or of visiting the Cheesecake Factory for a birthday celebration. But would you, as a full-grown adult, stop by either one to hang out with a few friends after work?
It turns out several chain restaurants offer affordable happy hour specials, some marketed more aggressively than others. We hear quite a lot about cheap drinks at Applebee's — last month's Dollarita was swapped out in September for $2 Sam Adams Octoberfest, if you were wondering — but what about discounted lettuce wraps at P.F. Chang's? Or super frozen margaritas at Chili's?
We visited the five aforementioned joints to evaluate the specials for ourselves. Here they are, in all their sugary glory, ranked from worst to best.
Applebee's spinach and artichoke dip tastes like what you might encounter at a haphazardly thrown college party, but its brew pub pretzels and beer cheese dip proves to be a tastier option. Both half-priced appetizers are offered as part of the happy hour menu, which also includes an odd slate of $3.99 drinks: Long Island iced teas, Bahama Mamas, Yuengling, margaritas, red apple sangria and Fireball.
That's right. Straight Fireball. At Applebee's.
As you might expect from its name, the way-too-sugary red apple sangria is the worst of the lot. It comes in a “mucho glass,” which means you get a goblet of liquid that tastes more like artificial apple juice than anything else. There's no place like the neighborhood to get a huge headache.
4. TGI Fridays
Back when Gawker was still around, staff writer Caity Weaver spent 14 hours eating mozzarella sticks at TGI Fridays, which had launched a promotion for unlimited appetizers. The restaurant now offers a special Fridays 5 menu, on which fluorescent drinks and fried appetizers go for $5 all day, every day. To riff on the old Olive Garden slogan, “When you're here, it's Friday.”
Our waitress at the Foggy Bottom location warned us not to order any of the frozen drinks on the Fridays 5 menu, as they are “not good” and often get sent back. The regular drinks menu does not include prices: We guessed that the martini would be the same price as the DJ Khaled-inspired drink that tastes suspiciously like jungle juice. We were wrong; the martini was $4 and the Khaled drink was $10.
While the mozzarella sticks are as cheesy and overwhelming as you'd expect — honestly, Weaver, how'd you do it?! — the waitress seemed genuinely surprised at how small the $5 onion rings were. (They ended up being a bit bigger at the Upper Marlboro, Md., location.)
“Not gonna lie,” she said, “I don't get this one, either.”
Let's begin by answering a question many of you might have: No, cheesecake is not on the happy hour menu. But you can achieve that level of sugar intake from drinks so sweet that you wonder whether there is any alcohol in them at all. J.W.'s Pink Lemonade, which supposedly includes citrus vodka and raspberry liqueur, tastes more like Minute Maid. The mojito is at least very minty, if you're willing to pay $5.95 for sugar water.
You might need that mint to refresh your system after eating some of the heavy appetizers the shortened menu has to offer: Fried macaroni-and-cheese balls feel like a good idea, but only at first. Avocado egg rolls translate literally to fried wrappers stuffed with just avocado — a stereotypical millennial's dream? — but an accompanying tamarind-cashew dipping sauce manages to counter the creaminess. (Appetizers cost the same amount as the drinks, while small plates range from $5.50 to $7.95.)
None of this is to say that the Cheesecake Factory is a bad restaurant. Its greatest strengths just lie outside happy hour and, as one would assume, in actual dessert.
In “The Office,” Pam Beesly felt God in a Chili's. We, on the other hand, felt the weak presence of something else. Then why does the restaurant, which claims to be “Home of the Famous Burgers, Ribs, Fajitas & 'Ritas,” rank so high?
Two words: Frozen 'Ritas.
At $4.99, the drink is priced highest on an incredibly affordable happy hour menu. It is nearly textbook-level perfection, as opposed to other locales' melty “frozen” drinks that so often disappointed. In fact, it is so icy that you can barely use a straw to drink it. Save the turtles and ask for a spoon instead.
The salted rim might have been overkill considering that the half-price appetizers contain enough salt to put your blood pressure through the roof. At $3, the fried pickles are definitely worth it. The doughy margherita flatbread, not so much. (Both are served with some form of ranch dressing, though, which pleased this Midwestern girl.)
The last time P.F. Chang's made national news, a Chicago TV station accidentally used its name instead of “PyeongChang” in a graphic about the Winter Olympics. The “Asian restaurant concept” doesn't do racial sensitivity much better — one of the best-tasting drinks on the happy hour menu is presumably offered because of its rather unfortunate name: the citrusy Blushing Geisha.
While meat-eating friends who tagged along said the dumplings recall what you can get in the Trader Joe's frozen aisle, several other drinks and small plates seem to be worth the $5 to $6 price tag. Its Moscow mule is decent, and the tangy lettuce wraps taste just as great as they did 10 years ago — bonus points for consistency.
But most important, P.F. Chang's is the only place on this list that didn't make us feel queasy afterward. We'd call that a success.