Photo by Serena Maria Daniels

A restaurant mash-up in the Motor City

Serena Maria Daniels
July 06, 2018

Detroit’s dining scene has been receiving quite a bit of hype lately. It wasn’t long ago that the Motor City filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in in U.S. history 2013 and then very publicly set out to redefine itself from that of economic and political ruin to the so-called comeback city.

Say what you want about about that, but the narrative around the burgeoning food scene since then seems to be forever intertwined with this New Detroit narrative.

So what should Detroiters make of the opening of the world’s first IHOP-Applebee’s in downtown? Can a hearty burger with syrupy pancakes for buns be as worthy of celebration as its string of local chefs who’ve been nominated for James Beard Awards?

The answer depends on who you ask, but it’s certainly worth noting for a city that only a few short years ago was void of a major supermarket or many casual dining chain options.

Photo by Serena Maria Daniels

Walking into the hybrid 12,000-square-foot space—set inside the lobby of a Courtyard by Marriott that faces General Motors world headquarters—the new IHOP-Applebee’s (or is it IHOB or IHOPplee’s or Beehop, as Eater noted?) feels equal parts Vegas casino buffet and Downtown Disney, minus the slot machines and ironic doom that hangs over the Magic Kingdom.

There’s a little something for everyone, depending on how much time you have and what you’re trying to get into the rest of the day or night.

To the side nearest the check-in counter is a walk-up section aptly called Coffee Bar by IHOP, where guests on the run can pick up espresso drinks, egg bowls, breakfast burritos or sandwiches and can also accommodate to-go orders. High-top wood tables are equipped with outlets, should you need to charge your device as you wait for your Uber to the airport.

The dining area has aesthetics distinct to each restaurant. Toward the windows, a lounge area is adjoined by a square bar accented with large screen TVs that could stand alone as the hotel lobby bar, as well as seating for lunch and dinner service that all give off more of the Applebee’s vibe. Toward the interior, images of fluffy pancakes line the walls and tables are topped with the classic lineup of IHOP flavored syrup dispensers.

Photo by Serena Maria Daniels

Being that it’s in a busy downtown hotel lobby, there’s got to be a buffet. Situated toward the back, it comes with a full omelet station and other breakfast items like scrambled eggs, bacon and waffles available in the morning hours, seven days a week. (We’re told the HOP’s signature pancakes are only available made-to-order to maintain quality.) Lunch and dinner choices appear later in the day on weekdays.

In all, the gargantuan eatery seats about 300.

Photo by Serena Maria Daniels

Developed by franchisee TEAM Schostak Family Restaurants, the combo was dreamed up out of necessity to cater to hotel guests. Originally sought out to be an Applebee’s complete with its burgers, surf and turf, bar and late-ish hours, one thing was missing from the offerings: breakfast.

So with some finagling with parent company Dine Brands, the mashup between the two brands was eventually born. The two distinct menus do not work as seamlessly as say a Taco Bell/Pizza Hut combo, so only breakfast is served between 6:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. After that, breakfast and lunch and dinner items are available until closing.

I stopped by late the morning of June 30 right around menu shift and was greeted to a somewhat frenzied server, visibly overwhelmed by the steady flow of guests.

Photo by Serena Maria Daniels

While the combo restaurant has receive plenty of play in national media outlets, it’s evident that the developers knew who their target audience would be, primarily visitors from out of town, and not necessarily the worn out local bar rats in need of sustenance after a night of partying (for that, there’s the more established IHOP further east on Jefferson or any number of local 24/7 Coney Island diners that dot southeast Michigan). No, the customer base was mostly made up of kid-towing, fanny-pack-wearing tourists looking for an affordable meal before venturing off into the Motor City.

I wanted to see just how many flavor sensations I could pack into a single bite, so I ordered from both the IHOP and Applebee’s menus. Being that it was opening week, the menu was slimmed down to a “special event” version with two to three pancake selections, an omelet, breakfast sides and waffles on one side of the menu, and a short selection of Applebee’s appetizers, burgers, pastas, salads, soups and steak and ribs on the other side. The edited menu is available whenever major conventions or other events roll through town and leave the place slammed. Once the initial kinks get worked out, a regular full-sized menu will roll out with a more robust selection of breakfast, lunch and dinner items will be available (minus some of the apps and drinks specials that are available at other Applebee’s locations).

Photo by Serena Maria Daniels

I started with an order of boneless buffalo wings with blue cheese, followed by a bacon cheeseburger and a short stack of buttermilk pancakes topped with strawberries and whipped cream. To drink, a coffee and water (still far too early for a frozen margarita or anything from the bar).

A dining companion sprang for the buffet, filling out a plate of bacon, scrambled eggs and seasoned fried potatoes.

My combination was more of a dare than a satisfying meal. With each forkful of pancake, I tried my best to follow it with a bite of hot wing or burger and finishing it all of with a swig of coffee with cream and sugar—ensuring just the right balance of spicy, savory, fried and sweet. If I were truly concerned with striking the perfect harmony of flavors, I would have added a plate of New York cheesecake pancakes as well.

As I asked for the check and tried to wash out the lingering taste of sodium with ice water, a busser began clearing the table.

“Welcome to Detroit,” she exclaimed.

Welcome, indeed.

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