In the casual dining arena, Applebee's (NASDAQ:APPB) is clearly the big cheese. But since IHOP (NYSE:IHP) wants to gobble it up, I wonder whether the company's second-quarter results can give us insight into the health of the industry and the economy overall.

Almost any way you slice it, the message from the company was about as mixed as a dinner salad. Earnings were $24.2 million, or $0.32 a share in the quarter, compared to $20.4 million, or $0.27, last year. But if you peel away one-time items, including the costs related to shuttering 24 underperforming restaurants, the per-share figure came to $0.35. That's a penny higher than analysts had expected.

But at least as important as any of the other metrics, it seems to me, is the company's all-important same-store-sales figure, which declined 0.9% in the quarter and 0.8% in July. That's the fifth straight quarter of a declining same-store top line at Applebee's.

Three weeks ago, the company announced that IHOP will acquire it. The deal will be done for $25.50 in cash for each of Applebee's outstanding shares, for a total of about $2.1 billion. That's a skinny 4.6% premium above the preannouncement share price, and -- more importantly for the present -- 4.5% higher than Friday's close. So there's clearly little to be gained by trying to pick up Applebee's shares for a quick flip at the fourth-quarter closing.

As to the economic takeaway, perhaps the best approach is to place the company's results in a somewhat wider context: They weren't as good those of Texas Roadhouse (NASDAQ:TXRH), but they were far stronger than Ruby Tuesday's (NYSE:RT), a somewhat more comparable rival. Overall, it's becoming abundantly clear that such factors as housing-market woes and historically high energy prices are crimping folks' tendency to hit their local casual-dining establishments with their past frequency.

How long this trend will last is anyone's guess. In the meantime, the core question at Applebee's is whether there really are synergies with IHOP that'll give its more than 1,900 units a meaningful boost. I must admit that my skepticism is rising.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith was recently spotted in his local Applebee's. He doesn't own shares in any of any of the eateries mentioned. He welcomes your questions or comments. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.