It seemed exotic.
My first foray into the strange world of TGI Fridays was as a farm kid venturing into the big city of Lexington, Kentucky with my parents. My dad had probably seen an ad for the concern on the TV and decided that this would be a good place to feed our family. Back then, the menu was filled with exotica like deep fried mushrooms, loaded potato skins, and cheese blanketed boneless chicken breasts smothered in mushrooms. TGI Fridays figured out plenty ways to get mushrooms into the gullets of the mountain folks who broke bread in their restaurant. And inside that restaurant was a wonderland. Bicycles were strung up from the ceiling, various farm implements were bolted to the walls, and all manners of hillbilly arcana were on display.Think an urbanized Cracker Barrel.
It was a lot to take in for a simple farm youth who loved nothing more than hitting the woods with his shotgun and blasting away at the critters of rural Kentucky.
Our family loved TGI Fridays. We had no way of knowing that it was a bar designed for swinging singles. Or did we?
Alan Stillman was horny. A young man in mid 60s New York City, he was surrounded by women but was enjoying little congress with them. One afternoon, while drinking at The Good Tavern on First Avenue near the Queensboro Bridge, Stillman offered some advice to the proprietor. “You know, you ought to change the décor in here or do something with it — it would be a great place for all these people round here to meet each other.”
The barman suggested that instead, Stillman should buy the place, and after securing a five thousand dollar loan from his mom to beef up his own savings, he did just that.
New York’s first singles bar was thus born.
And history was made.
TGI Friday’s was a raging success. Inside of a few months Stillman had to hire a doorman and place a velvet rope outside his establishment to harness the line-standers.
One imagines the liquor inside the bottles was just that, liquor, not rubbing alcohol colored with caramel.
News broke out of the Northeast last week that the Briad Group, owned by Brad Honigfeld, was fined a half a million dollars by the Alcohol Beverage Control of New Jersey. Director Michael Halfacre announced that the penalty was levied due to 8 TGI Fridays selling a wide range of liquors that were not what the patron had ordered. In one case, caramel colored rubbing alcohol was substituted for scotch.
How did the authorities figure out the genesis of the suspect booze? They used a True Spirit Authenticator, a high dollar machine that vets booze for authenticity.
Maybe the tasting crew over at the New York Times could put this machine to good use.
Years back, they had a blind taste testing of a slew of vodkas both expensive and cheap. Smirnoff carried the day over the liquors that enjoy mammoth marketing campaigns. Not only was it declared the finest, it was also the cheapest of the lot.
In the boozy dustup last week, TGI Fridays did not admit guilt, but has begun a “Guest Satisfaction Assurance Plan” (!)
Alan Stillman? He went on to open a dozen TGI Fridays across the US prior to selling his interest (outside New York, he retained ownership of the city locations) in 1976.
He founded Smith and Wollensky a year later, and currently presides over Fourth Wall Restaurants Group.
I was unable to find any comment Stillman may have had over his former business’s unseemly behavior.
The current landscape of American chain dining owes a lot to Mr. Stillman. Applebees, Ruby Tuesdays, Grady’s, Chilis and a host of other heat and serve restaurants that clog interstate highway off ramps would not exist without TGI Fridays.
Chain restaurant anthropologists can visit the original Fridays at 1152 First Avenue in NYC. The building now hosts Baker Street Pub, where patrons can still wolf down those potato skins that helped put TGI Fridays on the map.
Our family’s palates grew exponentially from those early days of eating at Fridays. We began pilgrimaging to New Orleans, collecting cookbooks and having lengthy cooking sessions in our farmhouse kitchen.
But for a minute, decades ago, TGI Fridays was a shining culinary beacon in Kentucky, and a trip through their doors was to be anticipated and savored.