By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
The history of restaurants and bars in America is short compared to that of the Old World. We didn’t really see the modern, fine dining restaurant as we know it until the turn of the last century. And we credit New York City’s Delmonico’s and its a la carte menu for that.
In hindsight, Wolfgang Puck was the first “celebrity chef.” His restaurants were packed with the Hollywood elite; he created an empire that included a grocery store line of products, regular television appearances; and was one of the first people in America to open what we now refer to as a brewpub, Eureka, which closed in 1993.
Alice Waters, the self-proclaimed hippie chef from Berkley, California, opened Chez Panisse in 1971. It changed the way we experienced dining in a restaurant and approached menus. Creating smaller plates, and focusing on locally sourced, seasonal ingredients, rather than technique, and establishing direct relationships with farmers and ranchers, Chez Panisse remains a formidable dining institution to this day.
And any multi-unit restaurant on the globe has the golden arches of McDonalds to thank for establishing reliable systems of duplication anywhere in the world.
But there is another pioneer—a restaurant that has had more influence on America’s modern dining and bar scene, yet seldom gets acknowledged for the many once-revolutionary practices that have since become commonplace.
I’m not talking about The French Laundry in Napa Valley, or New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace, but none other than T.G.I. Fridays.
From interior to floor plan, cocktails, branding, movies and much more, Fridays, the casual dining chain single handedly shaped a multitude of new concepts into common practices that now span an entire industry.
Wishing there was an unintimidating bar where he could meet girls (but not in a “two wild and crazy guys” kind of way), Alan Stillman opened the first Fridays on Manhattan’s East Side in 1965.
Stillman wanted to create an atmosphere were a group of women could have a drink in a bar and feel safe, rather than at the apartment cocktail parties that were popular at the time. The staple Friday’s interior of wood and Tiffany lamps was to create the feeling of one of those apartments. And it didn’t hurt that the neighborhood was filled with flight attendants and fashion models—just shy of 500 according to Stillman.
What soon followed was what is now known as “ladies night.” And these evenings became so popular that ropes were put in place outside the entrance, like theaters. No other bar had ever had this “problem.”
What followed, in partnership with college friend Ben Benson, was to open seven more locations throughout the south.
What’s more, Fridays created mixed drinks with fruit juices and fruit garnishes, the precursor to the craft cocktail.
Previously, bars were where you went to get a beer from a bartender who kept his interaction with you to a minimum. But Fridays soon had bartenders from all over clambering for jobs in their restaurants because they actually engaged the customer in an open friendly dialogue.
What followed was fresh, from scratch, approachable menu items that appealed to a wide audience.
And it didn’t hurt that the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail was based on T.G.I. Fridays and its founder. And we had yet another Fridays original; bartender and server “Olympics.”
You could make the argument that being able to memorize 400 drinks, make a handful of them blindfolded, and train as a bar-back for up to nine months before earning your first bartender shift at a Fridays, that they were the original mixologists. By today’s standards, T.G.I. Fridays may be a Myspace rather than a Facebook, but the restaurant absolutely changed the way Americans ate and drank for all time.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.