The Surprisingly Awesome History of T.G.I. Friday’s

Believe it or not, one of America's most ubiquitous chains began life as a swinging cocktail bar on the Upper East Side.

The original TGI Fridays on the Upper East Side (photo:

The original TGI Fridays on the Upper East Side (photo: Facebook/TGI Fridays)

The Internet sometimes forces us into an unfortunate bubble where only things that happened in the last hour and a half are considered relevant. But when someone tweeted this 2010 Edible Geographies interview with T.G.I. Friday’s founder Alan Stillman, I cleared my schedule and read it four times in a row because it is so good.

Did you know that the Friday’s concept began as a randy ’70s singles scene on the Upper East Side? Or that Stillman also founded Smith & Wollensky? Or that, according to him, he was the inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character in Cocktail? I certainly didn’t.

Stillman is a great storyteller, and his tale is a reminder that not all American chains were born in a boardroom. You may think of T.G.I. Friday’s as that place at the mall that serves individually-topped nachos and diabetes-inducing cocktails, but the ’70s version actually sounds pretty incredible. You should definitely read the whole Q&A, but here are some highlights to whet your appetite:

T.G.I. Friday’s was originally a cocktail bar.

“Before T.G.I. Friday’s, four single twenty-five year-old girls were not going out on Friday nights, in public and with each other, to have a good time. They went to people’s apartments for cocktail parties or they might go to a real restaurant for a date or for somebody’s birthday, but they weren’t going out with each other to a bar for a casual dinner and drinks because there was no such place for them to go.”

Its main purpose was to help people get laid.

“I lived on 63rd Street between First and York. Easy access to the 59th Street bridge meant you could get out of New York quickly, so in that two or three block neighbor­hood, there was a pile of airline stewardesses — and for whatever reason, there was also a whole bunch of models. Basically, a lot of single people all lived between 60th and 65th and between York Avenue and 3rd Avenue. It seemed to me that the best way to meet girls was to open up a bar.” [Note: As Gothamist points out, the New York Times has debunked Stillman's claim that it was the first singles bar—a reader wrote in to say, "Malachy's, on Third Avenue between 63d and 64th Street, preceded TGI Fridays by at least a year."]

Stillman attributes some of the bar’s early success to the invention of birth control.

“My timing was exquisite, because I opened T.G.I. Friday’s the exact year the pill was invented. I happened to hit the sexual revolution on on the head, and the result was that, without really intending it, I became the founder of the first singles bar.”

T.G.I. Friday’s may have been the first place to serve burgers on English muffins.

“At the time, it was a sophisticated hamburger and french fry place — apparently, I invented the idea of serving burgers on a toasted English muffin — but the principle involved was to make people feel that they were going to someone’s apartment for a cocktail party.”

Long before the Cronut, T.G.I. Friday’s was one of the first places where people lined up for food and drink in New York.

“I believe [we had] the first line in the history of bars, restaurants, and discos may have been at T.G.I. Friday’s. Inside of three months, we had to hire a doorman…[and] ended up buying velvet ropes. There was nothing like that anywhere else. You would either have a reservation at a fancy restaurant or you would just go into a bar or diner — nobody would wait in line for food and drink.”

Stillman claims Tom Cruise’s character in Cocktail was based on him.

“Have you seen the movie Cocktail? Tom Cruise played me! I was lucky enough to do it for three years — he only did it to make a movie. Even today, the advantage of being the guy behind the bar is huge. Why do girls want to date the bartender? To this day, I’m not sure that I get it.”

The franchising of Friday’s was largely accidental.

“But the second actual T.G.I. Friday’s was in Memphis, Tennessee. I didn’t pick it — they picked me. The original bar was two years old, and it had national recognition at that point. Somebody came in and said, ‘I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, and I own a shopping area down there with room for one of these. Will you sell me a franchise?’

I have to admit that I didn’t know what the word franchise meant. So I said, ‘If you have the money, I’ll be the partner and I’ll show you how to do it, and we’ll split it 50/50.’ We shook hands and a year and a half later, we opened up a T.G.I. Friday’s in Memphis…. Before I knew it I had five or six T.G.I. Friday’s round the country. It wasn’t pre-planned at all.”

Expansion to the South turned it into a family place.

[Creating larger restaurants] didn’t change [the concept] as much as our expansion into the big southern suburban towns. Those cities have a very different way of interacting with the street in the first place, but the big shift was that during the day, we started to get families. We had very informal, casual food — you could get an omelette or a hamburger — so families were coming in with their kids. That was the big change. It took six or seven years, but T.G.I. Friday’s became a very different animal.”

Smith & Wollensky was inspired by a trip to France.

“I took a break [after the success of T.G.I. Friday's]. I got married, we travelled around Europe, and that’s where I learned about food and wine. My wife and I spent a lot of time in France, and we became somewhat sophisticated. We saw a lot of French brasseries that served only French wine and French cuisine. When we came back here, the only thing like it was American steakhouses — but they didn’t serve any American wine. I thought that if I opened up a steakhouse and I served Californian wines, maybe I’d have something special and unique, and that’s how Smith & Wollensky got started. It was the American version of the French restaurants I loved in France.”

friday smithandwollensky The Surprisingly Awesome History of T.G.I. Fridays

Photo: IgoUgo

Mimi Sheraton’s review almost killed the restaurant.

“The first review we got was the worst review in the history of the world. It was by Mimi Sheraton for the New York Times. We almost went broke. So we took out three full-page ads in the Times. At the time, the two big deal steakhouses in New York were The Palm and Christ Cella, and our ad showed two big matchbooks and said, ‘At last, a match for The Palm and Christ Cella!’ We took it out three days in row, and business took off.”

Stillman is the father of the guy who created Quality Meats.

“If you want to see where a twenty-seven-year-old wants to eat steak in the year 2008, you should visit the restaurant my son Michael opened, Quality Meats…. I have no understanding of Michael’s new restaurant. I understand that it’s beautiful and the food is wonderful, but as to who it attracts and how — it’s completely foreign to me. It’s too loud and too dark for me and my friends.”

He thinks a high-end Indian restaurant could work in midtown.

There’s very little missing in New York at the moment [in terms of cuisine]. It’s the food capital of the world, in my opinion…. [B]ut there are other kinds of holes — the kind that you can fill with décor, atmosphere, prices, and imagination. And there are geographical holes — for example, I personally think that in Midtown, there is room for a high-end Indian restaurant.”

[via Twitter/@austinlouisray]

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