The history of TGI Fridays goes way beyond unlimited apps.
Few hipsters would be caught dead at a TGI Fridays — especially on a Friday night. But the next time you snap yourself chasing a whiskey shot with a PBR at a bar where there are both men and women, know that Fridays started it all.
In 1965, a 28-year-old perfume salesman named Alan Stillman was living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At the time, the neighborhood was popular with flight attendants and fashion models, because its location was so convenient to the airport. Stillman wanted to meet those stewardesses and models, but he couldn’t do it in neighborhood cocktail lounges, which were patronized almost exclusively by men. Young people, especially women, didn’t go to bars — they went to cocktail parties.
Stillman tells Edible Geography how a young man back then went about meeting women: “What would happen is that on Wednesday and Thursday, you’d start collecting information — things like, ‘On Friday night at 8 o’clock at 415 East 63rd Street, there’s going to be great party run by three airline stewardesses.’” But there were no public places where young men and women could meet each other.
When Stillman told the owner of a local bar that he should hang some decorations and sell burgers to attract a younger crowd, the owner said that Stillman should just buy the bar. So he got a $5,000 loan from his mother and did. Applying his high-school education in art, Stillman painted the building in red-and-white stripes and decorated it with Victorian furniture, fake Tiffany lamps and framed pictures — to make it feel like someone’s apartment.
“That was what Friday’s was originally. You had an invitation to a cocktail party that went on every night,” Stillman tells the Wall Street Journal. He sold the burgers and fries that the kids loved. To appeal to women, his menu featured sweet cocktails like daiquiris and the Harvey Wallbanger.
It worked. TGI Fridays — the first “singles bar” — was a hit, and Stillman did meet lots of stewardesses and models.
TGI Fridays soon expanded across America and spawned a wave of imitators including Ruby Tuesday, Applebee’s and Chili’s. The Pandora’s box was open: young women now went to bars to meet young men.
As fashions have changed, so has interior decorating. “Office Space” sounded the death knell for the TGI Fridays aesthetic, writes Lisa Hix in antiques publication Collector’s Weekly.
“In 2005, Friday’s went through the first of a series of make-unders, removing the fake Tiffany lamps and reducing the number of vintage tchotchkes on its walls.” Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday and others soon followed suit.
While TGI Fridays overseas — like the one at the Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan — remain true to the original Friday’s look, the chain’s American outlets have traded in their antiques for millennial-friendly understatement: clean, beige walls and sleek furniture.
But under all that, Friday’s red-and-white striped heart is still beating.