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Was T.G.I. Friday's America's First Singles Bar?

Posted by Josh Rothman  November 29, 2010 11:28 PM

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Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography interviews Alan Stillman, founder of T.G.I. Friday's - and discovers that the globe-spanning restaurant chain began as a pretty cool bar on New York's Upper East Side in 1965.

original-TGI-Fridays-NYC1.jpg

The original location at 63rd and 1st Avenue (now the Baker Street Pub) was, according to Stillman, "the first singles bar." Before Friday's opened, single life was "all cocktail parties":

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.” Then somebody else would say, “Well, I got a good one - it’s going to be run by one of the baseball players at his apartment.” You built up a cocktail list and you bounced from one place to the other. The cocktail parties were wild, by the way. But there was no public place for people between, say, twenty-three to thirty-seven years old, to meet.

As Stillman tells it, in 1965 there were only manly bars, diners, and fancy restaurants; there were no casual bar-restaurants like Fridays. "Before T.G.I. Friday’s," Stillman says, "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." Stillman created a casual atmosphere by painting the building in the now-trademarked red-and-white stripes and having the waiters wear goofy striped uniforms. The restaurant, which happened to be in a part of the city overrun with models and stewardesses, and which opened "the exact year the Pill was invented," became wildly popular: in response, Stillman instituted what he thinks was "the first line in the history of bars, restaurants, and discos."

Today, of course, there are over 1,000 Friday's restaurants in more than 50 countries, and what was once hip is now square. Visit a Friday's now, and you have no sense at all that the chain once exported a casual, sexy, New-York-singles-bar experience to the rest of the nation. In fact, Friday's has become its own little island of experience: a strange land with its own instantly recognizable architecture, costumes, delicacies, and lingo. What made sense in context seems downright bizarre once it's been transplanted from the stuffy Upper East Side to your local shopping center.

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Image from Edible Geography.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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