What’s happening, cats? Hope you’re ready to flip your wigs because today’s post is a real gas. The year is 1965. The sexual revolution is in full swing, nearly 6.5 million Americans are on “the Pill,” and birds are lining up around the block to sneak a peek at Manhattan’s hippest hotspot.
See, up until the mid-1960s, New York had no respectable place for women to get a drink. Sure, you could maybe enjoy a glass of wine at dinner if you were with your husband. But the taverns of the 1700s and the oyster saloons of the 1800s were men-only. The women found there were employed in the oldest profession, if you know what I mean. Prohibition changed things to a certain extent as men and women flirted in speakeasies over a round of white lightning, but the Great Depression and the 21st Amendment changed things right back. Even in the 1950s, women mostly met at house parties to chew the fat over a shaker of martinis. By the 1960s, they were desperate for a drinking destination.
Alan Stillman was ready to give them one. A young perfume salesman and amateur bartender, Stillman lived on East 63rd Street in the biggest concentration of single women in New York City. Models, typists, journalists, secretaries, and nurses all clustered here. “Easy access to the 59th Street bridge meant you could get out of New York quickly, so in that two or three block neighbourhood, there was a pile of airline stewardesses,” Stillman recalled in an interview with Edible Geography. One apartment held so many stewardesses that locals took to calling it “The Stew Zoo.”
One day, Stillman walked into his corner pub on 63rd and 1st – floors strewn with sawdust, walls riddled with bullets – and offered to spruce up the saloon for a cut of the profits. Stillman borrowed $5,000 from his mother and remodeled the joint with brass railings, Tiffany-style lamps, and a veritable jungle of ferns – anything to make the bar seem as unthreatening as possible. The same went for the menu. Assuming women would avoid a bar stocked with harsh bourbons and ryes, Stillman loaded his liquor cabinet with vodkas and rums and instructed bartenders to craft cloying concoctions like the Pink Slipper, the Mudslide, and the Harvey Wallbanger. He later complemented these sugary drinks with mozzarella sticks, fried mushrooms, and potato skins, the last invented here in 1974.
Stillman called his bar “Thank God It’s Friday.”
The gambit paid off. TGI Friday’s was a smash success. Singles packed three-deep around a central bar. Lines stretched out the door. Imitators popped up all over the Upper East Side, leading one journalist to call the neighborhood “Manhattan’s Swingiest Square Mile.” The nightly surge of singles forced the NYPD to shut down 1st Avenue on Fridays between 8 and midnight. Stillman and his bartenders became minor celebrities, eventually being portrayed by Tom Cruise in the 1988 movie Cocktail. Here’s a scene shot on location at the original TGI Friday’s.
So how did a bar devoted to enabling easy hookups become the ne plus ultra of chain restaurants?
The fall began when Stillman met a Memphis restauranteur named James Robinson. Just 23 years old, Robinson had fallen in love with Friday’s on a recent visit to New York and begged Stillman to let him copy the concept in Tennessee. Stillman relented, and Robinson opened up the first TGI Friday’s franchise in 1970. Since the county had only legalized the sale of “liquor by the drink” a few months before, Robinson’s Friday’s was the best game in town for a drink.
It was here that Dan Scoggin, a former manager of a cardboard box company and the Mephistopheles to Stillman’s Faust, first experienced Friday’s. Scoggin saw enormous potential for profits in franchising the singles bar and watering it down for family-friendly markets. I’ll let him tell it via an interview with Collector’s Weekly.
“Since Friday’s franchises had seen success in small Southern cities, I decided I wanted to open Friday’s in eight major U.S. cities, including Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, and Houston…Alan had developed his formula for Friday’s in New York City. Almost across the street was Maxwell’s Plum, which was a famous bar and restaurant known for its raised square bar in the middle of the space, which was a new format. Then I went to another New York City restaurant, P.J. Clarke’s, a saloon that had been around 100 years, and I liked how it had memorabilia hung on the walls, just stuff the owners accumulated over its years in existence. So I took those two components—the raised square bar and the memorabilia on the walls—and added the Tiffany lamps from Friday’s and the ferns, and opened the first of my restaurants in Dallas in 1972.”
Scoggin’s version of TGI Friday’s soon swept through cities and suburbs, along with Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Ice Cream Sundays (though not, surprisingly, Ruby Tuesdays.) In an appeal to Southern sensibilities, Scoggin shifted focus towards fried food and away from insinuating cocktails like the Slippery Nipple and the Freddy Fudpucker. By 1975, Stillman had checked out of the franchise completely to focus on his new restaurant, Smith and Wollensky, and TGI Friday’s became the chain we all know and tolerate today. As for the original location, it’s now the Baker Street Pub, completely devoid of antique road signs, alligators wearing hats, or pieces of flare.