Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday Long Read: Flair Apparent

The long-running joke behind restaurant chain T.G.I.Friday's is of course, the flair (and if you've ever seen the excellent 1999 comedy Office Space, you know exactly what I mean.)  But what happens to all the little doodads and collectible items that crowd the walls of your favorite casual dining watering hole when the chain finally decides to go twenty-teens minimalist?

Tall windows flood the vast dining room with natural light, illuminating a minimalist mix of rectangular and round tables—each ringed by tasteful, Modernist chairs—beneath a grid of industrial light fixtures and exposed wooden beams. Is this the city’s hottest new restaurant that everyone’s been talking about, the one with the locally sourced ingredients served on artfully presented plates? No, it’s the new T.G.I. Friday’s.

That’s right, Friday’s, the once-popular singles bars and burger joints found in the parking lots of many a suburban mall. In March 2016, the famously clutter-filled chain introduced the first prototype for its spartan new design concept in Corpus Christi, Texas. The most startling aspect of this otherwise inoffensive space is the complete lack of Friday’s characteristic kitsch. No tin signs or pedal cars adorn the walls; there’s no dark wood or Tiffany-style lamps; there are no chipper red-and-white stripes to be found anywhere.

If you live or work in San Francisco, as I do, this bare, open look has become as cliché and unremarkable as Teslas and luxury condos. The new Millennial-approved restaurant aesthetic, which Friday’s is attempting to replicate in Corpus Christi, has become the beige-linen wall covering of choice, papering over the scruffier textures of the city’s quirky saloons, galleries, bookstores, and mom-and-pop shops. Suddenly, everything is “nice,” and the steep prices, which well-paid techies can easily afford, are guaranteed to keep the riffraff out.

For the past 40-plus years, casual-dining chain restaurants have dominated the suburban landscape. Friday’s and its ilk have served as cozy sanctums for Baby Boomer collectors and other nostalgia junkies, filled to the brim with mostly authentic antiques, which ranged from low-value, easy-to-find items to rare, high-dollar picks. Now that the sterile, clutter-free look has infected T.G.I. Friday’s—it will soon spread to each of its 900 restaurants around the globe—2010s urban Modernism is about to go suburban. FourTaco Bell prototypes in Southern California suggest that the upscale minimalist look is spiraling rapidly down-market.

Truth told, restaurant kitsch has been dying a slow death for the last decade. There are exceptions, of course—the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store brand depends on folksy nostalgia to appeal to its long-standing customer base. But less-rural restaurants felt the sting when 1999 movie “Office Space” mocked the typical chipper casual-dining atmosphere and its myriad “pieces of flair.” 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. In 2007, Friday’s competitor Ruby Tuesday jettisoned its Tiffany-style lamps and flea-market mementos for a more sophisticated look while offering more expensive fare. Five years later, Chili’s Bar and Grill debuted its remodeled prototype in Mesquite, Texas, replacing its jumble of Southwest kitsch with Modernist furniture in natural woods and a few well-appointed antiques like framed sepia-toned photographs.

The new Corpus Christi Friday’s, however, is the first time the restaurant has completely severed itself from its original retro, candy-striped image. Jeff Walsh, president of Hospitality Solutions Design, spent decades adorning casual-dining spots with memorabilia. After starting his career as an antiques picker 35 years ago, Walsh launched his Beverly, Massachusetts-based interior design group, which has worked with Friday’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s, Bennigan’s, and Chevy’s, among others. Today, he says, restaurant owners are asking for a completely different style.

As something of a signage history junkie (Cincinnati is home to the American Sign Museum, a absolute must-visit if you come to town) this is a pretty fascinating story here at Collector's Weekly, detailing the history of how the kitschy restaurant got started and where all that stuff comes from. Enjoy.

And as always, tip your server.

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