Last night I downed appletinis and fried green beans with "wasabi sauce", "pot stickers"*, boneless buffalo wings, and a chicken quesadilla at the flashy institution known as T.G.I. Friday's. No longer does TGIF mean the upcoming weekend or even ABC's Friday night TV line up that included Boy Meets World, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and the latest incarnation of the Olsen twins, but a restaurant serving mediocrity.
I like to think that for the most part, restaurants have multiple locations because they are so good that one location can no longer serve their customers completely. In the case of corporate chains like Friday's, it's awkward sister Ruby Tuesday, Red Robin, Outback Steakhouse, etc etc etc. What they end up serving is consistency. It's the standardization of the menu, restaurant, and ambiance that draws the crowd. I will acknowledge that like all chain restaurants, there are better and worse locations. My mother used to live near the Denny's at Denny's corporate headquarters and swears that it was some of the best breakfast food she's ever eaten. However most locations of most national chain restaurants are incredibly mediocre.
Do people who live within 10 minutes of a coastline with restaurants serving up the daily catch go to Red Lobster because the food is good? Or do they go because they know exactly what the Cheddar Bay Biscuits are going to taste like. I'm referring to people who live in cities or places filled with good restaurants, not places where The Olive Garden is the nicest and most delicious restaurant around. I have been to these places. I have eaten at many Olive Gardens there.
Humans fear the unknown, in some cases to the point of phobia. There are people who refuse to eat at unknown restaurants or unknown foods, but for the mass of people who enjoy trying new cocktails, eating at new trucks filled with food, and finding the most authentic and delicious ethnic foods, what place do these restaurants have? An article on NPR which I can't currently find told me about a group of young professionals in the hip Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington DC who started going to happy hour at TGI Friday's ironically. They still go every week. "When does it stop being ironic and start being delicious?" asked the article. I'm not sure.
Perhaps it's the constant wave of nostalgia that pop culture rides. The never-ending re-makes, the T-shirts of characters we loved as children, and the restaurants that our parents dragged us to when we were younger? The restaurants haven't changed, but we're facing more and more crises; jobs or lack thereof, relationships or lack thereof, family or lack thereof, not to mention the stress of just existing. Perhaps the comfort of a place that still serves a never ending pasta bowl, is just what we need.
* quotations indicate mere passing resemblance to the food they are named for