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.
“It was like you opened the door to your grandmother’s attic, and the stuff was just tumbling down the steps.”
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. Four Taco 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.
“For decades, providing and decorating with antiques was really a booming business—and it’s still popular, but it’s tapered off,” Walsh says. “How you use these objects in a restaurant has changed dramatically. The days of layering the walls with multitudes of pieces are gone. You can see that with Applebee’s alone. They’ve changed their whole direction.
“We still are actively buying antiques, but very selectively,” explains Walsh, whose company has a warehouse full of antiques. “We have to watch the market trends so that we don’t overload with the wrong things. It’s a careful balance to decide what we keep and use. Chains that use antiques want very specific and impactful pieces.”
“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, the antiques gave customers something to occupy their minds when they were waiting for their food.”
For antiques lovers, this cultural shift raises two questions: What happens to all that well-loved memorabilia when a restaurant pares down? And what does it say about the future of collecting? To address these questions, we have to figure out how restaurants got into the antiques business in the first place. The answer, it turns out, is sex.
Most places we think of as “family-dining establishments” started out as “singles bars,” which later became known as “fern bars,” thanks their abundant use of house plants. The story harkens back to 1965—five years after the FDA approved the first birth-control pill for the U.S. market, just at the cusp of the sexual revolution. Young people in their early 20s were starting to hold off on marriage, and in a few years, singles would be delving into a world of casual sex, homosexual encounters, and open relationships. But in the early ’60s, a parochial sense of decorum still dominated American society: Respectable young women never went to bars, which were considered dark and seedy at worst and masculine spaces at best. The most common places to eat out were fast-food joints, coffee shops, diners, or formal white-tablecloth restaurants, none of which were conducive to meeting and flirting. Instead, young singles connected at private cocktail parties where they could indulge their wild sides away from judging eyes.
Alan Stillman, a 28-year-old bachelor and perfume salesman, was ready for the revolution to begin. He knew his neighborhood, New York’s Upper East Side, was filled with beautiful flight attendants and models, and he wanted a better way to mingle with them. Borrowing $5,000 from his mom, he purchased a bullethole-riddled bar at 63rd Street and First Avenue. He remodeled the space, taking cues from an Upper East Side saloon from the 1800s, P.J. Clarke’s, which had stained-glass windows, dark wood furnishings, red-and-white checkered tablecloths, and framed photos and memorabilia from the restaurant’s storied history.
Stillman adorned his bar with bentwood chairs, shiny brass rails, framed photos, and Tiffany-style stained-glass lamps. Renamed Thank God It’s Friday!, Stillman’s bar—which also sold casual party food and female-friendly fruity cocktails—opened its doors in March 1965. One of the most popular drinks offered at Friday’s was called a “Harvey Wallbanger,” which contained orange juice, vanilla liqueur, and the famously flavorless spirit, vodka.
“Friday’s really got that ball rolling,” Walsh says. “It just grew from there, and after a while, every other casual-dining chain would look almost the same as Friday’s.”
In a 2010 interview on Edible Geography, Stillman told Nicola Twilley and Krista Ninivaggi, “All I really did was throw sawdust on the floor and hang up fake Tiffany lamps. I painted the building blue and I put the waiters in red and white striped soccer shirts. … I wanted T.G.I. Friday’s to feel like a neighborhood, corner bar, where you could get a good hamburger, good French fries, and feel comfortable. … The principle involved was to make people feel that they were going to someone’s apartment for a cocktail party.” Friday’s caused a sensation: “The Saturday Evening Post,” “Time,” and “Newsweek” raved about Stillman’s concept, while young people began to line up around the corner to get into the bar.
Before long, Stillman had competitors popping up all along First Avenue, including Mr. Laff’s, Gleason’s, and Hudson Bay Inn. In April 1966, Maxwell’s Plum opened a block from Friday’s, initially as a café for the theater next door. Three years later, Maxwell’s Plum remodeled and expanded its bar and restaurant into the old theater space, blooming into its full Art Nouveau-revival glory. The second-floor balcony restaurant wrapped around the singles bar below, and every wall and ceiling dripped with stained glass, ceramic animals, and crystals. It was a place to see and be seen.
Slowly, singles bars started popping up in major cities like Chicago and San Francisco. In August 1969, 26-year-old Perry Butler opened Perry’s, a clean, well-lit bar on Union Street that also found decorating inspiration in P.J. Clarke’s—with mirrors, a tile floor, bentwood chairs, framed memorabilia, and checkered tablecloths—but with a twist. Butler told “The San Francisco Chronicle” that, at the suggestion of a friend, he hung ferns in the windows. Perry’s, which offered cocktails and pub food, quickly became a hotspot for singles and celebrities, so much so that Armistead Maupin described the bar as a “meat market” in Tales of the City.
But another, long-gone San Francisco institution has a claim on the title of first—and most definitive—“fern bar.” A few months after Perry’s debuted in 1969, Norman Jay Hobday opened a saloon called Henry Africa’s on Broadway and Polk. Hobday borrowed money, also from his mom, to purchase the bar, and he claimed he agreed to name the spot after his mother’s old boyfriend, who supposedly had been in the Foreign Legion. But soon Hobday started wearing military uniforms and going by Corporal Henry Africa—and he eventually legally changed his name to Henry Africa. Because he didn’t have money to remodel, Africa said, he hung ferns.
Martin Cate, cocktail historian and owner of a San Francisco tiki bar called Smuggler’s Cove, told “The Bold Italic” that Africa wanted to scrub the Victorian saloon of its seedy “opium-den” reputation, making them more like “your grandmother’s living room,” with Tiffany-style leaded glass lamps, overstuffed Victorian furniture, ferns, and palm trees. Drinks like daiquiris and mudslides were made with fruit or ice cream so they’d appeal to women who didn’t like the taste of alcohol. The plants, Cate asserts, were part of the 1970s ecological trend: At the time, people wanted to feel more connected with the natural world.
Nostalgia for the Victorian Era must’ve been in the air in 1969. Outside of the singles scene, new family restaurants opened as walk-in fantasy worlds that offered a spit-shine-clean version of the late 1800s and early 1900s in America. In Portland, Oregon, Guss Dussin and his wife, Sally, debuted the first Old Spaghetti Factory, which celebrated the shining commuter-transit achievement known as the trolley, with a refurbished car as the restaurant centerpiece. Sally decorated the restaurant with the most affordable period antiques she could find at garage sales and flea markets. Tiffany-style lamps and chandeliers hung from the ceilings, while booths were made with polished brass headboards.
That same year, Daniel Evins, a Shell Oil sales rep, opened the first Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in the small town of Lebanon, Tennessee, just outside the Nashville metroplex. While Friday’s, Perry’s, and Old Spaghetti Factory focused on relics of turn-of-the-century urban life, Cracker Barrel was designed to replicate the dusty five-and-dimes where farmers in rural America gathered to catch up on the latest news and gossip.
“When Danny sold Shell gasoline in the ’50s and ’60s, he got to travel around to these little rural communities that all had old country stores,” Larry Singleton, the long-time Cracker Barrel décor manager, tells me on the phone from Tennessee. “And those places stuck with him.”
Singleton’s parents, Don and Kathleen, owned an antique shop in Lebanon, so Daniel Evins approached them to help him pick antiques and design his new concept for a restaurant and gift shop. Serving traditional Southern food like grits, the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store was bedecked with antique tin and porcelain signs pitching products sold in those stores, as well as things like advertising clocks and thermometers, old photographs, musical instruments, vintage farm implements, hunting trophies, advertising tins, and kitchenware. Rocking chairs lined the front porch.
“Danny wanted to re-create the feel and atmosphere of the old country stores, and that was the task assigned to Mom and Dad,” says Larry Singleton, whose parents spent a decade picking authentic antiques for and setting up 30-some Cracker Barrel chain restaurants, before his mom got sick in 1979. That’s when Larry stepped in and took over the family business.
In another part of Tennessee in 1969, a wealthy 23-year-old Memphis entrepreneur named James Robinson became smitten with Friday’s on a trip to New York City and, with a handful of young business cohorts, plotted to bring the swinging singles bar to the South. Six months after Shelby County, Tennessee, voted to allow restaurants to sell “liquor by the drink,” Robinson’s company—with the permission of Stillman—turned Robinson’s hippie coffeehouse, Perception, into the second T.G.I. Friday’s, which opened May 21, 1970, in the newly dubbed Overton Square on Madison Avenue.
“The Commercial Appeal” newspaper called it “a place with so much atmosphere you have to push it aside to get in.” Again, 20-somethings lined up for a table, and patrons mobbed the bar. This Friday’s became a hotspot for the Memphis counterculture, known for its boozy adventures, drug experimentation, and sexual subversion—including an underground queer scene. Bands played on a stage in back, while local rock stars like Big Star lingered at candy-striped tables under leaded-glass lamps.
“Friday’s was the first place in Memphis where you could actually go in and buy a mixed drink,” Rush Bowman, who took a job there as a bar-back before becoming a bartender, tells me over the phone from his home in the Dallas metro. “Before that, you’d had to take your own bottle to a bar, and the bar would hold on to it for you. They’d make your drinks with your own bottle and charge you a setup fee. Friday’s was first real bar in town, and the employees were young people with long hair, so they looked like the customers they were trying to attract.”
Robinson’s firm then opened more Friday’s franchises in Nashville and Little Rock, Arkansas, but the visual overload of T.G.I. Friday’s didn’t start until Dan Scoggin, a 35-year-old manager for cardboard-box manufacturer Boise Cascade, dined at Memphis’ coolest bar in 1971. According the UPI, Scoggin was musing about his next career move, when he gestured at the atmosphere around him and said he might even do “something as stupid as this.”
“I was managing the Southern division of Boise Cascade, a cardboard company that had a plant in Memphis,” Scoggin tells me over the phone recently. “I went to Friday’s, and it was fantastic. They were doing a $1 million dollars in volume in their first year, and I thought, ‘Wow, this could be my way to get out on my own.’” Scoggin met Robinson and his team—“they were cool guys,” he says—and then he paid a visit to the bar’s creator, Alan Stillman in New York City. Scoggin says the scene there was like the lyrics to a Dire Straits song, “You get your money for nothin’ and your chicks for free.”
“Since Friday’s franchises had seen success in small Southern cities, I decided I wanted open Friday’s in eight major U.S. cities, including Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, and Houston,” he continues. “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.”
According to a “Texas Monthly” article commemorating the Dallas Friday’s 20th anniversary, Scoggin and his partner, Walt Henrion, got in a VW bus and “drove 13,000 miles, collecting knickknacks and antiques such as copper cash registers, stained-glass panels, wooden ceiling fans, moose heads, and Tiffany-style lamps to decorate their club. They bought dozens of Boston ferns to hang from the ceilings to create Dallas’ first fern bar.”
“We’d get a young busboy and pour a couple shots of tequila down him. Then we’d put the gorilla suit on him and let him go crazy.”
Fortunately for Scoggin and Henrion, the Texas Legislature approved a law in 1971 giving counties the power to approve “liquor by the drink” and serving cocktails became legal in Dallas County. The metro was also fertile grounds for a singles scene: The city’s economy was thriving, the Dallas Cowboys were triumphing, and three major airlines—American, Southwest, and Braniff—had built their headquarters there. A new apartment complex called The Village attracted singles to Greenville Avenue in North Dallas, as pretty flight attendants and hunky football players were looking for a way to mingle. Friday’s Greenville Avenue location—which could hold up to 400 people—was ideal.
“It was the singles-bar era, which was, in part, due to the introduction of birth control pills, which caused social mores to loosen up,” Scoggin says. “I was single at the time, and you know what my pickup line was? ‘Hi darling, I own this place.’”
When the Dallas bar and grill opened on January 28, 1972, eager young people in tube tops and bellbottoms lined up to get in. Once they made it inside, they’d circle the bar, which became known as “doing a lap.” Servers and bartenders were encouraged to be friendly, fun, and flirtatious.
“People would start walking up the steps to the bar, then they’d start circling slowly around the bar, and it might take them half an hour to do it,” says Bob Treat, a Dallas architect who worked as a draftsman and project architect for T.G.I. Friday’s in the early 1980s. “You’d circle around until you got to where you found an empty bar seat or somebody you wanted to talk to.”
“The lap” was built into the design of the raised square bar area, Treat explains. “From the middle-out, you’d have the bartender, the bar, the people sitting at the bar on the high stools, and then there was about a foot and half, enough room for an outer ring of people to stand. They’d put their drinks on a 12-inch wide elbow-height bar,” he says. “So you had people facing the bar, and people facing away from the bar, and just enough space to squeeze between them. I know this sounds sexist, but it wasn’t my idea: It was designed so the women would have to turn sideways and brush up against people on one or the other side to get by. The spacing of it was almost scientific. If it had been too big, then there wouldn’t have been that physical interaction between the people who were already seated and the people who had just arrived.”
But Friday’s also contributed to the liberation of women, at least when it came to going out for a drink. “It was the first national bar chain that made it acceptable for a group of three or four women to go out and have a good time together,” Treat says. “So in a way, Friday’s fit in with the women’s lib movement of the time or, at least, took advantage of it.”
Dallas stock broker and long-time bachelor Billy Bob Harris described the 1970s Friday’s scene on Greenville Avenue to the “Texas Monthly,” “The women were everywhere. I had never seen high heels, a miniskirt, and no hose on one woman at the same time.” This hotspot for sexy Southerners was quickly written up by “Dallas Times Herald,” “Newsweek,” “WWD,” and “Glamour.” In the “Monthly” article, Harris recalled that Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton would park his Lincoln Mark III “near the front door so he could take women out there to see his brand-new eight-track tape system.”
Scoggin’s team installed a ship’s bell over the bar so the bartenders could clang it when they got a good tip. Bowman remembers ringing that bell after he transferred to the Dallas location. “The bell was constantly going off,” he says. “The customers loved it. We also had an old bulb car horn, and if you were particularly unhappy with a customer, you could blow the horn.”
Every Thursday night at midnight, the Friday’s staff would throw a New Year’s Eve-type “Thank God It’s Friday” party ringing in Friday with champagne and noisemakers. Then, a Friday’s employee in a gorilla suit would burst in and run amuck.
“We’d get a young busboy and pour a couple shots of tequila down him,” Bowman remembers. “Then we’d put the gorilla suit on him and let him run around and go crazy.”
Scoggin tells me the Dallas locale “brought in $2 million in volume the first year.” A year and a half after its grand opening, Scoggin’s company opened its second restaurant in the Houston Galleria Mall on July 24, 1973, an event glammed up by the presence of seven swoon-worthy astronauts, including 40-year-old moon-walker Alan Shepard. “People are incredulous when I tell them I commissioned a third of Southwest Airlines’ fleet to fly my staff from Dallas to Houston for the opening,” Scoggin says, with a chuckle. “Well, at the time, Southwest only had three planes.”
Bowman traveled with Scoggin and his team to open up new Friday’s in cities around the United States. “In the late ’70s, each of the openings was a phenomenon because there was nothing like Friday’s in the market,” Bowman remembers. “When we opened in Houston, I worked the event as a night bartender, and I just had to sit in back, taking deep breaths, and tell myself, ‘OK, I’m going into the lion’s den.’”
At the time, a standard Friday’s floor plan would have a tri-level telephone booth, with three doors and three pay phones, which offered singles a way to escape unwanted advances. “Pagers had just come out, so if somebody wanted to get away from a conversation—or they wanted to seem important—they would page themselves, then make their excuses, and run to the phone booth, and then slip out,” Treat says. “Or go back and make it sound like they had important phone calls waiting for them.”
“In terms of tin and porcelain signs, what we had would be the envy of any picker. In the early ’70s, this stuff was just lying around and available.”
By the mid-1970s, Alan Stillman had merged his company with Scoggin’s, who debuted his concept of Friday’s in 10 big cities across the United States. Scoggin sold the brand to Dallas-based hospitality behemoth Carlson Companies, owned by Curt Carlson, in 1975 and stayed on as CEO. Scoggin continued to launch more than 100 new Friday’s franchises all around the United States—and even one in the United Kingdom—until the mid-’80s.
Before Friday’s, most chain restaurants were fast-food joints like McDonald’s or Sonic. Steak and Ale, which Norman Brinker introduced in Dallas in 1966, was the first real sit-down-type chain restaurant, which tried to maintain a white-table-cloth respectability and reputation for courteous servers. Going to Friday’s—or Old Spaghetti Factory or Cracker Barrel—was more of an event than hitting a drive-thru but more fun than a formal steak dinner. Filling a joint up with 3-D visual stimuli like antiques and yard-sale finds became part of the entertainment package.
“I would roll up to a new location with a trailer full of memorabilia, the exact amount to fill up the restaurant,” Scoggin says. “I made a science of cluttering the walls and creating 3-D projections. I put big things in too small of a space, little things in too big a space. I wanted people to feel like they were seeing something they’d never seen before every time they came to the restaurant.
“I wouldn’t say we meant the antiques to be conversation starters,” he continues. “But they certainly started a lot of conversations at the tables, with people saying, ‘I wonder where this is from?’”
At first, Scoggin and his designer Herbert Hughes were doing the Mike Wolfe thing, roaming the countryside in their VW bus, looking for farms with intriguing barns and knocking on the front door.
“We were our own pickers,” Scoggin recalls. “We picked antiques all over the mid-South. In the beginning, we only decorated our stores with the finest stuff. We didn’t want to do that ticky-tacky thing where you had one piece that was authentic surrounded by replicas.”
That’s because in the early 1970s, the collectors market for turn-of-the-century antiques barely existed, so things like leaded-glass lamps and authentic advertising signs were relatively abundant and affordable.
“You get to look around and say, ‘Oh, I remember that,’ or ‘My grandfather had one of those.’ Then the older generation gets to pass on a little history of their lives.”
“In terms of tin and porcelain signs, what we had would be the envy of any picker,” Scoggin says. “In the early ’70s, this stuff was just lying around and available. In Middle Tennessee, Herbert and I stopped by a house with a barn and asked the lady there if she had any stained glass or Tiffany lamps. She said she had a stained glass panel in her barn, and if we could find it, we could have it. It was an incredible piece, which I found out later, had hand-cut beveled crystal and rose-colored glass. It was so glorious that I was shaking. She only wanted $750 for it.
“I took it straight to a guy in Western Tennessee who did all my repairs on the stained glass,” he continues. “He explained they didn’t make windows like that anymore. He didn’t want me to take it out of the van, because ‘I don’t know exactly what that’s worth, but I know I don’t have enough insurance to cover it.’”
Besides stained glass and tin signs, Scoggin also got into hunting down vintage rowing sculls, so every new Friday’s would have a large scull as a centerpiece of its décor, which led to some finagling to fit the things in the stores. He and Hughes were also looking for any item that could add to the antics going down at Friday’s every night.
“We’d found a big antique cast-iron sign that was 3 feet wide that said ‘Beware of Trains,’” Scoggin says. “We thought it’d be funny to hang it over the urinals in the men’s bathroom. Some drunk guy went in there and cried out, ‘How the hell am I supposed to pee when I’ve got to worry about the trains?’”
As a bartender who would travel with the team launching new restaurants around the country, Rush Bowman also pitched in with installing the antiques. “In those days, everybody on the team did whatever they could,” Bowman says. “You’d get to the new store a week or two early, and they just put you to work. I would help with the décor installation. I wasn’t terribly artistic, but I had mechanical skills, so I could make this stuff stay on the wall.”
Bowman’s enthusiasm for the physical challenge of attaching the antiques to the walls eventually landed him a job as Friday’s designer.
“Dan would come in and direct the team putting the stuff up on the walls,” Bowman says. “When Friday’s started growing past the point where he couldn’t look after that aspect himself, he tried a couple of different people who, for one reason or another, didn’t work out. It was something that I had always liked doing, so he handed it off to me around 1979.”
A big part of the problem with putting interesting old things on the wall is that you’re enticing someone to try and take them. “In the first year, we did have with some thievery,” Scoggin acknowledges. “We had to figure out how to attach things to the wall so they wouldn’t come off.”
“In the early days, if the opening team wanted to put a tuba on the wall, they’d just wrap a piece of wire around the tuba and nail it to the wall,” Bowman says. “But there’s too much opportunity for mayhem with something like that. By the time I became Friday’s designer, we put everything up with screws. We would install big, heavy things like sleds and soapbox derby cars on the walls. I liked the challenge of ‘Can I get this big piece that sticks out 10 feet off the wall up to stay up?’”
By 1975, Scoggin was in charge of 10 restaurants and didn’t have time to be digging through barns and garages. So he hired a team of expert antiques scouts, led by Nashville-based Charlie Allen, who would eventually spend decades working for Friday’s, which kept its picks in a Nashville warehouse.
“Charlie Allen was connected with pickers in different markets around the mid-South,” Bowman says. “He would buy wagons and pedal cars from one guy; mirrors and pictures from another guy; metal advertising from another; and so on. For each restaurant, we’d receive a trailer packed with close to 500 items that he could assemble without repeating a specific piece.
“We’d unpack it and lay it out on the floor, pissing off all the construction guys because we were talking up the whole floor with all this junk,” he says. “They’d say, ‘Why can’t you just open one box and put this stuff on the wall before you open another box?’ It didn’t work that way, because one box might have 50 tin signs in it, and you couldn’t do a wall out of just signs. We’d start in the center of a panel and usually put a nice mirror or another item that would carry the wall. Then we’d work around it, putting the bigger stuff up high so people wouldn’t bump their heads on it and work down to a flatter surface at the bottom.
“It was like doing a puzzle where you had no idea what the picture was going to be,” he continues. “You’d just pick up a piece and say, ‘Oh, that wagon would look good above that mirror.’ Then you’d stick some sort of critter in the wagon and go from there, making a panel that flowed and had some creative design to it. But the panel was not thematic because it had all kinds of things mixed together.
“At the end, we had these two big shelves above the women’s and the men’s restroom entries, which were a good size. We’d put everything that we didn’t use on the walls up there, making a collage out of it. If you had extra signs or pictures, you could stick those in the back.”
“We didn’t want to do that ticky-tacky thing where you had one piece that was authentic surrounded by replicas.”
Bowman says that his team never cleaned up or de-rusted the antiques they received from Allen. “We put them up however they came,” he says. “The antiques team would clean them up a little bit in the warehouse. If an item was particularly grungy, Charlie might spray it with a coat of orange shellac which helped to make it look older, and it would reflect the light. We used red lighting almost exclusively inside the restaurants, and that reacted well with the color of orange shellac. It was part of the deception.”
At Cracker Barrel, décor manager Larry Singleton says his team doesn’t do much in the way of restoration or refurbishing antiques for its new restaurants. “We have always had a tendency to just preserve it, whatever condition we get it in,” he says. “Everything gets something done to it, but we’re not trying to make it look brand new. We’re just trying to make sure it looks presentable in our store.”
Jeff Walsh of Hospitality Solutions, which also has a 10,000-square-foot Massachusetts warehouse filled with antiques, says how much work he does on an antique depends on the client. “If I’m selling to antiques dealers, I leave it. They want it the way it is, rusty and beat-up. If I’m selling to the hospitality industry or to a public place, we clean it up.”
At first, Bowman says, everything in Friday’s came from the early 20th century. “The advertising pieces would be for products that you didn’t see anymore,” he explains. “The stuff, like wheeled toys and old baby buggies, was not current at all.”
But why would hippie burnouts or disco dancers care about all these dusty antiques? “I’ve thought a lot about that,” Bowman muses. “It was like you opened the door to your grandmother’s attic, and the stuff was just tumbling down the steps. Most of our customers didn’t even know what a lot of the antiques that we used were. The 25-year-olds didn’t relate to the objects on a basis of personal experience, but they thought it looked cool.”
Cracker Barrel’s country-store concept remains popular, Singleton says, because “it gives an ambience that you can’t get otherwise. People can relate to the things remembering, say, a service station they visited growing up. It’s about that rural Americana life that seems a little simpler and laid back—even if it may not have been.”
Like the tiki bars that flourished from the 1930s to the 1960s, casual-dining restaurants like Friday’s and Chili’s offered customers a getaway from their mundane lives. “It’s about the experience of escapism,” Walsh says. “You can escape into that environment for an event, for a dinner, for a drink. And when you leave, you’re back in the real world.”
“I made a science of cluttering the walls and creating 3-D projections. I put big things in too small of a space, little things in too big a space.”
Friday’s picker Charlie Allen had a good eye for urban Americana, Bowman explains. “Charlie would go out and find advertising items that would be very expensive today,” he says. “But in the early ’80s, nobody was looking for that stuff, so it was not expensive—except for Coke. We didn’t use a lot of Coca-Cola stuff because, even at that time, it was pricey. Nowadays, with the popularity of ‘American Pickers,’ rusty old antiques, especially advertising signs, are just through the roof.”
As you can imagine, though, all that orange shellac, wax, and screws would have an impact on the resale value of the antique, which might not have had much value to begin with. Part of the reason restaurants were able to fill their stores with antiques is that they were picking off the low-end of signs that serious collectors weren’t that interested in, explains Mike Bruner, author of Signs of Our Past: Porcelain Enamel Advertising in America.
“The one thing I’ve noticed about advertising in restaurants is that they don’t seem to be particularly fussy about what they have,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s intentional. It probably is from the standpoint of price, because even if they were acquiring stuff 25 years ago, they were going to pay the going rate, so they would use lower-end advertising or stuff from Europe. The designers weren’t collectors, and didn’t have a collector’s eye. They were just trying to get a theme going in a restaurant. If the sign had some damage, that was not a big deal. However, I have seen some signs in restaurants that I would love to own. It’s like, ‘Geez, where the heck did you find that?’”
In fact, Bowman credits Friday’s with creating the current market for turn-of-the-century antiques. “We’d have people want to buy stuff off the wall all the time, and we discouraged that because we were a restaurant, not a retail shop,” he says. “For that reason, by the late ’90s, Friday’s was having a lot of advertising reproduced because it was a lot cheaper than buying the authentic stuff.”
Scoggin acknowledges Friday’s explosive growth during his tenure eventually forced the company to start ordering its own reproductions. “I had found an old carousel chicken—it was one of those things where industry people would be like, ‘You’re crazy to put that in a restaurant,’ but customers loved it,” he says. “Eventually, we made a mold of that carousel chicken and made fiberglass replicas of it. The ‘Beware of Trains’ sign was so popular, we had copies made of that. The stained glass market started drying up, so we hired high-end studios and had them copy Tiffany-style lamps and window panels.”
Later, Bowman admits, he and Allen created a number of “fantasy” antiques for Friday’s—which sometimes people mistake for real turn-of-the-century artifacts. “I’ve got a silkscreened tin sign here in my garage that says, ‘Bowman Springs Fishing Camp,’ depicting a fisherman with a fly rod in his hand, which we made because I’m fly fisherman,” he says. “Charlie and I both were fond of Native American images. So he made bronze plaques with a particular Indian-head profile, similar to the guy on the nickel. Working with a foundry in Louisville, Kentucky, he created several different items with that same image. One of them was said ‘Chippewa Wagon Works—Albany, New York’ and another said ‘Mohawk Tool Works, Arrowsharp Axes & Knives.’ Recently, I saw a Chippewa Wagon Works sign at an auction site, and the guy was trying to pass it off as a 19th-century trade sign from New York. I hope nobody pays $2,000 for it, because we made hundreds of them.”
Working for restaurants like Chili’s, Applebee’s, and later Friday’s, Walsh said that Hospitality Solutions relied on reproductions to make ends meet. “We did it for budget reasons,” he says. “If you had to collect all of those signs and have them all be authentic, it would be impossible. You just couldn’t get enough of them. There were many companies that made reproductions signs, and they still do today. But those were the filler pieces. They helped offset the budget so that you could afford to buy the impact piece. I would say, percentage-wise, most of restaurants probably had 80 percent old stuff and 20 percent reproductions.”
Cracker Barrel, however, has only copied a handful of items, mostly old photos, Larry Singleton says. “We may have copied a picture or two, if we’re not able to locate a particular image that’s related to the store’s locality,” he says. “But 99.9 percent of the antiques in a Cracker Barrel are authentic.”
It didn’t take long for the concept of cluttered casual dining to explode. In 1972, Sandy Beall debuted a Friday’s knockoff called Ruby Tuesday in Knoxville, near the University of Tennessee campus, while another fern-bar-esque spot named Houlihan’s opened in Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza. In Dallas, Spaghetti Warehouse, a copy of the Old Spaghetti Factory chain, opened in the West End district with an original East Dallas trolley car and the long brass headboard and footboard of a bed that once belonged to Stephen F. Austin, the founder of Texas.
“The people developing Houlihan’s, Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson, came down from Kansas City to see what we were doing at Friday’s,” Scoggin says. “They wanted to be a cut above us. Norman Brinker, the founder of Steak and Ale, and opened a competitor called Bennigan’s, which was a cut below us.”
Scoggin is quick to take a deeper jab at this old rival, who opened the first Bennigan’s in Atlanta in 1976: “Actually, that’s not giving us enough credit,” he says. “Bennigan’s was two or three cuts below Friday’s, at least, as Brinker was trying to do casual dining at a low cost.” But Scoggin is full of praise for Larry Lavine, a “worthwhile competitor,” who opened the first Chili’s Bar and Grill on Dallas’ Greenville Avenue in 1975, not too far from Scoggin’s first Friday’s. “Larry was a consummate genius when it came to reinventing your basic hamburger and fries,” Scoggin says.
In 1976, Bob and Jeffiee Tayar, inspired by a visit to Friday’s and the singles-scene in Dallas, brought casual-dining antics to Oklahoma City and stepped up the absurdity by opening Molly Murphy’s House of Fine Repute on South Meridian Avenue. Called “a Russian Orthodox Church that mated with a ranch house” by “Playboy,” Molly Murphy’s design was as surreal as possible: A toilet bowl served as a flower pot, and a red Jaguar XKE served as a salad bar. The waiters and waitresses—dressed as Superman, Little Bo Peep, Bullwinkle Moose, etc.—insulted and embarrassed the customers, who paid for the experience. In 1978, the couple opened a location on Sheridan Road in Tulsa.
“People have yards full of reclaimed wood that they would never have kept before. Now it’s bringing some serious money.
Scoggin says, however, his Friday’s team came to the conclusion that most of their customers did not want to be humiliated. “We figured out that people want to be entertained, but they don’t want to be disrupted or forced to participate,” Scoggin says. “We pioneered singing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and we were known for that. But after a while, to be honest, even I got sick of it. So what we did was get a bunch of red and white helium balloons, and every server working had to go over and tie a single balloon to their chair. It was a way to keep the fun going without bothering people.”
By the 1980s, the party was winding down. While the emerging AIDS crisis killed the thrill of pursuing free love in a well-lit singles bar, well-publicized drunk-driving incidents delivered a blow to bar culture. An organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving formed in 1980 to educate the public about the dangers of driving while intoxicated and create laws and corporate policy to prevent drunk drivers from killing people on the road. Membership in MADD exploded in 1983.
In San Francisco, Henry Africa sold his landmark fern bar, then located on Van Ness Avenue at Vallejo, in 1983, but continued working there until ’85. A year later, the joint—which didn’t serve food—closed, and Africa opened a new bar and grill called Eddie Rickenbacker’s, named after an American ace pilot who fought in World War I. Located at Second and Minna streets, Eddie Rickenbacker’s featured the standard tile floors, Tiffany-style lamps, and ferns, as well as Africa’s collection of 30 vintage motorcycles hanging from the ceiling. (While Eddie Rickenbacker’s remains open today, the motorbikes—which included 1902 Peugeot, a 1919 Triumph Model H, a 1917 Harley-Davidson Model F, and a 1952 Moto Guzzi Falcone—went up for auction after Africa’s death in 2011.)
Around the same time, Friday’s bartenders such as “Magic” Mike Werner, John “JB” Bandy, John Mescall, and Jimmy Skeadas turned the act of making cocktails into entertainment itself, flipping bottles and doing tricks as they prepared drinks. These theatrics became known as “flair bartending.” The first “Bartender Olympics” took place in Woodland Hills, California, at the end of 1986. (“The Olympics Committee wasn’t happy we were using that name and made us change it to something else,” Scoggin says.) Touchstone Pictures approached Bandy, who won this first flair-bartending championship, to help train Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown for the 1988 film, “Cocktail,” which is set in—wait for it—the original Manhattan T.G.I. Friday’s.
While the younger generation of singles went elsewhere in the 1980s, the Baby Boomers who stayed loyal to Friday’s and other casual-dining joints had settled down. Stanford University research showed that the proliferation of singles bars was responsible for 20-25 percent of all pairings in the early 1970s. By the mid-1980s, many of the ’70s swinging singles had kids. According to at 1984 UPI interview with Scoggin, the Boomers wanted their former party spots to chill out. “They’re telling us we’re too noisy,” Scoggin said at the time. “We’re going to retrofit the restaurants with noise reduction materials.”
Alan Stillman, the creator of Friday’s, explained how Friday’s evolved over the 1970s in a 2010 Edible Geography interview with Nicola Twilley and Krista Ninivaggi. “The size didn’t change it as much as our expansion into the big southern suburban towns,” he said. “Those cities have a very different way of interacting with the street in the first place, but the big shift was that during the day, we started to get families. We had very informal, casual food—you could get an omelette or a hamburger—so families were coming in with their kids. … It took six or seven years, but T.G.I. Friday’s became a very different animal.”
By the mid-’80s, the fern-bar inspired chains had shifted into restaurants that offered a fun meal for the whole family, as Friday’s, its competitors, and new copycat chains continued to expand to malls and suburbs around the United States. The Hard Rock Café, which arrived in the United States in 1982, focused exclusively on rock ’n’ roll memorabilia. Planet Hollywood, debuting in 1991, did a similar schtick, only celebrating movies and television.
As more and more chains popped up, the overall quality of casual-dining food started to decline, and the Friday’s cluttered-attic look became associated with bad food. Applebee’s debuted in Decatur, Georgia, in November 1980, using the same memorabilia-heavy design, but instead of offering fresh, creative takes on American bar staples, Applebee’s served cheap ready-made meals, which were shipped to the restaurant frozen and then heated up in a microwave. “I don’t think casual dining was ruined because of Applebee’s, but it coincided with the ruination of it,” Bowman muses. “It’s the old adage of you get what you pay for.”
In 1986, Scoggin decided to retire from Friday’s and sail around the world with his wife and children, leaving Curt Carlson’s hospitality corporation in charge of the brand. That’s when, Scoggin says, the quality of food at Friday’s diminished. “Curt Carlson felt Friday’s could save money if it didn’t pay as much attention to details,” Scoggin says. “He got rid of our test kitchen, for example.”
By the mid-1990s, casual theme dining was becoming the butt of jokes. On a 1995 episode of “The Simpsons,” saloonkeeper Moe opens a restaurant called Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag, specializing in deep-fried food. Moe wears a barbershop quartet costume with candy-striped shirt, bow-tie, suspenders, and a sleeve garter. In a commercial, Moe says, “If I’m not smiling when your check comes, your meal’s on me.”
His décor includes ferns, a vintage gas pump, stained-glass windows, several taxidermy trophies including an alligator head wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat, license plates, a ’50s jukebox, and a “Yield” traffic sign. “Street signs! Indoors? Hmm, whatever!” Marge exclaims.
Then in the 1999 satirical film “Office Space,” the beaten-down suburban office workers have their morning coffee at Chotchkie’s, an obvious parody of T.G.I. Friday’s, which prides itself on its relentlessly perky wait staff who wear green-and-white striped soccer shirts and suspenders covered in kitschy, jokey pins and buttons, called “pieces of flair.” The restaurant has leaded glass lamps, brass railings, ferns, and a barber pole, and the walls are decorated with soda and feed advertising signs, musical instruments, framed photos and newspapers, vintage hats, beer steins, and vintage product packaging.
Jennifer Aniston plays a waitress who quits when she gets fed up with the pressure to wear more than the minimum “15 piece of flair,” but eagerly takes a job at the restaurant next door, Flingers, which still has the ferns, brass railings, and framed memorabilia, but a more subdued staff uniform. “When Dan was running the company, he would’ve flipped out over a rule like ‘15 pieces of flair,’” Bowman says, explaining his former boss was not a fan of rigid requirements.
However, “Office Space” was not a box-office hit—it took years of DVD rentals and cable screenings to become a cult classic for disaffected white-collar workers. And, according to a 2003 “New York Times” article, after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, people craved a comforting connection to the American relics of a more innocent past.
The “New York Times” reported that in 2003, Applebee’s—which then had roughly 1,500 stores—would spend $25,000 on antiques for each new restaurant, whereas Ruby Tuesday—which had 650 stores—would budget up to $50,000 on the same. Walsh says Applebee’s was one of his biggest spenders for a long time. The chain was particularly invested in giving each store a local feel, and would ask him reach out to nearby politicians, schools, fire and police departments for old photos.
“The Hometown Heroes was a classic segment of their brand, which could be a local athlete, police officer, firefighter, or community leader,” Walsh says. “We’d have to do the research to find those people for a new locale and then get our choices approved by Applebee’s corporate headquarters. Probably 15 or 20 percent of the restaurant would focus on the Hometown Heroes.”
Even to this day, Cracker Barrel—which as more than 630 locations—will decorate a new store with approximately 1,000 authentic antiques. With the help of Larry Singleton, the company maintains a warehouse packed to the gills with an inventory of 90,000-110,000 items including advertising like soda signs, tobacciana, petroliana, product tins and packaging, globe lamps, and store displays; framed photos and drawings; toys, figurines, dolls, and model cars; books; housewares like ceramic plates, mantel clocks, radios, graniteware, measure cups, ladles, and washboards; sporting goods like croquet mallets and tennis rackets; hunting goods like shotguns, knives, duck decoys, and taxidermy trophy heads; farm and Wild West collectibles like tractor seats, wagon wheels, horse shoes, wheelbarrows, and pitchforks.
While Singleton sees this massive inventory every day, when visitors come in from the outside, he’s reminded of how impressive it all is. “We’ve got a 26,000 square-foot warehouse, set up like the aisles at the library, except it’s all visual,” he explains. “You’re looking for kitchenware, you go down one aisle. If you’re looking for carpentry tools, you go down another. We have blacksmithing antiques, advertising pictures—it goes on and on.”
The warehouse has a room where Singleton and his team can mock up the walls of soon-to-be opened Cracker Barrel stores. Every store has standard features: An ox yoke over the front door, a deer trophy and shotgun over the fireplace, and a traffic light in front of the bathrooms, so those four items have to be located in the warehouse and the stock regularly replenished. “We lay each store out, design it, photograph it, inventory it, and package it up so that when we get ready to set it up at the location, we pretty much know where everything is going to go,” Singleton explains.
Cracker Barrel also tries to tailor the antiques in each store to the town or region its located in. “We’ll research the local area and find out if it was known for a certain crop or industry,” Singleton says. “If they grew blueberries in New Jersey or whatever it might be, we’ll do a little area based on that. For every one of them, we’ll pick a theme, whether it’s agriculture, fishing, or blacksmithing. It could be anything, like military if there’s a base nearby.”
“The marketing department started hosting focus groups and got feedback like, ‘We don’t know what all this antique stuff is.’”
Singleton says Cracker Barrel has a network of pickers and antiques dealers who are always on the hunt. “My mom would take me to auctions when I was young, and then my dad started taking me out to flea markets around the country in Georgia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New York,” he says. “Then we’d go to those really big antiques shows like Brimfield and Renniger’s where we developed relationships with guys in that business. When the antiques dealers found stuff, they’d let us know what they found, or if we were looking for something, I could let them know. Some of them I’ve been dealing with for 30-plus years. They’re still out there, hunting.”
What the pickers hunt for depends on the warehouse inventory level. “Sometimes we’re looking for signs, and sometimes we’re looking for automotive pieces or country-store cans, bottles, and boxes,” Singleton says. “It’s just really according to what our levels are. We get to walk through that daily and monitor that. We’ll see that advertising signs are low, and note that the pickers need to start finding some of those.”
Richard Holiner, a picker based Madison, Tennessee, who scavenged antiques for restaurants, told the “New York Times” that by the early 2000s, eBay was hurting his business, as restaurant owners could shop for authentic décor online.
Walsh says eBay didn’t hurt Hospitality Solutions, because his company had long-established relationships with restaurant chains. “When eBay first came out, everybody who had a shop saw their store sales and walk-in traffic drop in half,” he explains. “The markets stayed the same, but it was online instead of in the store. I don’t have a shop. I have a warehouse, so none of that matters to me.”
As Americans moved past the grief of 9/11 and “Office Space” became more and more popular, it became an embarrassment for Friday’s and its competitors. According a “Chicago Tribune” article, Friday’s focus groups were puzzled by the “junk” on walls, and in 2005, the restaurant chain started to streamline its look in Chicago prototypes, starting with taking out the faux Tiffany lamps, removing the circus-striped awnings, and reducing the clutter on the walls. It also ditched the pinback-covered uniform so despised by Jennifer Aniston. In 2007, Ruby Tuesday followed suit, getting rid of its leaded-glass lamps going for a “contemporary and sophisticated” feel in a new Orlando, Florida, restaurant. Suddenly, the formerly lucrative business of picking antiques for chains began drying up.
“Friday’s did ‘reimage’ a couple times,” Bowman recalls. “The marketing department started hosting focus groups and got feedback like, ‘We don’t know what all this antique stuff is.’ So the executives decided, ‘Let’s tone down the décor a little bit and not use quite so much stuff.’ When Friday’s first started advertising, they would do studio shoots at a fake Friday’s, and it wouldn’t be nearly as cluttered as the real restaurant was.”
As old Friday’s closed or remodeled, what happened to all the unwanted antiques? “The woman who was in charge of purchasing had to figure out what to do with everything,” says Bowman, who worked for Friday until the mid-2000s. “When the first few stores closed, she had a deal with a guy who would take the lampshades, the brass, and all the stuff off the walls for a set price. But I don’t think that lasted very long. For one thing, when the kids who worked in the restaurant would find out it was going to close, they would steal the best stuff. They’d think, ‘I’ve been working there for 10 years, I’ve love this sign, and by God, that’s mine when this place closes.’ So when the guy would show up to take the stuff off the wall, the choice items were gone already.”
Sometimes Walsh’s company will host auctions to liquidate the contents of a closing cluttered theme restaurant. For example, the Western-themed Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus, Massachusetts—which, Walsh says, “did more dollar volume than any other restaurant in the country for probably 35 years”—closed in 2013. “Together with an auctioneer, a friend of mine, John McGuiness, we auctioned everything in it in the whole restaurant,” he says. “The patrons should have a shot at getting this stuff. For Hilltop Steakhouse, the sales were strong and I was shocked at what some of the things were bringing.”
By 2012, Chili’s was seeing the writing on the kitsch-covered wall, and launched its new pared-down prototype in Mesquite, Texas. (Chili’s founder Larry Lavine had sold Chili’s to Norman Brinker of Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale fame in 1983.) Kevin Falconer, director of design for Brinker’s International, told “Restaurant Development + Design” in 2012 that the new look “incorporated more heritage items, such as the old tin ceilings from older Chili’s restaurants as well as light fixtures and other pieces that have a little more vintage flair or historical reference, but still feel like today. … A key word we found was authenticity. …We wanted the look to harken back to our roots without being over the top.”
“I had found an old carousel chicken—it was one of those things where industry people would be like, ‘You’re crazy to put that in a restaurant,’ but customers loved it.”
What prompted this cultural shift from raucous young singles in the 1970s delighting in bars and grills that were jam-packed with antiques to the Millennial foodies who want to dine in austere, rustic minimalism? Rush Bowman thinks our little pocket computers—iPhones and Androids—might have something to do with it.
“I think back then the cluttered décor was to young people what video games are to my grandkids,” he says. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, the antiques gave customers something to occupy their minds when they were waiting for their food. If you go into a restaurant today, you see any kid under 12 is on an electronic device—or actually, anybody under 50. The adults are looking at Facebook, and the kids are playing some game, so they wouldn’t know what’s on the wall right in front of them.”
Also, going to the same sort of place your parents went to get laid is profoundly uncool, explained Darren Tristano, president of restaurant consultancy Technomic, in a recent “Ad Week” article. “Today’s younger consumer wants to go to a place that their parents didn’t patronize,” he said, “and certainly not a bar and grill from the ’70s where you could pick up a flight attendant.”
Also, Jeff Walsh explains, the generation of “the cloud” is not as interested in settling down into home ownership or filling a house with books, records, or antiques. Whereas in the 1970s, former hippies embracing a more conventional style and Vietnam War veterans returning home could assert their own unique personality through what they collected.
“I grew up in that period, and I was into Victorian furniture,” Walsh says. “People of my generation like the old stuff. I have a lot of antiques in my house. But now my son, Matthew, who works with me now, doesn’t even want to look at them. He’s 33 years old, and he has three pieces in his house that are really nice, but that’s all he wants. His generation wants nothing to do with antiques, and I think that’s what caused the big pullback by all these chains.
“There’s a whole segment of people from the ages 24 to 35 who don’t even want to buy a house,” he continues. “They want to rent an apartment, and then they have more money to spend on taking trips and having experiences. They have a different lifestyle than the Boomers. We’re about setting our roots and having stuff. God knows we all collected lots of stuff.”
But Cracker Barrel remains popular, because its décor appeals to a broad demographic range, not just Millennials. “Our stores create an atmosphere where you can take a deep breath and visit with the people you’re eating with,” he says. “The byproduct is you get to look around and say, ‘Oh, I remember that,’ or ‘My grandfather had one of those.’ The antiques let a grandfather share with his grandson, ‘I used that when I was growing up.’ Then the older generation gets to pass on what it is and why it was used and a little history of their lives.”
Despite the rapid decluttering of casual dining restaurants, hospitality pickers—including the people who work for Walsh—are not entirely out of business. They’ve simply had to change what they’re looking for. Walsh said his 30-plus years of communicating with restaurants helped his company stay on top of the trends instead of closing up shop. “I listened, and I transitioned, so that’s what saved me,” he says.
For example, a big decorating trend nowadays involves turning scrap metal into fixtures, like making old wind turbines and mattress springs into lighting. “Repurposing has changed the antiques market, but the old stuff still makes that connection with people,” Singleton says. “Younger people are saying, ‘God, I want to be creative and I want to make something, but I want to use something from the past.’”
The biggest trend right now is industrial design, which creates the feeling of being in a warehouse or unfinished building—and that requires hunting down turn-of-the-century factory electric lighting, old pipes, corrugated tin, and reclaimed wood.
“The industrial look is still hot,” Walsh says. “I talk to designers all the time and ask, ‘Do you think this is the year it’s going to shift?’ and every year that goes by, it’s hotter than hell. It will be here another three, four years, anyway. That’s what all the antiques dealers are buying. Lots of people have yards full of reclaimed wood that they would never have kept before. Now it’s bringing some serious money. Chrome and stainless steel propellers are in, too. I went to Brimfield last year and found one chrome propeller in the whole place so I bought it.”
Now that the minimalist look has been embraced by Friday’s of all places, it, too, may be on its way out. But Walsh still doesn’t believe the full-on “grandma’s attic” look will ever come back.
“The minimalist trend is peaking right now, and restaurants are starting to transition away from it,” he says. “But the look is never going to be the layers of stuff. People are starting to say ‘I want something tangible in the space.’ Whatever it is, it has to be unique in its category. If you’re going to have a propeller in your restaurant, have the best freaking propeller you’ve ever seen. If it’s a ship model, it’s got to be the most spectacular model you’ve ever seen. Whatever it is, it’s got to dominate the room.
“People want to see antiques that have a life of their own,” he continues. “You don’t need many things to achieve what that one piece—or a handful of pieces—does. When we were doing Friday’s or Applebee’s, we were using hundreds and hundreds of pieces. Now the trend is having maybe 20 pieces that really tell a story.”
“We’d have people want to buy stuff off the wall all the time, and we discouraged that because we were a restaurant, not a retail shop.”
For what it’s worth, Friday’s founder Dan Scoggin thinks the Friday’s remodels have been completely unnecessary and pointless—“Office Space” and focus groups be damned. He says the most important element to draw a crowd to your restaurant is the food.
“My biggest complaint about restaurants today is that they’re so focused on décor and the logo. Nobody cares,” Scoggin says. “It doesn’t matter if you have a big or small menu, as long as you have quality food and clean acoustics. Casual-dining restaurants are just chasing their tails if they ignore taste and comfort.”
Now that Friday’s is abandoning its fern-bar roots and chain restaurants are embracing minimalism, it might be setting the stage for a casual-dining revival in sophisticated urban centers. In June 2015, Joe Carroll and Francesco Panella opened Oleanders in the hip Williamsburg district of Brooklyn, New York. This 2010s update of the fern bar has cleaner lines than, say, a 1990s Friday’s, but it brings back some of the more charming aspects of the fad—a checkerboard floor, bentwood chairs and stools, Tiffany-style lamps, clusters of framed portraits, and plenty of houseplants. Another new fern bar, Heavy Feather, opened in Chicago in that same year. With the opening of Leo’s Oyster Bar this year in San Francisco, it looks like the fern bar is back to being on trend. What’s old is new again.