And why doughnut holes belong in your cold brew
I couldn't definitively tell you the last time I stepped foot in a TGI Fridays. My best guess is likely 2003, the summer before junior year in high school. My then-girlfriend had just gotten her bellybutton pierced, and I nearly ripped it out with one overzealous hug in the parking lot. (Heather, if you're reading this, I'm still really sorry about that). Fridays was somewhat of a staple of our humdrum, suburban dining repertoire. The restaurant was dark, the food was delightfully greasy, and we felt like we were sophisticated by elevating our food game above the drive-thrus and diners scattered throughout our Long Island town.
But when high school ended, I sort of forgot that TGI Fridays even existed. Sure, it'd pop up occasionally—its wholly conspicuous location in Times Square and its equally flashy Union Square outpost were hard to miss living in New York City—but it wasn't really a place to which I gave much thought. And I doubt I'm alone: Facing diminishing market share from millennials whose proclivities have moved on, TGI Fridays has begun to redesign its restaurants in a bid to be more relevant and modern. The restaurant's name has shortened to Fridays, and its walls and uniforms have been stripped of the kitschy, campy accoutrement (and flair!) that were famously satirized in Office Space.
Certain locations now serve grab-and-go breakfast items, host theme nights such as beer pong night (true story, bro) and board game night. The restaurant has even gone straight for the zeitgeist by rolling out a Fridays Brunch menu on weekends, replete with chicken and waffles, bourbon steak and eggs, and handcrafted smoothies.
I hadn't planned to find myself back in a Fridays—and certainly not one in Forest Hills, Queens—until I'd read about TGI Fridays' co-working initiative at its Austin Street location. The press release promised free WiFi, ample iced coffee, a full food menu, and nary a single withering look for occupying a table for more than two hours while staring at Facebook and attempting to write about frozen Walmart doughnut cheeseburgers. (That part wasn't in the press release, but I planned for it, anyway.)
Working as a freelancer means taking your office with you wherever you go. More often than not, that means shlepping a laptop, camera, phone, and multiple chargers with you in a bag and finding an unobtrusive spot in a café or a bar. But this doesn't always work out so well: several New York City coffee shops limit WiFi access to 30 or 90 minutes. Others, like New York's Café Grumpy, ban laptops entirely. And working on a laptop in a bar can sometimes get you a stare-down. So the notion of working out of a Fridays? It seemed unorthodox, but considering that I've worked out of hospital waiting rooms, Korean delis, Samsung stores, and even nipped open WiFi from a house of worship (apologies, Bethel Seventh-Day Adventist Church), I was willing to give it a try.
When I arrive to the Fridays in Forest Hills, I am a little surprised at what I find. There is nary a red-and-white striped sign in sight. There are real-life windows letting in actual sunlight. There are happy, well-dressed servers who are not burdened by wacky buttons or withering fluorescent lights. The Fridays I knew as a teenager was is not the one in front of me; it is not the restaurant where my forbears, such as Caity Weaver, had intrepidly sacrificed herself upon a pyre of mozzarella sticks. Nor is it that same greasy escape from the diners of Long Island's Jericho Turnpike that I remember.
Once I get situated, the Fridays team doesn't waste time getting me set up with beverages and a food order. This is a restaurant, after all. I get myself the Bucket O' Bacon (which is an exact description of what the item is). It is a must. Then, a Joenut shake, which combines coffee, ice cream, and blended-up doughnut holes. Of course? Of course. Back alone at the table, though, I ask myself, What have I done?
But here's the thing: As I take my first sip of the Joenut shake when it arrives, I realize that I'm enjoying myself. Coffee, which I'd normally order black with a millennial grimace, no longer needs to hang out all by itself at the party that is a breakfast table. It can party with ice cream. It can mingle with the doughnuts. The coffee, much like myself, can lighten up.
So, I eat a strip of bacon. Gingerly at first, but with increasing vigor as I become more comfortable in my surroundings. Behind me are a group of loud, young medical students. In front of me is a middle-aged couple—the woman in a pair of jorts, and the man in a XXL Yankees T-shirt with Thurman Munson's name and number on the back. The students are happy. The couple is happy. And I, too, am happy. I might feel completely out of place for whipping out my laptop and answering emails in the middle of a fast-casual restaurant, but no one seems to care. I feel no anxiety for ordering enough food to satisfy a table of four. It seems completely normal to sip from a tall glass of iced coffee and a milkshake at the same time. It's totally chill to graze from a plate of nachos I also order (replete with soft pretzel nibs, I might add). And, of course, my metal cup filled with bacon.
And that's when it hits me: If I didn't realize that I were sitting in a Fridays, I'd think I was at any other eminently pleasant place to sit and have a meal. The thing about Fridays for a suburban kid like me is its personal history—its a restaurant that I associate with bored teenage exploits and meals of desperation in my past. It's a place that you might visit when your original dinner plans fall through, or when you're on a road trip and are too timid to stray far from the highway. Or it's the kind of place that will serve four obnoxious teenagers packed into a mid-'90s Volkswagen Jetta without batting an eyelash.
Perhaps it's not places like Fridays that are the issue, but our own baggage. We are the ones who are desperate to prove that we've matured as we've grown older. That we've learned something after moving away from home, that our tastes are more refined than they once were, and that we're accustomed to a wider variety of fancier food. Just as a 22-year-old might cringe at the prospect of moving home after college, we, too, are in a fight against ourselves to prove that we've learned something as we've aged.
Here's the tricky thing, though. Once you hit a certain age, or live enough life to simply stop giving a shit about most things, you begin to learn that enjoyment has more dimensions than you realized. That joy doesn't always require personal growth or evolution. It doesn't always ask you to be cool or unique. Sometimes it's OK to simply be comfortable. To regress. That coffee doesn't always need to be a single-origin Sulawesi Toarco from a small-batch roaster in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Sometimes it can be blended into oblivion with vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, and doughnut holes.
If life were a map, you'd see that just beyond bullshit-hipster valley lies a verdant expanse of comfortable enjoyment, where places like Fridays exist on a Thursday afternoon just so you can sit with your sticker-covered MacBook and be whatever the hell it is you want to be. That you won't be judged for ordering what you want. That you won't need to Instagram every meal you consume just to prove you exist.
As as much as you might not be there for Fridays, Fridays will be there for you. Whether you're a bespectacled Brooklyn jerk like me, or a jorts-wearing everywoman, or a member of a slightly loud group of medical students. And if you want to bring in your laptop and fire off a few emails while eating a Bucket O' Bacon, you're free to do that, too.