T.G.I. Friday’s has been an American icon since it opened on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1965, a pioneer in what national media were calling the “swinging singles scene.”
Recently, though, Friday’s did what any 45-year-old swinger would want to do: ensure that it’s still as relevant, innovative and appealing as it was when it was that cheeky, irreverent symbol of the ’60s. And so, this most American of casual dining restaurants turned to a partner in the U.K. for a little mod support. It asked London’s Harrison Design Co. to help contemporize and innovate its design.
Harrison had recently redesigned the Friday’s location in Birmingham, U.K., after a fire left nothing but an empty shell. The redesign proved so successful that it became the model for a new flagship concept that debuted last winter in Westbury, N.Y., Friday’s very first suburban location back in 1982 (and the one where the potent Long Island Iced Tea cocktail was invented).
The impact begins on the exterior, where the tower bearing the logo was reclad, from sandstone to black granite. “We wanted to signal, right from the first external glance, that something new and special is going on here,” says David Milne, vp of architecture and design for parent company Carlson Restaurants (Carrollton, Texas).
Inside, the focal point had always been at the bar, where Friday’s claims to have invented the happy hour. But the renovation has literally raised the bar, making it the convivial center of energy and activity again. “The wooden soffit was made higher,” says designer Philip Harrison, “and the televisions were moved up into the soffit, so they weren’t as much in your face.”
The new design also lowered the walls around the bar area so that the activity can be seen, heard and enjoyed from anywhere in the restaurant.
Designers added a long 16-seat “sharing table” to the bar area, where guests can tap into the restaurant’s Wi-Fi capability and singles can use it as a social opportunity to meet other singles, giving the whole place a communal social spirit. All the other tables were raised to a variety of heights, so that the bar can be seen from anywhere in the restaurant.
The dining area, too, was upgraded and new red booths were installed, along with solid wood tables. Red was the original interior color but, says Milne, “over the years, we’d gone from red to dark blue and black. It had become cold and uninviting. Now we’re back to warm.”
Designers also took this opportunity to refresh the restaurant’s materials palette. A real pressed-tin ceiling replaces the old molded ceiling material. The red and white striping in the bar area is actually stained wood, not painted gypsum board. And striped red-and-white pendant lights over the tables are the modern version of Friday’s long-gone Tiffany-style lamps.
Stained redwood planks in the bar area with backlit lettering proclaim, “In Here, It’s Always Friday!” “That’s what the brand was originally about,” notes Milne, “the relief and excitement that it’s Friday and the weekend’s here.”
There’s also plenty of pop culture memorabilia. An entire history wall is filled with an entertaining collection of old T.G.I. Friday’s menus and marketing materials, photographs and newspaper and magazine articles.
There are local cultural references in the Westbury restaurant, too, especially sports – such as a display of tennis balls tying into the nearby site of the U.S. Open – but specific team references were downplayed.
“Team sports have the potential to polarize your guests,” says Milne. “In New York, for example, too many Yankee references and not enough Mets can have a negative effect.”
Retailer: Carlson Restaurants, Carrollton, Texas
Design: Harrison Design Co. Ltd., London
Audio/Visual: E.L. Media Group, New York
Furniture: M.S.W. Inc., Joplin, Mo.
Architect: Carrell, Poole & Yost Architecture, Dallas
General Contractor: Wathco Inc., Braselton, Ga.