From the archive
Alan Stillman: I lived on 63rd Street between First and York. Easy access to the 59th Street bridge meant you could get out of New York quickly, so in that two or three block neighbourhood, there was a pile of airline stewardesses — and for whatever reason, there was also a whole bunch of models. Basically, a lot of single people all lived between 60th and 65th and between York Avenue and 3rd Avenue. It seemed to me that the best way to meet girls was to open up a bar.
NCR: Where were those people hanging out before you opened your bar?
Stillman: At the time, it was all cocktail parties. What would happen is that on Wednesday and Thursday, you’d start collecting information—things like, “On Friday night at 8 o’clock at 415 East 63rd Street, there’s going to be great party run by three airline stewardesses.” Then somebody else would say, “Well, I got a good one—it’s going to be run by one of the baseball players at his apartment.” You built up a cocktail list and you bounced from one place to the other. The cocktail parties were wild, by the way. But there was no public place for people between, say, twenty-three to thirty-seven years old, to meet.
NCR: What about other bars — places like P. J. Clarke’s?
Stillman: P. J. Clarke’s was there — it had been in existence forever — but it wasn’t a meeting place. It was a guys’ beer-drinking hangout. There were very few women there. That was pretty typical of the New York bar scene at the time.
The other thing is that my timing was exquisite, because I opened T.G.I. Friday’s the exact year the pill was invented. I happened to hit the sexual revolution on on the head, and the result was that, without really intending it, I became the founder of the first singles bar.
The reason that it happened is that I used to stop into this corner bar near where I lived — a dirty old First Avenue bar with a bullet hole in the window called “The Good Tavern” — and I used to talk to the bartender. I would say to him, “You know, you ought to change the decor in here or do something with it — it would be a great place for all these people round here to meet each other. Eventually he said, “Why don’t you do it?” Five thousand dollars later, I had bought the premises with a short lease, and I was off and running.
NCR: Explain how you went about recreating that cocktail party atmosphere in a public space.
Stillman: 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. If you think that I knew what I was doing, you are dead wrong. I had no training in the restaurant business, or interior design, or architecture — I just have a feel for how to use all those things to create an experience.
I wanted T.G.I. Friday’s to feel like a neighbourhood, corner bar, where you could get a good hamburger, good french fries, and feel comfortable. At the time, it was a sophisticated hamburger and french fry place — apparently, I invented the idea of serving burgers on a toasted English muffin — but the principle involved was to make people feel that they were going to someone’s apartment for a cocktail party.
The food eventually played a larger role than I imagined it would, because a lot of the girls didn’t have enough money to stretch from one paycheque to the other, so I became the purveyor of free hamburgers at the end of the month.
I don’t think there was anything else like it at the time. Before T.G.I. Friday’s, four single twenty-five year-old girls were not going out on Friday nights, in public and with each other, to have a good time. They went to people’s apartments for cocktail parties or they might go to a real restaurant for a date or for somebody’s birthday, but they weren’t going out with each other to a bar for a casual dinner and drinks because there was no such place for them to go.
It took off extraordinarily quickly. In the first six to nine months, T.G.I. Friday’s got written up in Time, Newsweek, and the Saturday Evening Post. Then Maxwell’s Plum opened up across the street, which was another singles bar. It was really quite a phenomenon.
I believe that the first line in the history of bars, restaurants, and discos may have been at T.G.I. Friday’s. Inside of three months, we had to hire a doorman. One night I was tending bar, and he walked up to me and said, “Listen, there’s a dozen people standing outside, and we have no tables and no room at the bar. What do you want me to do?” And I said, “I tell you what. Why don’t you just tell them to wait, and when someone comes out, you’ll let them in.” He said that he didn’t know whether they would wait or not, and I said I didn’t know what else to tell him, and so he went back.
Next thing you know, I came out from behind the bar to get something and I looked outside and there were forty people standing in line. The next week we ended up buying velvet ropes. There was nothing like that anywhere else. You would either have a reservation at a fancy restaurant or you would just go into a bar or diner — nobody would wait in line for food and drink.
NCR: What else did you have to introduce or change in those early months?
Stillman: We had to change the way we ran the place completely. It was a long bar, with bar stools, and I don’t think anyone expected there to be people standing four deep behind the stools. Straightaway, we went from one bartender to three. The waiters couldn’t get through the aisles because of the crowds, so we had to adjust where the seating was. We had to change the menu to be able to get food out of the kitchen more quickly. It was a total readjustment, because no one expected to be doing the kind of business we were doing.
Inside of eighteen months, two more places opened up within a block. By the summer of 1965, the police had to come along, put up barriers, and close First Avenue between 63rd and 64th Street on Friday night from 8 p.m. until midnight, because there were so many kids going back and forth between these bars that the cars couldn’t get through.
We’d moved the cocktail party outside into the streets.
NCR: Did your strategy work? Did you meet good-looking girls?
Stillman: Have you seen the movie Cocktail? Tom Cruise played me! I was lucky enough to do it for three years — he only did it to make a movie. Even today, the advantage of being the guy behind the bar is huge. Why do girls want to date the bartender? To this day, I’m not sure that I get it.