My First Time At TGI Fridays

Chain restaurants are surging again. But are places like TGI Fridays worth it?

Earlier this week, I went to TGI Fridays for the very first time. I wasn't there to eat ironically, lambaste the food, or disparage the place outright. Rather, there was something that brought me to TGIF specifically, and it's the financial data suggesting chain restaurants are once again on the rise.

I've read the op-eds and essays. Casual chains are back, baby, says Eater, citing figures that show Olive Garden's sales are up, as are Applebee's. Texas Roadhouse is the fastest growing restaurant brand in the world, and many fast-casual counter-service chains are trending upward as well. I'm fascinated by this surge in mid-tier chain restaurant dining. Eater puts it this way:

And then there is the issue of consistency. Food is expensive, and no one wants to drop $40 on dinner at a new hotspot just for that dinner to be mediocre. You know you're going to like your Bourbon Street Steak at Applebee's because it's going to be exactly the same as all the times you've had it before. It's also important for the food-obsessed among us to remember that many people aren't trying to eat the latest and greatest in culinary developments, they're just trying to get a good meal at a fair price. They don't want to hear about the farm-to-table history of the chicken, and they're certainly not willing to pay $5 more just because the bird was raised and dispatched nearby.

Getting good food at a reasonable price isn't all that easy here in Los Angeles. It's why eating out for me these days usually involves burritos, pizza, tacos, and Italian sandwiches. But a sit-down affair? A few drinks and some appetizers? That puts you north of $40 easily. Hell, finding a mixed drink under $13 is a near impossibility in this sun-soaked city.

Still, it's not necessarily a binary, where your only choices are potato skins or steak au poivre. But Fridays would love for you to see it that way. Perusing the menu, it seems like the restaurant wants to showcase its value first and foremost. I wanted to see if that translated to a good meal.

My first impressions of TGI Fridays

I went to Fridays with a friend, chef Lo Hoang, around 2 p.m. on a Monday. This particular Fridays is huge—a giant dining area with a wrap-around bar easily seating 20 people, and plenty of TVs. Fridays is ready to accommodate large parties, throngs of happy hour attendees, and groups of bros eager to watch sporting events. Two o'clock is an odd time to eat and drink, but it's also the most stress-free time to go to any restaurant. The emptiness was comforting, but the physical space of Fridays is where the words "empty" and "comfort" stop finding common ground.

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The prices at Fridays are, at face value, mind-blowingly good: $3.79 for truffle tot-chos, chips and jalapeño ranch for $3, mozzarella sticks for $5.59, and buffalo chicken slammers for $5.99, to name a few. The chain has a huge menu, full of subsections like small plates, appetizers, shareables, entrées, burgers and sandwiches, wings, salads, soups, bowls, a sushi and Asian-inspired section called Krispy Rice, and an expansive drink menu. Previously, I had thought that "small plates," "appetizers," and "shareables" were all words used interchangeably, but at Fridays, the menu clarifies the distinctions: Small plates serve 1 person, appetizers serve 2-3, and shareables serve 4-6. The clear, recommended feeding portions is refreshing. You don't have to worry about over- or under-ordering.

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Despite the wealth of options, I have always assumed that Fridays is all about appetizers, and the best thing I ate was surely the mozzarella sticks. Though the cheese itself tasted barely of anything, the low-moisture mozzarella pull was absolutely delightful. Look how happy the pull made me. This is what food is supposed to do.

The mozzarella sticks were the highlight, however, because most of the food just didn't taste like it's supposed to. The meatballs tasted remarkably unlike beef. I have never tasted meat that tastes less like meat in my life. This isn't some gate-keeping New York Times review of TGI Fridays, but yes, words like "rubbery," "bland," and "greasy" come to mind. The two tiny meatballs cost $4.99. That's not a good deal.

The truffle tot-chos were crunchy and fun, but also absolutely fumigated with truffle oil. They smell toxic—these little croquettes should come with a gas mask. Is that harsh? Pretentious? Maybe, but look pal, I'm not the one using truffle oil here. Fridays' use of truffle oil reminds me of the first time my nephew called me a shithead. It was funny once, and yes, my own behaviors taught you to do this, but knock it off right now, man.

What's a buffalo chicken slammer? Essentially, it's a fried chicken tender stuffed into a mini lobster roll bun. This is a really fun idea, and the type of thing that would have been delicious if executed well. But the slammers were a disappointment because the presentation suggested the promise of delicious, fucked-up whimsy. Instead, they were just bland, and again, the price for portion wasn't that great here. You know what else I can get for $6? Two amazing al pastor tacos, or one of the best slices of Grandma-style pizza in the city.

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The one saving grace at Fridays was the booze. I ordered an espresso martini, which was so intensely sugary it tasted like it was intended for children. Still, it's not the worst espresso martini I've had by a long shot, and for $10, it's a damn good deal. Drinks at Fridays are cheap, which is great, because you should be very drunk there.

Final TGI Fridays Thoughts

All of the food I ate at Fridays was unseasoned, taste-avoidant, and unsatisfying. These harsh criticisms raise questions within myself. Am I an asshole for wanting the food to be better? When did I suddenly set a high bar for Fridays? I reckon the moment I walked through the door. Whether it's a chain or not, there exist certain expectations for restaurant-quality food the moment you sit down to enjoy a meal, and that's true no matter what type of establishment it is.

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I've been searching for some sort of profound thing to say after eating at Fridays, some sort of meaning to glean from the experience itself, and I think it's this: It's totally fine to like things, but it's also okay to hate things. It's okay to hate a restaurant's food as long as that hate comes from a place of actually wanting to improve it. I don't begrudge anybody for enjoying Fridays, and I have no interest in dunking on it for sport. But I do want everyone to have their fair share of seasoning. Affordable, flavorful food should be an option for everybody. To accept that it only exists when corporate dining overlords decide it's comfortably within their margins is less than we deserve.

Sometimes, you need a meal to wash down a meal. After Fridays, Lo and I went to Mariscos Jalisco, a celebrated taco truck a few miles away. What we received there wasn't a bounty of photo-ready fried appetizers, but it was delicious, satisfying, expertly made, and cheap. Two shrimp tacos and six freshly shucked oysters cost $18.

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"There is a reason it's loved in the community," said Lo. People know they can go to Mariscos Jalisco for a reasonably priced meal, and they won't even have to decode the difference between appetizers and shareables to get it.

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