July 4th, American Independence Day. I’ll be completely honest and I don’t really know what traditions are observed on this day; I only know that in the US it’s a public holiday, there are generally parades across the country, there are firework displays and in culinary terms, families and friends get together for a barbecue in most cases. Being in the UK, we naturally don’t observe July 4th as a public holiday, but I decided to let the spirit get to me and decided to celebrate American Independence Day for my US brothers and sisters. Well, in the absence of having a decent smoker or barbecue myself, or indeed be able to get friends round at short notice, I took the opportunity to go to the original US-themed bar/restaurant we have – TGI Fridays.
TGI Fridays first opened in the UK 25 years ago in 1986 (the Birmingham restaurant was the first TGI Fridays outside of the US) and I remember being quite excited by it as a kid because it was so different to anything that was around at the time – Burgers, ribs, seeing the bar staff with their flairing skills was fantastic when you’re 12 years old. I have to admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for TGI Fridays, perhaps for nostalgic reasons, and over the years many places have tried to copy Fridays to the point where the concept of casual American-themed dining became tired and stale and those aforementioned places who tried to copy Fridays have since fallen by the wayside.
However, TGI Fridays is currently enjoying a bit of a resurgence; Even in recent years where the economy has struggled and everybody is feeling the pinch in times of austerity so are eating out less, Friday’s has seen their customer-approval ratings rise and seem to have bucked the trend of restaurants struggling by seeing their profits rise. All this was achieved without the need to send out money-off vouchers or discount schemes, so in the face of such evidence, TGI Fridays must be doing something right. It’s not going to be high-end dining (nor have they every claimed to be) but where better to go on American Independence Day?
Arriving at the restaurant with BT, we weren’t sure if we were supposed to go to the bar or wait to be greeted at the door. We didn’t *think* we were supposed to go to the bar and it wasn’t immediately clear if we were supposed to wait to be greeted, but after a few minutes (and more “shall we go to the bar and get a drink whilst waiting for the hostess?”), a hostess came up and took us to a table. I *think* BT mentioned to her that we had reservations but she took us to our table very quickly anyway with a wide smile. The cocktails list is extensive but there were some specials for July 4th weekend where selected cocktails were sold at 1986 prices – That’ll be £2.99 each then! As we were both unable to navigate the cocktail menu (from being dozy, basically) we both settled on whichever special cocktail we could find the details of what was in it in the menu. Cocktails may have been cheap, but it was still a school night and we both had work the following morning after all. The cocktails we did try were tasty and I certainly can’t grumble too much about them.
Food-wise, we took advantage of the “Take 2” offer where you can select from a limited menu a choice of 2 courses for £9.99 or 3 courses for £12.99. However, you can also take the option to upgrade your main and choose for a further selection of mains for an extra £3.49 I felt the need to have something like a burger or ribs, but given how when I say I want a burger – I mean I want one from The Meatwagon which I wasn’t going to get here, I opted for the ribs for my main and BT went for the 8oz New York Strip. Neither of us were going to have desserts so that meant we needed to choose some starters which, if I’m being completely honest, didn’t really appeal to either of us. However, we needed to order something to make the most of the deal and we wanted to try more of the menu so BT opted for the Mozzarella Dippers and I went for the Special Shrimp.
The starters weren’t anything special, but neither were they unpleasant to eat. Well, apart from the fact that the marinara sauce that came with the mozzarella dippers didn’t really have much flavour and certainly didn’t add anything to the dish. Ironically, the mozzarella dippers actually went better with the JD sweet sauce that came with my shrimp. The shrimp themselves were better – The batter was crisp and the shrimp themselves were still quite juicy. Personally speaking, I found the JD sauce a bit too sweet but squeeze a bit of lemon juice over them, they were nice (especially with the mound of chopped iceberg lettuce they came with).
For mains, BT’s steak was medium-well as she requested but we were slightly puzzled by the inclusion of “seasonal vegetables” it was served with along with the fries, and by seasonal vegetables, they meant red peppers, broccoli florets and green beans. Now, apart from the fact that they could be the most random selection of (frozen) vegetables ever, why you would choose to serve them with steak is something neither of us could figure out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making dishes a bit more healthy and getting people to eat more vegetables (I actually ended up eating the green beans and picked at most of the broccoli), but why not grill some onions or mushrooms? Or even sauté some vegetables to accompany the steak – Surely that would have made a bit more sense? Another thing about the vegetables was that they were still a bit wet so it made all the fries go all soggy – It really wasn’t the best effort.
That said, my ribs were much better and easily the best dish of the night; the ribs were meaty and certainly very smokey. Now, I’m not expecting slow cooked ribs that have been in a smoker for about 12 hours, nor was I expecting to see a thick smoke ring on the ribs as a result. But I have to say that the ribs were tender, they have a nice smokey flavour and the JD sauce was a really nice contrast to the smokiness. In all honesty, I was surprised how nice they were – I know the BBQ purists among you will be foaming at the mouth, but the fact remains that I (and BT both) enjoyed the ribs and would happy eat them again. However, the cajun-battered onion rings were WAY too peppery and they certainly weren’t of the same Cajun-batter that the shrimp for my starters were supposed to be cooked in. I barely touched the fries that came with the ribs because I was too busy eating the ribs (that’s right, give me the protein). Again though, the choice of sides were a bit baffling – onion rings and fries? I mean, why not offer BBQ or even Boston Baked beans? Even something like a coleslaw or a humble corn-on-the-cob would have gone better with the ribs than the onion rings did.
Service was a bit patchy; I’ve already mentioned how we were playing “Spot the Hostess” when we arrived at the restaurant, but I should also point out that even on a Monday evening, the place was absolutely packed so all the staff were being kept busy at all times as a result. However, the food was prompt and our server was friendly and polite at all times. One little gripe though – Why offer me moist towelettes at the end of the meal rather than the end of the course? I had to ask for extra napkins after using my hands to eat my starter and even after eating ribs with my hands, I wasn’t offered a moist towelette. By the time they did come (with the bill), I’d already gone and washed my hands in the restrooms.
I’ve already mentioned that they were busy and there were a few Birthday parties in, resulting in the staff having to gather round the table of the Birthday party and sing “Happy Birthday” when presenting the cake. At no point did any of the staff drag their feet or do this begrudgingly – They certainly seemed to be genuinely happy to do so and seemed to understand that to their guests, actions like this go a long way to making them happy and feel special, thus adding to the customer satisfaction level. We don’t do brash and making customers (guests) feel special very well in this Country (especially compared to our American friends) so it was good to the staff really giving their all and making the occasion just that bit more special, I was beginning to see why there’s such a reported turnaround in Fridays’ fortunes. I know that I’m not exactly their target demographic, but looking around the restaurant, it was full of younger people (well, twentysomethings) or families out together for a meal. Everyone looked like they were having a great – not just good – time.
The food here isn’t going to change the culinary world or indeed, set it on fire, but nor would I be expecting it to do so. TGI Fridays is a casual dining place where everything is (generally) of an acceptable level for everyone. OK, there was a few misses here and there but there were generally a lot more hits than misses and when you consider how the rival restaurant opposite in the centre was barely a third full whilst the restaurant here was nearly at full capacity, they’re obviously doing something right. I may have a few opinions about the choice of sides which frankly, were bizarre, and perhaps about the menu development (it worried me slightly how there weren’t really any details for people with allergies or any details about food which was sugar or gluten-free without asking, which can make guests feel self-conscious), but the food I did eat was tasty and I certainly wouldn’t be too unhappy about going to eat at a TGI Fridays again.
You can view more photos at my Flickr