If you’ve never sat at the bar alone on a Saturday night in a Manhattan TGI Friday’s, I recommend the experience. It’s a good place to reflect on life, revisit recent personal failures in montage form and sip a craft cocktail.
Yes, you read that right: the recent trend of “casual fine dining” chain restaurants adding so-called craft cocktails to their menus might strike you as bizarre, but really, it’s a completely logical extension of the artisanalizing of everything: Think handcrafted frozen dinners and fresh baked buns on your fast food burger.
It’s coming to a head, though. Just this year, both MillerCoors and Jim Beam were sued over misidentifying products as “craft.”
The backlash has arrived— even while the trend gains steam. It’s a fragmented, almost schizophrenic drinking landscape, where Fireball is poured over hand-cracked Kold-Draft ice, Manhattans arrive with straws, and everything is caramel apple-flavored.
To investigate the chain restaurant craft cocktail trend, I blocked off a Saturday night and headed straight into the belly of the beast: Times Square. My mission is intensely pointless and potentially dangerous, cannonballing into the deep end of as many casual dining chain cocktail lists as humanly possible in one night. Here’s what I learned.
Pink Punk Cosmo
It seemed sensible to start the night at T.G.I.’s, given its history: the restaurant was the vanguard of singles bars on the Upper East Side in the ‘60s, before morphing into a family-friendly diner and suburban mainstay. Now, the chain is moving decisively back into the drinks game.
The restaurant’s aesthetic is hard to pinpoint, beyond general kitsch. A swordfish hangs here, and there, giant Blues Brothers figurines. Fake vintage signs dot the interior, the kind instructing “hippies use side door.”
Judging by the menu, the eight-ingredient Grey Goose Cooler should be a complex, interesting start: Grey Goose vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, peach puree, fresh juices, basil and, like roughly one third of drinks of the cocktail list, the secret ingredient: Sierra Mist soda. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, the cocktail is hardly a balanced refresher: it tastes only of peach juice and Mist, with the faintest hint of vodka.
It’s slow enough that I don’t mind pestering the bartender. She steers me toward the Pink Punk Cosmo. It’s terrible and perfect, like a portrait done by a child or a low-budget horror film. The drink, a Cosmo riff, is poured into an oversized cocktail glass filled with electric pink cotton candy (that must be the punk element?). In many ways, it’s a cocktail that epitomizes the craft cocktail in chain restaurant phenomenon, a weirdly perfect synthesis of its component parts. The drink has elements of mixology, with all its self-conscious showmanship and aspirational quirkiness, and the low-stakes, Give-The-People-What-They-Want populism of chain diners.
(Image: TGI Friday’s)
The Garden is warmly lit and full of innocuous artistic touches, vaguely nodding to some platonic ideal of Fancy Italian Restaurant. The tables are mostly full of families, not dates. At the other end of the bar, a middle aged couple sit, morose and blank, together but apart; they sip giant margaritas wordlessly through straws.
I select two margaritas, an Italian and a Mango. The drinks are unexceptional—the mango tastes like mango, but sweeter, and the Italian comes with a shot of Amaretto—but the glassware is monstrous. At what point does a coupe become a goblet? Does requiring two hands qualify it?
Staring at the bartender’s gelled faux-hawk, I am reminded that Guy Fieri’s Times Square venue, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, closes at 11 p.m.. I chug my Margs in double time, which seems fitting for a spot that offers a Never Ending Pasta Pass.
The underlying logic of Olive Garden is that bigger is better, and that extends to the drinks. In many ways, it’s a quintessentially American idea. I have to get to Flavor Town before 11, though, so there’s no time to dwell.
(Image: Olive Garden twitter)
GUY’S KITCHEN & BAR
Depending on who you ask, television personality and sentient truck nut Guy Fieri might be everything that’s wrong with cuisine and America—or, at the very least, American cuisine. This special level of loathing was on full display in Pete Wells’ notorious review in The New York Times eviscerating both Fieri and his restaurants.
Located between a Guitar Center and several theaters on W 44th St., it’s hard not to be immediately shocked by the size of the place. It’s three stories. Four? It’s hard to tell. There ares 500 seats. Tilt your head back and take in an elevator emblazoned with the immortal greeting: WELCOME 2 FLAVOR TOWN. It seems ominous, perhaps a trap. Read backwards and aloud under a full moon, one might hear secret message: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.
The design elements are equally disorienting. Upstairs, the exposed brick and vents combine with discrete grid lights to reference the area’s theatrical history, and the booth seating is rust-colored faux leather and patinated brass accents. Also, the bathroom has a TV in it. And there’s a giant chandelier with the repeating slogan, Cookin It Livin’ It. Classic rock blares from unseen speakers.
I order a Crazy Hagar and a Black Manhattan and, because I’ve been drinking oversized cocktails for several hours, an order of “Awesome” Pretzel Chicken Tenders—the Awesome and surrounding quotations are Guy’s.
The Crazy Hagar is a Daiquiri riff featuring cucumber-infused simple syrup and the signature rum from occasional Van Halenite, Sammy Hagar. The Black Manhattan is a slight twist on the classic, trendily swapping in Foro Amaro for sweet vermouth. Neither drink is particularly good, nor memorably bad. Pete Wells was wrong, though, the Pretzel Chicken Tenders are great, awesome even. Is Wells just a snob, or is Fieri’s flame-covered bowling shirt of an empire really and truly evil? Does lying to customers about using fresh juice in sugary, oversized cocktails stop people from enjoying them?
On first glance, the Manhattan Outback doesn’t look like the kind of spot that serves a mean Blooming Onion. It’s dimly lit with a dark wood bar and clean lines: a sit down spot. On the TVs, some sort of post-game sports interview is on.
The bar is uncrowded. None of the house specialties look particularly interesting, so I order an Old Fashioned. The bartender recommends the “more traditional” Maker’s Mark instead of the other listed option, Jack Daniel’s Honey. Like the entire restaurant, it’s a solid impression, but the details are off. Served in a lightly flared double old fashioned glass, it’s overly sweet and, per corporate protocol, topped with soda.
Unlike the other spots, though, the bartender is great. She’s funny and honest, the sort of authentic presence that draws drinkers to the quality bars that these chains are half-heartedly mimicking. My mission isn’t even half done, though, and it’s time to hop in a cab.
It’s shortly before midnight when I enter the Times Square Red Lobster. There’s an open seat at the bar in between a man in a doctor’s coat and a man in an all-purple outfit. Am I hallucinating? There’s football on the televisions and awful paintings of lighthouses all around. To my side, there’s a giant window to people watch onto 7th Ave, but in the darkness, it’s mainly a porthole to a giant LED billboard for T-Mobile.
As with the other locations, I ask my bartender: What’s the fanciest, most cocktail cocktail you have? Here, at Red Lobster, it’s the Caramel Appletini. Caramel is drizzled over the martini glass, and the drink is poured over this in front of you. True to expectations, it tastes like a caramel apple soaked in booze. I try to remember the last time I went to a dentist, and am still worrying about this as I pay and leave.
Cider Bourbon Infusion
Pushing past dawdling midwest tourists and drunk businessmen, past Madame Tussaud’s, a Ripley’s Believe it Or Not and a Dave & Buster’s, I arrive at Applebee’s.
Entering, you head up a winding staircase to the second floor bar. Everything is lit teal and orange, like a movie trailer. The effect is distracting and the overall impression is of being given acid and dropped off in a futuristic mall diner. The drinks’ calories are listed but not the prices. The Bourbon & Berries (150 cal) is a citrusy whiskey drink served in a wine glass. It’s tart, not sweet, which distinguishes it from all others I’ve tasted on the crawl. But the Cider Bourbon Infusion (190 cal) is a terrible, terrible drink; it’s built off the new Jim Beam Apple and tastes just like the Caramel Appletini, but looks worse somehow. I’ve stopped enjoying this. Why did I think this would be fun?
CHEVY’S FRESH MEX
Chesney’s Pirate Punch
I stumble down the street into the nearly empty Chevy’s and lurch straight for the bar. When the bartender drops complimentary chips and salsa on the counter, I’m so inappropriately grateful and happy I scare myself.
Rejuvenated, I finish my Times Square chain cocktail crawl strong, with a Chesney’s Pirate Punch ($10.49, 240 cal) and a RumChata Colada ($9.99, 240 cal). Weirdly, the Pirate Punch is the first blue cocktail of the night. It’s a tropical, curaçao-hued concoction, and comes with a “hook shot” of more rum. The RumChata Colada is a smooth, sweet and too easy to drink. After I finish, it takes a moment to sink in: Finally, I can leave.
So, what did I learn on my Saturday night, seven chain cocktail crawl in Times Square? That bigger is not always better, and that sometimes, a cocktail is a cocktail in name alone.