Doing the Hustle

Today, TGI Friday’s is sedate, but twenty years ago this month, the place started the singles era in Dallas.

January 1992By Comments

Once upon a time, there was no singles life in Dallas. Yes, we know, we couldn’t believe it either. Dallas—Texas’ ground zero of big hair and bachelors—with no meat markets or one-night stands? No way. But in fact, Dallas’ now-celebrated single people were once the human equivalent of rats. They lived by night, seeking each other out in smoky private lounges, nibbling on stale peanuts and halfheartedly trying archaic lines like “Uh, would you like to come up and see my etchings?”

Then, twenty years ago this month, the revolution began. On a lonely road in North Dallas known as Greenville Avenue, TGI Friday’s opened, triggering a singles explosion that, like the Big Bang, has not subsided yet.

Although TGI Friday’s had started in New York in 1965, the concept was still evolving. Then in 1971 two young Memphis entrepreneurs, Walt Henrion and Dan Scoggin, negotiated a deal with the owner of the New York TGI Friday’s to open more of the restaurants in seven other cities. After starting clubs in Memphis, Nashville, and Little Rock, they decided to bring the concept to Dallas, not sure what to expect. “Our big worry,” said Henrion, “was that the two of us would just sit there night after night, all alone, praying that a customer would come in.”

The truth was they had chosen the exact moment when Dallas’ libido was about to ignite. A prosperous economy had brought a flood of young adults to the city, and a huge singles-oriented apartment complex called the Village was being constructed just a few blocks from the site of TGI Friday’s. The Dallas Cowboys were on their way to being heralded as America’s Team, in part because of their good-looking players, and Dallas was also becoming known as a “stew zoo” because so many flight attendants were relocating there to work for Southwest, Braniff, and American Airlines.

Most important, in 1971 the Texas Legislature legalized liquor by the drink, and soon after, Dallas County voted wet, allowing Dallas restaurants to serve mixed drinks. The time was ripe for a great “singles bar”—although back then no one really knew what the term meant.

So Henrion and Scoggin decided to create one, with help from interior designer Herbert Hughes. In a Volkswagen bus, they drove 13,000 miles, collecting knickknacks and antiques such as copper cash registers, stained-glass panels, wooden ceiling fans, moose heads, and Tiffany-style lamps to decorate their club. They bought dozens of Boston ferns to hang from the ceilings to create Dallas’ first fern bar (though no one in the city had ever heard that term before either). They put a big square bar in the middle of the establishment with stools on all sides—a bizarre sight to Dallasites, considering that every other bar in town was long and straight and ran along a wall. They created a menu with exotic hamburgers and strange fruit-flavored frozen drinks with names like Summer Breeze. To the dismay of the cabinetmakers, they personally beat the walls of the new restaurant with tire chains in order to give them a weathered look. And as an extra attraction, they dumped buckets of ice in the urinals—another first for the city—so that bored men would have something to, ahem, melt down while relieving themselves.

Decor wasn’t the only revolutionary aspect of TGI Friday’s. In the days before the official opening, the newly hired waiters were instructed to dash at breakneck speed from the tables to the kitchen with their orders. They were told to be spontaneous and fun—they could sit down at a table with the customers and chat for a while if they wanted to—and to never, ever behave like the waiters from that other famous Dallas-based restaurant chain, Steak and Ale, who introduced themselves like robots with variations on the line “Hi, my name is Steve, and I’ll be your waiter for the evening.”

Friday’s bartenders-in-training were told to clang the old ship’s bell over the bar whenever a customer gave a good tip or honk a horn if the tip was small, and each Thursday night at midnight they were to pass out hats and horns and champagne and throw a “New Year’s Eve” party. Two men were engaged to dress in gorilla costumes and rush to the restaurant regularly in a variety of vehicles, including an ambulance, and circulate through the crowd.

Whatever it was that Henrion and Scoggin did, it worked. A few days after the opening, on January 28, 1972, the crowds started lining up early to get into TGI Friday’s. Once inside, ecstatic, wild-eyed young men and women piled six-deep at the bar and looked across it to catch the eyes of other singles. Then they circled the bar—a ritual that would become known in bar parlance as taking a lap. Once they finished the lap, they would turn and gaze out over the restaurant at other singles sitting at tables. The restaurant could accommodate more than four hundred people, and Henrion and Scoggin had made sure to put the tables near the bar to increase the crowding—and mixing.

The most important thing they did, however, was to make TGI Friday’s respectable. Women who would not be caught dead in an ordinary Dallas lounge pranced happily into Friday’s to cluster around tables and sip those innocent-tasting fruit drinks. “Up until then, a woman who went to a bar without a date was stigmatized,” said Jan Rogers, a much sought-after single woman of that era who went on to become the part-owner of a professional soccer team, the Dallas Sidekicks, and of a restaurant in Aspen. “But I’ll never forget how excited we felt about Friday’s. I put on my white patent leather boots and my short shorts and thought I had made the big time.”

Others expressed their recollections in eloquent terms: “I walked in and it was like, Oh, Lord Almighty, wow, wow, wow!” said Billy Bob Harris, who for more than a quarter of a century has reigned as one of Dallas’ most famous bachelors. He went on, “The women were everywhere. I had never seen high heels, a miniskirt, and no hose on one woman at the same time.”

No less a fashion authority than Women’s Wear Daily was so impressed with the scene at the Dallas TGI Friday’s that it sent down a photographer to capture the action. “The girl-watching is good,” WWD wrote, “with lots of shrink tops, halterbacks and HotPants.” The Dallas Morning News, in turn, complimented the men’s fashions, saying one could see “anything from jeans and wide, colorful belts and shoes, to coat and tie and sleeveless sweaters.”

The heavy action of each evening, however, was the pickup scene, where Dallas singles tried out what were at the time never-before-used opening lines: “Do you come here often?” “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” and the all-time biggie: “What’s your sign?”

Of the three hundred people who would crowd in each night, estimated Henrion, 50 percent came for the action and 50 percent to gawk. Dallas Times Herald columnist Dick Hitt was so astonished by all the hustling that he called Friday’s “the bar where the Single Mingles hang out.” Soon the national press followed suit, turning the club into one of the most famous singles bars in the country. Glamour called it “a meat market for more reasons than its hamburgers.” And Newsweek, in a 1973 cover story noting the growth of the singles scene in America, used as its lead photo a shot of the Dallas TGI Friday’s with people preening and posing around the bar.

Former patrons can still remember the best places to stand at Friday’s. Some opted for the door next to the telephone booth; others preferred the steps leading to the bar. Harris would often arrive with a good friend, Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton, in Morton’s fancy Lincoln Mark III. Morton would park the vehicle near the front door so he could take women out there to see his brand-new eight-track tape system (“None of us had seen one before,” said a duly impressed Harris). Harris, meanwhile, had his own trick. He memorized the number of every table in the restaurant. That way, if he saw a pretty woman sitting in the distance, he could send her a drink.

On one memorable occasion, the ploy went spectacularly awry. Said Harris, “Craig and I saw two girls at a table and I told the waiter, ‘I want you to send table eighteen a round of frozen daiquiris and put it on my tab.’ I started smiling at those girls. Five minutes later, at the table next to them, ten men in cowboy hats—all out-of-towners here for some farmers’ meeting—stood up with those daiquiris in their hands and cheered me and Craig. Damned if I hadn’t gotten the table number wrong.”

After being there all Saturday night, many Friday’s faithfuls would return on Sunday morning for the champagne brunch. “Everyone tried to get to the brunches,” said Jan Rogers, “just so we could find out who had gone home with who the night before.” It was impossible to drive by Friday’s any morning without seeing half a dozen cars that had been left overnight in the parking lot, especially on the weekend.

And needless to say, there was a good possibility that a trip to TGI Friday’s would lead to a trip to the altar. “We had tons of marriages in those first years,” said Henrion. “Tons of them. I think we had no idea of the need singles had to get together.”

Some of the marriages lasted; others evaporated in the light of day. In 1973, a well-known Braniff flight attendant named Teresa Goforth parked her new Corvette and walked into the restaurant for her weekly lunch with other flight attendants. A man soon came up to their table to talk about her car. Two months later they were engaged. “I guess he wanted to marry me for my car,” said Goforth. “Looking back on it, I should have been smarter. But that was just the spirit of the place.” She divorced her husband several years later, but she harbors no ill feelings for the old TGI Friday’s scene. She now takes her own sixteen-year-old daughter to Friday’s to stare at the SMU boys.

Considering the fickle nature of the unmarried, it should come as no surprise that TGI Friday’s reign as king of the mountain did not last forever. Not long after Friday’s opened, nightclubs and discos sprang up nearby, transforming upper Greenville Avenue into a glittering singles mecca. No sooner would one club become the fashionable place to be seen than another would take its place, and then another and another. In 1981 Henrion sold out his interest in Friday’s and in 1987 Scoggin followed suit, both moving on to other ventures. Today, the restaurant chain is owned by Dallas-based Carlson Companies, and there are 180 TGI Friday’s in 36 states, including 6 in Dallas, 6 in Houston, and 1 each in six other Texas cities.

In the twenty years since its founding, TGI Friday’s has changed, quietly turning into more of a couples and family restaurant. On weekend nights, a cluster of die-hard singles still gathers around the bar, but the hectic pace that made the restaurant famous has slowed. The emphasis is more on eating than meeting.

On a recent Thursday night, Friday’s decor looked the same as it always has—the famous bell still hung above the bar—but the bartenders spent more time lazily chatting with the ten or so customers than hustling for tips. Only one couple occupied the bar, and they were engrossed in talking about their jobs. “This place used to be hot?” asked the man, looking around. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

In fact, the singles action has left upper Greenville Avenue altogether and is now centered in clubs near downtown on McKinney Avenue or in Deep Ellum. “But everyone in those clubs is so plastic, so false,” said Teresa Goforth when asked her opinion of the new scene—exactly the same criticism that was leveled at the Friday’s crowd twenty years ago.

Yet those who knew it in the early days—even those whose TGI Friday’s marriages didn’t last long—still have a nostalgic feeling for the old place. Strangely enough, they look upon that era as a time of innocence, as the first great fling of their adult lives, as a repository of fun before the age of herpes and AIDS. One editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News suggested in a column that a TGI Friday’s menu should be placed in the city’s time capsule “to show future generations where all the madness began.”

And although eternally optimistic bachelor Billy Bob Harris has moved on to other haunts, he still considers those first years at Friday’s as “the best nightlife in Dallas history. Nothing has compared to it.”

He paused and thought for a moment. “Well,” he said, “there’s been nothing to compare to it so far.”

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