Doing the Hustle

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

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

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