The last time I saw my father was in an empty strip mall parking lot, cold creeping under our collars and up our sleeves as we stood in front of dirty stucco storefronts. It was Christmas Eve, and we were trying to go to Friendly’s. The plan had been to visit a Vietnamese restaurant, but it was closed, and when my brother and I saw a Friendly’s floating alone, detached, in the same commercial plot, we thought we were saved; the lunch, crammed in between other family commitments, was already shaping up to be truncated and awkward, and maybe going to a restaurant we grew up in could salvage it. None of us had been inside a Friendly’s together in 20 years, but when we were kids, it was the restaurant our father had taken us to the most.
Of course, it was closed too, so the three of us ended up at a pan-Asian buffet with an excessive amount of plastic-looking sushi and a technicolor array of Jell-O. It was kind of delightful, but no one was happy: I was squeezing in lunch with my dad because my mother’s marriage was breaking up, and my brother and I had been helping her move all week, then on Christmas Day I was off to visit my girlfriend’s family across the country. My dad made it clear, as we said goodbye in the parking lot, colder and grayer now that the dim winter light was slipping away, how hurt his wife (read: he) was that I wasn’t coming to Christmas dinner.
Sometime that next fall, I assured my dad that of course I would be home for Christmas dinner, that it wouldn’t be like the year before. A few days after Thanksgiving, my mother called to tell me that he was dead. I tried to remember the last time I saw him — I visited him at the Jersey Shore that summer, had flown home in the spring and met him for lunch. He’d also come up that one time I’d passed through New York. Right?
No, I realized, it was in that bleak parking lot, shivering against the cold. Once I had begun to accept that I really had not seen my father in the year before he died, and that our last meeting had been miserable, I obsessed over the idea that if we had gone to Friendly’s, maybe our last time together would have been better. Maybe he would have felt more connected to us, and us to him. Maybe he wouldn’t have killed himself, or if that was too much to ask, maybe I wouldn’t hate myself so much for how I left things.
In the 1990s, Philadelphia’s northwest suburbs were a mix of colonial-era inns; blighted small towns built around asbestos factories and railroad stops; modest, aging housing developments and ever-swelling new ones; and endless beige shopping centers of chains. There were outliers — the dairy farm whose store sold milk and shoofly pie, the massive and glorious remaindered book warehouse, the store where I got saddle shoes each year for my Catholic school uniform — but the primary sensory experiences of my childhood were the endless, lurid colors of Toys “R” Us, the wan fluorescence of the mall, and the endless, lurid, wan, fluorescent aisles of the grocery store.
Wherever retail chains are found, there is always a restaurant chain nearby. Their favored habitats — in suburban Pennsylvania, the major intersections of roads named after long-dead colonial landowners (Morris Road) or immigrant groups who arrived in the 17th century (Swedesford Road) — are mutually conducive to the creep of franchise expansion, and these ahistorical, spectacular, generic places fed me and my family far more often than I can count. Conjuring a single one, distinct from all others, is a challenge. They were all separate buildings in parking lots or jutting out from the non-euclidean geometry of the mall, their insides a dark room with large booths and the scent of fried food, always a little too cold, even under the warm glow of period decoration and wall-mounted televisions.
After my parents split up in 1990, my dad took my brother, sister, and I out for dinner once a week in a perpetually shifting rotation of sit-down chains. Nowhere was particularly far, and I can’t remember a single dish that my father actually enjoyed at any of these restaurants, so maybe it was no wonder he never had a preference. The choices now conjure themselves as dishes I still crave occasionally, in memory if no longer in reality: the soft, salty breadsticks at Olive Garden, even more marvelous because they were free; a mound of pancakes, a round globe of butter sliding down their side, for dinner at Perkins; the cold, stale popcorn I could not stop eating, and they could not stop bringing us, at Ground Round; a hazy cheeseburger at Bennigan’s (or was it Houlihan’s?); the sizzling heap of steak fajitas at Chili’s, marred by inexplicable onions, and never quite as delicious as the drama of the dish promised; something, anything, probably made of animal protein, covered in a immoderate amount of cheese at TGI Fridays.
Most often, though, we ended up at Friendly’s. Why, I don’t know, because I’m not sure how much any of us, my dad, my brother, my sister, or even I, liked Friendly’s food. One of the main organizing principles of my life was and remains regular access to ice cream, so maybe I insisted on it, since one of us always ended up with a sundae with a Reese’s Pieces face and an upside-down cone for a hat.
But most likely, it was simply that Friendly’s served our purposes. It was brightly lit, never too noisy, served simple food for picky kids, and had placemats you could flip over and use to play hangman. Or teach your children useful math shortcuts: With the pen he always kept in his pocket, my dad taught me how to calculate a tip and estimate in order to add and multiply more quickly, both techniques I still use. The restaurant’s glass ketchup bottles, meanwhile, were subject to rigorous experimentation until he determined the most efficient way to extract the ketchup without using a knife (which we were never allowed to use); we landed on smacking it, hard, just where the bottle tapered into its stem. We always needed ketchup, because we always had french fries.
My memory of this carb-laden, cheese-covered cultural moment is purely my own, and as faulty as anyone else’s memory, but I also know it’s not particularly unique. In the 1980s and 1990s, the concentration of the middle class in the suburbs, and recent rise in divorce rates, created legions of mostly white Old Millennials like me who navigated difficult relationships with their fathers in chain restaurants, and used the cheese and the refined wheat flour and chocolate sauce to help fill the spaces that can’t be filled otherwise. Anecdotally, every friend who’s a fellow child of divorce had a story about dining out in chain restaurants with their estranged fathers. Surely, divorce did not explicitly bring dads and their wayward kids into chain restaurants en masse. But I don’t think, even at the time, it was strictly the food, either. To understand how these restaurants sold themselves to suburban families in search of distraction and connection, I viewed YouTube’s robust archive of their early ’90s television commercials, which all promise not just the standard American culinary abundance, but also a sense of belonging without commitment — to make your life great again, to serve up aspiration and family fun, a neighborhood standby that’s also the perfect escape.
Olive Garden had one of the gentlest come-ons of this genre, in part because it could sell itself primarily on excessive pasta and endless breadsticks, lovingly described by a man using an absurd Italian accent. In a 1988 commercial for the chain, a voiceover declares, over an endless pornographic catalogue of Italian-American food, that in Olive Garden’s language (consumero capitalisimo?), there is no word for “too much.”
By the early ’90s, the chain starts making more sophisticated emotional appeals. In addition to the endless cascading images of food, white, aspirational yuppie couples, happy and out on the town, call the food “marvelous.” There’s also the beloved purity money shot that became a requirement of chain restaurant and grocery store ads in the mid-’90s: vegetables splashed with water. By the time Olive Garden returns to the theme of “speaking their language” in 1994 (reusing a ton of footage), there’s a much greater emphasis on welcomes and warm smiles in addition to the food, suggesting Olive Garden is a place to feel happy and fancy in addition to over-stuffed. Why you would want to visit this cartoonish bubble universe of Italian smarm is never explicitly mentioned — everyone is just happy at Olive Garden all the time, good humor as endless as the breadsticks.
Bennigan’s commercials, on the other hand, were franker about the low-level depression that characterizes middle-class suburbia. Always hosted by pretty white waitresses, they explicitly call the restaurant an “escape from everyday life” — dead-end office jobs, mortgages and auto payments, crying kids, and adult isolation — where the waitstaff will manufacture a sense of fun and belonging, and the food will be full of meat. Commercials from 1990 and 1991 framed the restaurant as a “blues buster” where waitresses make balloon animal hats for disaffected kids and blow party horns into the middle of unsuspecting tables. Unlike Olive Garden’s family atmosphere, the commercials seamlessly intercut very adult drinking at the bar with happy kids digging into a wholesome meal.
Most of these commercials aim, scattershot, at all strains of suburban malaise bred by loneliness and deflated expectations. The most mercenary appeal to parents like my dad, suddenly in charge of entertaining his kids on the regular, might be from Friendly’s. A 1993 Friendly’s commercial features a little girl, wholesome and blonde, describing everything she loves about Friendly’s, from “crispy chicken” to “a great hot dog.” And oh, kids eat free. In the early ’90s, my father tried, and failed, to start his own real estate business. Times were lean, at least relatively so, and it’s very possible we ended up at Friendly’s so often in part because those cone-head sundaes we all fetishized were free. But the more ice cream and french fries I ate, the more a creeping weariness, and guilt, grew. Junk food and restaurants were supposed to feel special — what did it mean when I didn’t like them anymore? Did it make me ungrateful to my dad?
A few years ago, my mom confessed to me she envied my father, how he got to be the “fun” parent, taking us out to restaurants, and on the weekends he hosted us, to the movies, to museums in downtown Philadelphia, and to ride our bikes along Forbidden Drive. I have much warmer memories of spending time exploring Philly with my dad than I do of the chain restaurants, but the truth was, after my parents split up, my dad always treated us like guests to be entertained, taking us to restaurants full of fried food and civic institutions that would improve us. And as a kid I was wracked with guilt for not enjoying it more.
When he died, my siblings and I all agreed that our best memories of our dad were when he let his guard down and asked for our help around the house. He’d grown up working in his uncle’s construction business and could raise a whole house from scratch; he seemed most at ease testing windows or digging around in the pond, and we were happiest when he was doing that, working right next to him. No one had to pretend to be having a good time; we could all just be together.
But none of us knew that at the time, and no one makes a buck off of a dad and three kids pulling weeds or hammering nails together. These chains offered a simple solution to the problem of my family. When my dad picked us up every week, they were always available, purporting to fill all desires, be it for fried food or a pleasant waitress or just a good deal. But the smiles were forced, and the calories were empty. And I think we paid more dearly than we know.
Culturally, when did we start to hate these chain restaurants? By the time I was 16, literally anything was better than going into one, whether it was Chinatown in Philadelphia or Butterscotch Krimpets and a hoagie at Wawa. As a teenager with many improving activities and unexamined abandonment issues, I could come up with a lot of reasons not to go out to dinner with my dad. But when I did get roped in, we still went to Friendly’s. Spending time with my family was all about keeping everyone happy; I’m sure I said all the right things about my grades to please my dad, who wanted nothing more than for me to go to a fancy college and live the fabulous life he never quite managed to find for himself, but resentment twisted underneath. His ketchup trick no longer seemed clever; I wanted to just stick a knife into the bottle’s neck.
But I’m not talking about when I started to hate chains, exactly — more like, when did the story these places told about themselves and about suburban values stop working? These places were not aspirational, they did not bring broken families together, and they didn’t even deliver on the promise of escape, or fun. There’s a 1989 commercial for Bennigan’s, depicting a worn-out, run-down white male victim of the rat race whose soul is saved by coming to Bennigan’s and getting back his sense of self. The actor’s goofy dance at the end of the commercial reminds me too much of my own class-climbing, MBA-toting dad, who buttoned up and sold out and occasionally busted out a silly dance — though certainly not at Bennigan’s. Ten years later, the movie Office Space revealed that the soulless office and the fake-fun chain are two sides of the same brutal system, and in some ways, the chain restaurant is even worse.
The movie is now best remembered for its graphic depiction of violence against printers, as well as a precursor to Mike Judge’s maybe-too-accurate take on Silicon Valley. But to Entertainment Weekly, he described his inspiration for the movie as an urge to examine what it means that, “every city now has these identical office parks with identical adjoining chain restaurants,” and the movie’s scenes at Chotchkie’s — more or less TGI Fridays — are sly, critical depictions of the emotional labor, and general loss of self, that results when a restaurant must manufacture a sense of welcome and fun.
Jennifer Aniston plays Joanna, a pretty waitress at Chotchkie’s who is, of course, the love interest of the disillusioned tech employee protagonist. But while the (almost entirely male) tech office is rife with disillusionment and meaninglessness, Joanna’s workplace reflects the way corporate culture doesn’t just suck meaning out of your life, but can suck away your identity — prescient of the collapse between work and personal identity that plagues the 21st century. Her conflict revolves around the 15 pieces of “flair” — goofy, whimsical accessories, mostly pins — she must wear as part of her uniform. Her boss calls her 15 pieces of flair “doing the minimum,” but when she asks if she should wear more, he merely insists she ought to express herself, in a smarmy way that suggests the person she is, not the way she performs her job, is the real problem. No one in the movie eats the food at Chotchkie’s — and even Joanna’s manager tells her food is not the point at this restaurant. Instead, it’s the feeling of fun. But no one there appears to be having much fun, either.
Later, she snaps and expresses herself by flipping him off. She ends up waitressing at the restaurant next door, where the customers and even the food are presumably almost exactly the same, but she doesn’t have to pretend she’s having a great time. I was 16 in 1999, and while I’m not sure if I saw Office Space in the theater, I know I saw it fairly soon after its release, because while the misery of office work barely registered, I latched onto Aniston’s storyline, about the profoundly dehumanizing experience of creating fun in the least fun place in the world — a concept which both blew my mind and chagrined me, because suddenly I understood my own despair at these places — and my role in causing despair for people who worked there.
These chains promised a number of ludicrous things at an impossible scale — good food, expert service, seamless experiences — but nothing was more absurd than their promise of fun. And even if the food started out acceptable, by the end of the 1990s the relentless pursuit of profit had streamlined supply chains and hollowed out quality even further. Marketers tried to substitute emotional connection (ostensibly free) for fresh food, ignoring both the “labor” part of emotional labor, not to mention that decent burgers were a more reliable way to make people happy at restaurants to begin with.
And when I imagine that last lunch at Friendly’s with my dad, what it might have been, I’m not imagining some kind of emotionally seamless, saccharine bonding. What I crave is a moment of honesty. Maybe, over expertly poured ketchup and hot fudge sundaes, we might have acknowledged how strange it was we’d spent so much time together in places like these, enjoying ice cream and french fries but also, sometimes, faking fun when we weren’t having it. As a kid, my messy family left me feeling broken, and in my 20s, I kept fruitlessly, and destructively, trying to re-assemble the pieces. Right before my dad died, I’d realized my family was my family, and the anger was just my shit to work out. Blissed out in this new clarity, I thought my dad and I had decades ahead to accept each other for who we were, and quit trying to pretend we were people we weren’t. One imaginary lunch at Friendly’s was the measliest bargain I was willing to strike with grief, and death, for taking something so essential and precious and irreplaceable from me.
I have a theory about the internet, which is that the bland, corporate shittiness of the suburban 1990s primed its most disaffected residents (hi) to leap into the great, imaginary, wild unknown of Online. When your previous experience of clothing, music, and books was limited to what you could find in the mall, the endless sense of discovery on Napster, or Amazon, or, er, early anime-themed commerce sites was like cracking open an entire new universe (so was a trip to the city, but that was harder to pull off than going down the basement and firing up a modem). I suspect there’s a similar, delayed effect for restaurants, one launched by early forums (eGullet, Chowhound) and blogs (Serious Eats, this austere publication) and propelled by the arrival of the smartphone. Restaurant culture on the internet, especially 10 years ago, was aggressively urban and obsessed with the “authentic,” whatever the hell that was. It celebrated the unique, the independent, and the scrappy — definitely not the suburban, the ubiquitous, the bland: the chain.
And when the original chain restaurants hit the internet, they were not just outdated or depressing, but ludicrous. Maybe the only positive restaurant review to ever go viral is Marilyn Hagerty’s assessment of the new Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Even now, reading it is to marvel at the simplicity and purity of her perspective on a subject which had already been saturated in decades of cultural posturing, both on the part of the Olive Garden’s own marketing and the many shifting relationships those of us who literally grew up in the chain had. In 2011, Eater’s coverage of Olive Garden was to catalogue their culinary and branding crimes (which are real!) like intentionally overcooked pasta and a hideous Tuscan farmhouse redesign. Hagerty’s review the next year, both in its pure devotion to service journalism and its specific focus on what an international chain meant to her particular community, felt, to much of the internet, like it was from Mars.
But looking back on the virality of the review, and the media circus after, suggests that the coastal elites were closer to Hagerty than they thought — or they desperately wanted to be. The initial online response to her review was derision, but this was quickly overtaken by a deep fascination with this pure, pastoral, time-capsule of a woman (and palate), who had to be marched on television and through the dining room of Le Bernadin to show us our world as it really was — or to show us how we, too, could go back to loving these monstrous chains that had overtaken our dining culture, and find the pleasure in them we’d once felt. Was it really possible, after all, that one of the most profitable restaurants ever, attended by millions, could also be so bad? Part of Hagerty mania was a hunger for Olive Garden to actually be good, and we were bad for losing track of its pleasures.
Anthony Bourdain’s foreword to the book of Hagerty’s reviews pitched her work as a record of how America, Real America, really ate, and eats. Certainly, her delightful portrait of restaurants in small cities, and her perspective on corporate behemoths who deign to invade to them, is essential. But it supposes that no corporate behemoths despoil middle or rural America, which a number of farmers would disagree with. And it assumes everything is better, and fundamentally okay, in those small towns. It assumes real America is rural, white, and older, and well — you know where that got us.
By 2014, these brands had figured out the internet, kind of. The cringe-inducing sincerity of, say, this 2009 mother-son Olive Garden commercial was out. The internet loved not just excess but absurdity, and both the Pasta Pass at Olive Garden and Fridays’ never-ending appetizers scratched (and continue to scratch) the itch. But the best stunt of all was a piece of journalism: Caity Weaver’s dark journey of the soul through endless appetizers at TGI Fridays, which both treats everyone working and eating at that restaurant with humanity while offering a blistering assessment of both the chain’s food and purported atmosphere of fun. Weaver’s timestamped account details a staggering act of endurance — spending over half a day inside a TGI Fridays, searching for the end of the purportedly endless appetizers. The end never arrives, but six orders of increasingly disgusting mozzarella sticks do, and Weaver wins her bet, and her existential battle against Fridays.
The fact that the chain’s millennial-friendly gimmick resulted the most entertaining chronicle of Fridays-induced misery yet captures the essential paradox of these restaurants. For all the talk of Hagerty’s sincerity, Weaver’s piece suggests the only means of approaching a causal chain now is with both a heavy dose of irony and the miserable knowledge that to enter is to make yourself into the worst part of the joke.
Because I associate these chains so closely with a dead parent, I will never have the necessary irony. A perverse part of me wants them to persist — if I can’t have my dad, I will at least have these giant corporations. But when I go looking for him, I don’t find him in an Olive Garden or a sad Friendly’s. I don’t really know where to find him. He has no grave, and the places I associate with him the most are houses he designed and lived in, all of them owned by someone else now. My dad loved us the best he could, and I like to think we did the same, but it was never easy between us, and those opportunistic chains did nothing to help. Mostly, I want to know how they wormed their way into my childhood, and my family to begin with. If we lose them, will we get something realer and better? Or will it be like a death, when even if time spent with a person was not easy, or what you hoped, you will regret every moment you wasted being dissatisfied or angry, and weep bitterly when you remember they’re gone?
All coverage of the slow decline of the middling suburban chain.>>
Meghan McCarron believes in wizards, not astronauts.
Julianna Brion is an artist based in Baltimore.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter