WE were greeted at the door by one of the Fridoids (pr. Fried-oyds), which prove to be not a) visitors from the planet Sprong b) rather oily appetisers or c) an obscure Merseybeat combo, but, in fact, what they call the waiters in TGI Friday's.
She led us past the signature Harley Davidson motorcyle, beaming from ear to here. They go the extra smile at TGI's, it's company policy.
The clientele is animated and good-humoured, although we could not see why they were all quite so sunny. The food offered few clues
No, we told her, we had not been before. “You'll be back,” she predicted, rather rashly I thought until, a little under a week later, I proved her correct. Though not in the way she meant.
“One woman came in for the first time last week and she's been back every day since.”
Who's that then, the cleaner? muttered Matty, my scoffing companion. He's a Leeds United supporter; he's learned to be cynical.
If you arrive ignorant of the origins of TGI Friday's, you won't leave that way. They don't have toilets, they have rest rooms; they don't have workers, they have team members – the aforementioned Fridoids.
At the corner of 63rd Street and First Avenue in New York, patrons of the very first Friday's, who had yet to experience the seventies, no doubt considered it glitzy. In 2014, the red and black padded chairs and banquettes, black and white impression of the New York skyline, and Hollywood lights all seem a bit 1965.
They paid Pesto £1.3m, a lot of dough balls, for their prime spot on Liverpool One's leisure terrace, where the franchises lie in wait for sagging shoppers and filmgoers tumbling from the Odeon Imax, a spot of CGI before your TGI.
We went on a Friday. We needn't have bothered; as a big sign on the wall informed us, “In here, it's always Friday."
Matty looked doubtful but I returned by myself the following week and it was true. Out on the terrace, it was the middle of Thursday afternoon; inside, it was Friday.
“I thought it would be quiet,” I grumbled at the meeter and greeter, dismayed to find myself – lone, middle-aged man with laptop – in a restaurant full of teens and families.
“It's never quiet in here,” said my host, who looked like she might be dismayed too, were it not against company policy.
I had returned because that first visit had left me really not quite sure what to make of it all. I still wasn't.
First the positives. The divide between restaurant (or The Grill, if you will) and bar works well; in the era of JFK and LBJ, TGI's was a rare place where singles could comfortably mingle. At Liverpool One, the bar was buzzing, but I couldn't vouch for the marital status of the youngish crowd.
And while the service is inconsistent, when it's good, it's very good; the smiling welcome feels unforced, a well-judged line between informality and courtesy.
The clientele is animated and good-humoured, although we could not see why they were all quite so sunny. The food offered few clues.
Strips of chicken breast tossed in Jack Daniel’s sweet ‘n’ smoky glaze (I shall return to this) and topped with toasted sesame seeds and chili (the American sort) flakes (£6.49) was not bad, if slightly sebaceous.
Chicken breast strips
Wedge Salad (£4.49) comprised a chunk of iceberg lettuce with grim diced tomatoes, crispy bacon pieces and bleu (more US spelling) cheese crumbles and dressing that caused me to involuntarily purse my lips, the whole looking like it had collided with an iceberg en route to the table and come off second best.
It took a year short of a half century for TGI Fridays to reach Liverpool, and it was looking like it might be another 50 years before our main courses arrived. Off went our frowning Fridoid to see what was keeping them.
“I'm sorry,” she announced soon after, “but the kitchen manager was not satisfied with the quality of the steak.” Matty said nothing.
Still, when it did come, the 7oz fillet (“grass-fed, 28-day matured” £19.99) was cooked the required medium-rare. Unlike an ungainly heap of damp, limp broccoli, while a mound of cajun-spiced rice had nothing interesting to say.
Evidently the kitchen manager was too preoccupied with the steak to oversee the quality of the king prawn skewer (£2), which ranged from black at one end to barely cooked through at the other, and was sitting atop a shabby scrap of lettuce.
I don't know what I was thinking of ordering garlic chicken breasts (£13.99, main pic top), a tad overdone, on a “a sizzling skillet” of onions and peppers - a greasy layer of the former, barely any sign of the latter, with Monterey Jack and Colby cheeses, much of it glued to the dish, and yet more cheese in the mash.
I like scraping cheese off the bottom of the pan as much as the next man but I'm not sure I want to pay fourteen quid for the privilege. That said, I found myself oddly wallowing in it, like a song you know ain't good but can't help liking – something really cheesy, obviously.
Six days later, it was all going well: make yourself comfortable, nice glass of chilled water, promptly delivered starter, though mozzarella dippers (£5.49), “golden crispy breaded mozzarella” were neither golden nor crispy, needing a lot more crunch and spice.
At least there was plenty to keep me going until, finally, just as I was about to send for help, my burger showed up. Actually, my “chef's fave” Double Glazed Jack Daniel’s burger (£11.99).
Burger and addictive JD sauce
The meat had lingered a little long on the grill, the fries were bog-standard, but other than that it was a pretty good effort: a nice, softly toasted bun, melty Monterey Jack, good charry bacon pieces, decent quality tomato slice, sliver of onion and, on the side, a little bowl of “our legendary” Jack Daniel’s sweet ‘n’ smoky glaze.
I dipped a finger and found the answer that had eluded us all along. The answer to the mystery of all those cheery faces. It was vaguely sweet and sour but mostly it tasted of treacle. With added sugar. And its effect was like liquid Benson and Hedges: the colour and subtance of tar, the utterly addictive quality of nicotine. One tiny drop and I instantly wanted to slurp the lot straight from the bowl.
No point asking what's in it; they're not allowed to tell you. I google it and the first thing I get is somebody on Yahoo Answers pleading for a bottle of the stuff. “It's like crack to me,” they whimper.
I ring Matty; he comes straight over. I say, do you remember us being told about the woman who came here once, then came back every day?
Yeah, says Matty. Why do you keep going back if what you get is rarely better than average and never going to win any trophies?
You're the Leeds United fan, I say. You tell me.
Then he tries the sweet 'n' smoky and he does tell me.
“Blimey,” he says, dawn breaking over his face, “we're both addicted; me to LUFC, her to this stuff."
I proffer the bowl. “More JD sauce?”
“You're alright,” says Matty, “I'll stick to JD Sports”.
AA Grill has now been talked into Twitter. Follow him here @AAGrill
All scored Confidential reviews are paid for by the company, never the restaurant or a PR company, and critics dine unannounced.
14 Paradise Street, L1 8JF.
0844 880 4362
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, bars against other bars etc. Following on from this, the scores represent:
1-5: Straight in the dog bowl
6-9: Get to the chippy
10-11: In an emergency
12-13: If you happen to be passing
14-15: Worth a trip out
16-17: Very good to exceptional
18-20: As good as it gets