6850 Main St., Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: T.G.I. Friday's
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"If you go in with lowered expectations, you may be pleasantly surprised; speaking for ourselves, we'd gladly pay a little more for the higher-quality food we used to enjoy here."
Restaurant critics have ignored chain restaurants for years in favor of local ones, a practice so pervasive that the Association of Food Journalists warns new freelance reviewers to ask their publications in advance whether chains are off-limits. At Buffalo Chow, they're fair game. Chain restaurants can be impressive, like The Cheesecake Factory and The Original Pancake House; they can also be horribly inconsistent, like Starbucks, or consistently mediocre, like McDonald's. In any case, we all visit these places. Some people love them. And sometimes, they're actually better than locally-owned options. From our standpoint, ignoring them is pointless - as bad as refusing to review books in successful franchises, or theater productions with Hollywood actors rather than locals. Love them or hate them, chains deserve attention.
And like family-owned restaurants, they change over the years. There was a time when T.G.I. Friday's was a very good chain, a genuinely fun place to go for a family meal, and a standout on food quality for the dollar. This was back before the 1999 movie Office Space lampooned its servers' numerous "pieces of flair" buttons, before Friday's became hooked on Jack Daniel's in 1997, and before its 30th anniversary in 1995. It was in the early 1990's, when it won an award for its menu variety, and in the 1980's, when it was in the process of opening its 160th location rather than its 900th. We actually ate at Friday's with some regularity up until the late 1990's, tapering off when we moved to California and discovered better chain options.
The Friday's we knew back then wasn't the sort of place that would deliver a brownie sundae with a price sticker physically attached to the brownie. Or the sort of place that would shrug off a glass of soda that obviously didn't taste right, as if the cola syrup had been diluted and mixed with extra artificial sweetener. But that's the sort of Friday's experience we had two years ago, last year, and again this week - this is now a chain that's content to be only decent, to serve a menu that's almost comical in its over-reliance upon a single sauce for a page of its dishes, and ranks an "F" alongside Applebee’s, IHOP, and the Outback Steakhouse in Men's Health's annual survey of America's Unhealthiest Restaurants.
That's not to say that Friday's is all bad; it's not. Interested in seeing how the old Jack Daniel's options were holding up - note: they're now unescapable on the menu, highlighted on almost every page - we started our most recent meal with the Jack Daniel's Sampler ($14.79), a plate with six fried shrimp, a pile of "Sesame Jack Chicken Strips," and six "tender" baby back pork ribs, all served with a small cup of mostly soy, sugar, and sesame sauce that had barely any taste of the signature whiskey. Members of our four-person group varied a little in their views of the items: one liked the medium-sized shrimp but found them too heavy on breading and light on any Jack Daniel's flavor, while another found the breading too dominant to even enjoy the shrimp. The tiny, nugget-like chicken strips were heavy on sauce, oil, and breading, modest on meat - offensively so to one person - but tasted more like the sweet whiskey glaze we were expecting. And the ribs, which were the basis for the whole Jack Daniel's craze at Friday's, were similarly sweet-glazed but utterly dried out due to overcooking; no one was thrilled with them. We would have needed to drink something stiffer than the sauce to be hungry enough to eat a whole dinner of these.
Our entrees were a little better. A Pepper-Crusted Pork Chop ($10) was larger than we'd expected for the price, and arrived tender, with a nice and legitimately peppered crust that was softened somewhat by a fairly rich, tasty brown gravy. The meat was of good quality, and arguably just a hint undercooked; we enjoyed every bite, and used the leftover sauce on the fine included dollop of mashed potatoes. Because the chop was so good, we didn't mind much that there were only three medium-sized onion rings on the plate, or that they weren't as interesting in texture or flavor as the ones Friday's used to serve years ago. They were an adequate accompaniment to a good dish.
The Parmesan-Crusted Chicken ($8.39) was also a good entree. This plate began with a nice, golden breast of chicken that had been soaked in a Caesar dressing before being coated and fried in a layer of parmesan breading - Men's Health, be damned. As with the pork, the chicken was tender, contrasting nicely with its crispy exterior, and the overall taste of each bite was just as we'd hoped, the mostly bread and lightly cheesy crust requiring no additional seasoning or sauce. Like the other entree, the Chicken's accompaniments were sparing and only decent: a "fresh tomato mozzarella salad" consisted of tiny cherry tomatoes, equally small chunks of white cheese, and one thin strip of basil, while three cheese-filled tortellini in spinach alfredo sauce were okay on flavor but a little off-putting visually, such that the person who ordered the dish wound up swapping them for someone else's mashed potatoes.
Two other members of our group ordered dishes that they rated in the 2- to 2.5-star range. One picked the Dragonfire Chicken ($8.29, not shown), a spicy chicken breast with brown rice, pineapples, oranges, and broccoli, describing the Chinese kung pao-inspired sauce as appropriately spicy, but the chicken as overcooked. Another chose the entree-sized Chicken Caesar Salad ($9.89, not shown), which he generally liked, and found the chicken to be appropriately cooked; another of us ordered a Caesar side salad ($3.19) and found it to be unevenly coated but very bottom-heavy on the nothing special dressing, the slices of parmesan sparing and rubbery. Only the side salad came with a breadstick, which was surprisingly light and low on flavor - like a low-fat Pillsbury crescent roll.
From the five-item dessert menu, the four of us opted to split only one dish: the Brownie Obsession ($5.19), which arrived significantly and embarrassingly smaller than the one depicted on the menu, and smothered in caramel, a light chocolate sauce, small pecan pieces, and vanilla ice cream. Our server delivered the first brownie without noticing - until we showed her - that there was a price tag stuck to its side, something we've never before experienced in a restaurant. "That shouldn't be on there," she said, taking the dish away, returning shortly thereafter with another dish that looked basically identical but for the absence of the sticker. Warm but otherwise not memorable, the brownie made little other impression as we divided it four ways; unlike the table next to us, which received an apology from the manager and a complimentary entree for some problem with one of their appetizers, we neither asked for nor received any adjustment; similarly, though we asked why the Diet Cokes had so little cola flavor, our server found that the dispensers were still full of whatever syrup Friday's was using, and offered a same-tasting replacement. These sorts of issues were hardly enough to make or break a meal, but like the Jack Daniel's appetizers, they demonstrated that delivering truly excellent meals isn't really the chain's focus these days.
Value is. Say what we might about the some of the items, our four person meal with soft drinks came to a grand total of $74 after tax, or less than $20 per person. T.G.I. Friday's would never be our first, second, or even third local choice for a meal, and admittedly, the prices in its airport locations - the places we'd be most likely to find ourselves eating - aren't always as attractive. But despite our concerns over its caloric content, the care in its preparation, and the ultimate quality of the dishes it serves, this is a decent place to come for an affordable meal, particularly for families. If you go in with lowered expectations, you may be pleasantly surprised; speaking for ourselves, we'd gladly pay a little bit more for the higher-quality food we used to enjoy here. Numerous local options such as Brennan's, the Amherst Pizza & Ale House, and Chester's offer better-tasting dishes at similarly reasonable prices.