A Side of Decor

TGI Fridays
Michelle Edwards, decor supplier for T.G.I. Friday's, says focus groups have reacted "very well" to the new look for the chain. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Tunison
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 8, 2005

Since the dawn of the shopping-mall era, people have eaten at chain restaurants. And for almost as long, they have made fun of them. The nutty-kitschy, kooky-urban, farmy-charmy interior design became the aesthetic of the strip-center banal.

Perhaps sensing the cliche, two of the nation's top chain restaurants -- T.G.I. Friday's and Ruby Tuesday -- have been giving themselves quiet makeovers. (Out, for Friday's: farm implements. In: Pee-wee Herman's "Tequila" platform shoes. And you could be forgiven for not having noticed, even if you eat there all the time.)

"We're kind of in a strange situation, where what's on the wall in a restaurant is supposed to attract an audience, but to be honest with you, I don't know if that's true at all," said Scott Schershel, vice president of Florida-based Interior Spaces Inc., an art vendor for Ruby Tuesday.

Schershel, 48, has seen lots of Ruby Tuesdays, spending an average 120 days a year on the road decorating them -- as far away as India.

He and Deborah Conrad, who owns a South Carolina-based company called Prismatic Interior Works, work as suppliers of decor for the chain. They hire "pickers" to explore flea markets and rummage sales to find their stuff; then they oversee the installation. Conrad said her personal record was the year she spent 256 nights away from home, decorating yet more Ruby Tuesdays. (On one out-of-town job, her car was stolen.)

The aesthetic of Ruby Tuesday comes off as a toned-down approximation of Friday's old look -- it's still wainscoting, dark-leather booths and a smattering of stuff on the walls. It wants you to believe you're in a sportsman's club or hunting lodge -- one with a salad bar. Pretend it's the Harvard Club and you were once the rowing captain.

This escapism replaces the restaurant's old theme: familiarity and sense of place.

"We used to give the restaurants a little local flavor," Schershel said. "We would contact local museums and archival societies to find old photos and other stuff related to the area. If there was a college nearby, we'd prominently feature things related to a sports team at the college."

That was until a few years ago, when Ruby Tuesday's head office gave the decorators prototypes to which they had to adhere. Gone was regional specificity, in came a more general Americana.

Atmosphere and Attitude

Hollywood once consigned Jennifer Aniston to work at a chain restaurant in the 1999 cult hit "Office Space." (Her character quits in a huff, when the manager of the fictional Tchotchke's berates her for not wearing enough "flair" on her uniform.) Bartender Moe on "The Simpsons" turned his dive into Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag -- with the usual decor of traffic lights and an alligator wearing sunglasses. The staff of "ShennaniganZ," the fictional chain at the center of the recent comedy flop "Waiting . . . ," express their dislike for customers by doing unspeakable things to the food.

As casual dining became a hallmark of casual life, it also came to be the butt of jokes. ("People can get a cheeseburger anywhere," Aniston's prickly boss not-so-gently reminds her in "Office Space." "They come to Tchotchke's for the atmosphere and the attitude. That's what the flair's about -- it's about fun.")

Rob McKittrick, who wrote and directed "Waiting . . .," took pains to replicate the chain decor schemes in his film but still finds himself unable to justify their existence:

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