When I read the New York Times’ hilariously smart-mouthed review of Guy Fieri’s new Times Square restaurant, Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, I couldn’t believe that a culinary experience could be so spectacularly frightful. Was the food really as “limp” and “oil-sogged” as the critic Pete Wells claimed? Did the drinks really taste like “a combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde”? Did Fieri’s spiky, bleached hair and Pauly Shore-turned-youth pastor personality inspire so much ire in the Gray Lady’s reviewer that he could no longer separate the man from his food? Surely this place can’t be worse than your average TGI Friday’s. Or could it? I had to find out.
I wasn’t alone. Wells’s review was so popular—it’s the most read story on the Times’ website this month and it generated so much controversy that Fieri had to defend his reputation on the Today show—that the restaurant has started drawing a crowd. Of locals.
Seventy percent of people who visit Times Square are from outside the tri-state area, according to neighborhood group Times Square Alliance. Tourists overwhelmingly populate the neighborhood’s hundreds of franchise restaurants—places most locals avoid like an overly commercialized, mass-marketed plague. But surprisingly, they’ve been testing Fieri’s greasy restaurant to see just how bad it is. The restaurant won’t divulge any specific numbers but has “been doing very well,” as a manager named Gary put it recently. Other than a few hurt feelings among the line cooks and servers, Gary said the review “hasn’t really affected our business at all.” Apparently the Onion’s video “New Ad Urges Hipsters to Go to Applebee’s Ironically” has finally come true.
Brooklyn-based attorney Nneka Udoh visited Times Square last Saturday to, as she put it, “see if Pete Wells was just writing that review to get attention.” She dined with a party of seven, including a sister who lives in New Jersey and likes chain restaurants such as Chili’s and Applebee’s, and is a faithful Guy Fieri fan. “She’s exactly the type of person this restaurant should be marketed to,” Udoh says. But even her sister agreed that the mediocre chicken wings and entrees weren’t up to her usual strip-mall standards. “The drinks were strong,” Udoh says. “We ordered a lot of them to make up for the fact that we didn’t like our food.” The final bill was over $400.
Jay Rayner, the London Observer’s restaurant critic, isn’t surprised by the review’s popularity. “People enjoy a negative review, there’s no denying that,” he told me. “The human ability to find different ways to screw things up never ceases to amaze.” No matter how glowingly Rayner writes of a new culinary gem, his positive reviews never garner the response that his takedowns do. But as popular as his bad reviews are, Rayner doesn’t think they bring people to the restaurants they skewer. That’s because he usually pans only upscale restaurants—“the more expensive the place, the more infuriated I’ll be when it’s bad,” he explains—and who wants to pay hundreds of dollars to purposefully have a bad time?
A lot of New Yorkers, apparently. When Gary He, a 29-year-old freelance photographer based in Manhattan, visited Guy Fieri’s with a friend on Thanksgiving, the place was packed with locals. “They were all coming in an ironic way to check it out,” he said. He ordered from a special Thanksgiving menu with offerings that ranged from a “pretty decent” beet salad to “flavorless” turkey that tasted as if it had been cooked in a microwave. “I don’t know what [Fieri] was thinking,” said He. “Maybe he’s just trying to replicate what your drunk grandma would make you for Thanksgiving?”
When I told He that I planned to try the restaurant myself, he offered some advice. “Buy Ex-Lax,” he said. “No, don’t laugh. I mean it.”
I kept this tip to myself when I ventured last week to Guy’s restaurant, which is nicknamed “Flavor Town,” according to a giant sign and the gift shop’s $22 autographed plates. I walked into the 16,000-square-foot monstrosity on a weeknight and found that while plenty of its 500 seats were available, many more than I expected were full.
The waiter, an enthusiastic young man with a deep tan and a flat-top haircut that he’d razored at the sides, introduced himself to our group by saying, “I’ll be hanging out with you for the next 30 to 40 minutes, depending on how much you eat—or the next hour, depending on how much you drink.” Flat-screen TVs played old episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on a loop with the sound off.
I ordered a fruity cocktail that reminded me of college—specifically, how no one in college knew how to mix a proper cocktail so everything always tasted like it was made with Capri Sun. Our nachos looked potentially delicious when they arrived, but within five minutes the melted cheese congealed and the tortillas deflated. The chicken tenders were labeled on the menu as “awesome”—quote marks included—but tasted nothing like that, unless they meant awesomely microwaved.
In the end, the entrees were disappointing. We tried a bland, Velveeta-y version of bacon mac and cheese, complete with what appeared to be off-brand Cheez-Its crumbled on top. We also had a passable cheeseburger coated in something called Donkey Sauce and an order of ribs. Here’s the surprising part: The ribs were good. They were big, juicy, not too fatty, not too saucy—and definitely something that could be enjoyed without irony. Maybe even at TGI Friday’s.