Everything changed with the bus driver, but it started with the book.
In an early chapter of A Proper Drink, New York Times cocktail writer Robert Simonson’s tome on the craft cocktail revolution, he talks to a former TGI Fridays bartender named “Magic” Mike Werner, who had worked at the Houston Fridays in the late '70s. What caught my eye was Werner recounting the bartending exam. You had to learn 400 drinks. Make 25 blindfolded. Know the history of every alcohol on the back bar. And, in order to even be considered, you had to barback for at least nine months.
That section stayed lodged in my mind for a year. I’d never heard of a bartender training program that intensive. Eventually I called Simonson. He told me he saw Fridays as a “Janus figure with two faces.” He knew the bartending program was rigorous, and, for a period of eight to 10 years or so, they were using fresh juice and eggs in their mixes, but he was still dubious of the quality of the drinks. “I wish we had a time machine,” Simonson said, “so we could go back and see if those Ramos Gin Fizzes were any good.”
And so I bought a time machine.
Or I let my TGI Fridays curiosity sit dormant for a long time until, by chance while in New Orleans, High Hat Cafe owner Chip Apperson mentioned to me that he’d worked at the TGI Fridays in Memphis in the early '80s. After witnessing my Pavlovian response to this information, he promised to try and track down any of the old bartenders. A little while later, I got a text from Apperson with a cell number for a Memphis man who’d worked there during the '70s and early '80s named Gary Baldwin. Baldwin, it was explained, had quit bartending a while back. He was now a school bus driver.