Friday, July 18, 2008

Norm and Cliffy walk into a bar....

A few days ago WB stopped at Ruby Tuesday's for some miniburgers and a cold beverage. Looking around the place, we commented that it would be really nice if it were an actual neighborhood bar instead of a corporate chain simulation of one.

Then we realized that Ruby Tuesday's is part of a whole batch of "neighborhood tavern" simulacra that include Chili's, Applebee's, Bennigan's (August update: what's left of it), and TGI Friday's, corporate chain simulations that have crept into the strip malls and foodservice pads on the outskirts of major malls across the country while the real neighborhood bars and bistros in downtown areas have died slowly.

The phenomenon of RubeeChiliganFriday's being accepted as a substitute for actual neighborhood bars seems to hinge on decoration schemes. Originally these places just put up collections of assorted, random stuff, but now, they've replaced the randomness with deliberate "local" trinkets like headlines, photos, car parts, and watersport gizmos, along with sponsoring local sports teams so that advertising slogans like "Eatin' Good in the Neighborhood" can seem even more genuine. Applebee's has even run a TV ad campaign showing a local sports team, hungry after a big game, stopping by for a meal right at closing time — and because the owner knows them (as good local tavern owners always know their customers), he opens the doors again and turns the lights back on. Local service for the local boys on the local team. Small-town America still lives.

It's no accident that every RubeeChiliganFriday's looks like a clone of the bar owned by Sam Mallone on Cheers. Sam was the local boy turned pro-baseball pitching star, who went on to buy a local bar after retirement from sports, and the bar was a place "where everybody knows your name." Simulate the Cheers bar, which was itself a Hollywood simulation of a local bar, and you end up with a "bar" that customers accept as part of their "neighborhood."

(Ironically, the actual Cheers chain only builds its corporate "bars" inside airports in major cities. Not exactly a neighborhood anyone can live in, and pretty good odds that no one will ever know your name.)

When there are no real alternatives, the simulation is as close to a "neighborhood" experience as it gets. In cities where the downtown cores are shells of their former selves, customers prefer the safety and familiarity of brightly lit corporate chains on main 4-lane arteries to independent bars tucked back onto side streets where we might have to park a couple of blocks away and (horror!) walk.

RubeeChiliganFriday's has fetishized the familiar decor of actual neighborhoods to play on community nostalgia for an "authentic" neighborhood-tavern experience by offering a simulation of that authenticity. With its decor trinkets and "local" setting alluding to neighborhood participation and symbolizing "roots" in the community, customers don't perceive the irony when these chains simply close up and vacate the building if a particular store doesn't make enough profit. Actual "neighborhood" connections are shallow to nonexistent.

Damn, those miniburger ingredients are suddenly a lot less tasty.
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