The end of an era is near.
At the beginning of the new year, two TGI Fridays restaurants in our area announced they were closing down for good. The casual dining chain told the press that it was due to those two spots (and 34 other locations across the nation) “underperforming.” As a result, there’s only one TGI Fridays left in our city (on the Main Line at 4000 City Avenue).
Fortunately, 80 percent of the TGI Fridays employees affected by these closures have been offered job transfers. But this is part of a growing trend of mainstream fast food locations closing rapidly in Philly. What once felt like a casualty of the pandemic, Center City and other popular areas of the city are now becoming fast-food deserts, with the decline of spots like McDonalds and Checker’s.
Over a decade ago, I remember what used to be known as 15th Street’s Restaurant Chain Row — a downtown strip of mainstream restaurants that included Applebee’s, Buca di Beppo, Fox & Hound, and Max Brenner Chocolate by the Bald Man. In the early 2010s, these places were booming in the heart of the city. Today, all of those spots are permanently closed.
For starters, Philly hasn’t really cared much for chains historically (we’re the 3rd largest city on the East Coast, following New York City and Brooklyn, with the most major chain restaurant closures in 2023). Before the pandemic, there had always been a topsy-turvy, love/hate relationship with them. One can count on their fingers how many Chick-Fil-As, Taco Bells, Burger Kings, and Subways are still left in the city. Even McDonald’s is becoming an endangered species — with rapid closings near major shopping centers and universities (with the rise in rent play a role in this as well).
Part of this phenomenon is due to our city’s unique passion for authenticity. While a fast-food chain such as Charleys Cheesesteaks, is known across America for their buzzy (yet inaccurate) rendition of the Philly classic (who would ever use such a scrawny roll?) — there’s only one location that exists in its beloved birthplace (located in Franklin Mills Circle). Given that Philly is also a hoagie town, that’s probably why there aren’t many Subway locations, compared to the domination of homegrown chains like Wawa (for better or worse) and La Colombe citywide.
As gentrification has progressed, several major American fast-food chains have come and gone in their experiments to tempt local diners. I remember the explosion (and later implosion) of the fast food burger joint Checkers. Raising Cane’s had a moment with their trendy chicken tenders, but so far it hasn’t expanded beyond Penn and Temple University. At this point, if any Philadelphian wants to venture into the pleasure island of chain restaurants, the suburbs are calling. Areas like King of Prussia, the Main Line, and Ardmore have spots like Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Eddie V’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Buffalo Wild Wings, Seasons 52, Founding Farmers, Oath Pizza, and more.
With the erosion of certain national chains in our city, there’s still a few that succeed. Less common, upmarket chains (such as Steak 48, Del Frisco’s, Fogo de Chão, Loch Bar, and Hard Rock Cafe) are doing well in Philly. Meanwhile, it appears that a lot of the lower-end and fast-food chains aren’t. Translation: The Capital Grille and the Cheesecake Factory are unlikely to exit anytime soon, but KFCs and Boston Markets across the city are getting harder to find. While Philly diners definitely appear to be more selective, it should be noted that some of this is speaking to just how much the landscape of chain dining is shifting overall.
This is the year Philly diners must help reset our restaurant scene and embrace more local culinary talent. If a chain restaurant that closes gets replaced by a local restaurant, support it. For example, the regional Victory Brewing Company replaced the old TGI Fridays on 1776 Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the new critically acclaimed bar Vinyl has replaced the Applebee’s on 215 S 15th Street. Let’s keep both of them in business there for many years to come, and help expand other local restaurants with the support of our dollars, dedication, and due diligence.