Searching for Guy Fieri At Guy's American Kitchen and Bar
I've been making fun of Guy Fieri for a pretty long time. I mean, look at him: If we ever get dragged into World War III, the Axis powers will put his chubby, bleached-blond head on propaganda posters to illustrate what us awful Americans are like. But I'm not alone, everyone makes fun of Guy Fieri. He's the ankle-high, tattoo-covered, goateed orange in the forest of low-hanging fruits. That's why, when I first read he was opening a new restaurant in Times Square, I thought, "I better get there and write about it before anyone else can." Oh, to have those fresh, first zingers.
Clearly, this was the exact wrong approach because A) Pieces were written before the restaurant even opened and B) I'm pretty sure I saw at least five other bloggers at Guy's American Kitchen and Bar plotting their clever asides about the pun-filled menu. Most telling, though, was that there wasn't much to make fun of.
For all the fun that I have made at the expense of Guy, I barely know anything about him. I know he won a contest on the Food Network in 2006 that vaulted him to a level of fame and ubiquity few celebrities (not just celebrity chefs) can match. I know that he's in a shitload of commercials, is remarkably wealthy, and that a former producer of his television show accused him of making homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks.
I've seen about a third of one episode of said show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and all I can remember is the image of Guy dressed like some sort of badass bowler standing in a roadside restaurant's kitchen, tampering with the resident cook's decades-old signature recipe. I think he said it was missing paprika, and that adding the spice would make it "money."
What does it say about me, then, that I left work early on Monday afternoon to rush to Times Square to dine at the restaurant of a man I only know through cultural osmosis? I've laughed at his hilarious publicity stills (like the one below, embedded for giggles) and Twitter account (which is full of interesting syntax choices, like replacing the letter "c" with "k" [i.e. "The krew at Harris Teeter rollin the bbq sauce. Awesome !"]), but to hightail it to midtown Manhattan during rush hour for Guy Fieri? At points, I found myself jogging to beat what I imagined would be the huge crowds. What the hell is wrong with me?
One thing that certainly is wrong with me is that I'm not a trained restaurant critic. I'm not even that accomplished of an eater in general. I have the palate maturity of a spoiled brat raised on chicken tenders, though I've been told this puts me right in Guy Fieri's culinary sweet spot. Basically, I've made enough jokes about the dude to friends to convince myself that I am somehow qualified to give you an opinion of his restaurant.
According to the nice gentleman who welcomed me at the entrance of Guy's American Kitchen and Bar, I got there within the first hour of its opening. I don't know what I was expecting before I walked in. Twenty-foot-tall pictures of Guy Fieri's smiling face on every wall? Bleached Guy-alikes vamping and rhyming Guy-isms while taking orders? Guy himself?
Sadly, the room looks like any other American food factory in Times Square. I'd even venture to say it looks like it's on the higher end. It is absolutely gigantic: two floors split by a mezzanine that houses one of its bars. The walls are covered with faux-aged murals of muscle cars and Guy slogans like "Love, Peace & Taco Grease." Everything looks like a T-Shirt. Heavy-looking electric candle chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The upstairs bar sits beneath a bubbly sculpture designed to look like a Cadillac logo. Two TVs were tuned to ESPN while the others featured the Food Network -- the primordial ooze from whence Guy crawled. Paula Deen was on. About half the women I saw dining at Guy's American Kitchen and Bar had gray hair and warm smiles and looked just like Paula Deen.
I was sat on the upper level (the lower level, I was told, was not yet open. It is the biggest of all the floors) at a two-top. I was dining alone because I was so eager to get to Guy's American Kitchen and Bar that I refused to wait for friends who had expressed interest as well. When I arrived, the restaurant was about half-full with earlier-than-early birds: the 5 p.m. crowd.
One of the things I do know about reviewing restaurants is the importance of going with a group so you can taste many different items . After seeing the menu full of choices like "Guy-talian Nachos" and "Slamma Jamma Chicken Parm" I realized that, holy shit, I'm going to have to take down at least three courses of this by myself.
I was writing some of these menu items down in my notepad like a real food critic when my waiter came over and profusely apologized for the delay. I had been waiting for maybe two minutes. More important, my jig was up: I was spotted jotting notes. My anonymity, so treasured and protected by restaurant critics, was compromised after two minutes at Guy's American Kitchen and Bar.
The waiters at Guy's are so pleasant and staid you wonder if they even come from the same planet as the in-your-face bad-boy chef whose signature is splashed all over the menus (these mark Guy's Signature Dishes, naturally). I experienced good service throughout my dinner.
Besides waiters and busboys, the floor was populated by various "higher-up" types: men and women who milled about with raised eyebrows and stiff backs, their very posture saying, "I'm keeping an eye on everything." They were there to ensure that Guy Fieri's introduction to New York would go off without a hitch. I counted maybe nine of these higher-ups. Sadly, none of them looked like Guy Fieri.
Soon, Ivan, a "brand ambassador" (according to his card), came over and warmly welcomed me. Was he suspicious of my note-taking? I hid my notepad from him, which at that point contained the following insights:
Jimmy Fallon's Boozy Creamsicle
Plastic deer (elk?) heads on wall
Julia Child clips on b-room TVs. In ladies' rooms? (Ask?)
He told me Guy was at the restaurant for the previous 10 days but had to return to California (Kalifornia?) that morning. Guy was involved "soup to nuts" with the restaurant and was such a magnetic and astounding individual that adoring crowds formed around him wherever he went. Ivan had earned his diplomatic plates as an acting ambassador of Guy Fieri's brand.
Ivan also asked me how I heard about the restaurant. "Oh, I was just walking by," I said. He asked what I did for a living. Fearing the repercussions of any further deceit at Guy's American Kitchen and Bar, I told him I was a writer.
I could feel my own personal brand withering, and I was happy when he politely excused himself.
Next: Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders
I started my meal with the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders because I like pretzels and I like chicken tenders. Everyone does. The combination of the two, however, is woefully un-awesome.
Apparently, the chicken is breaded in crushed pretzels. It is so ridiculously deep-fried, however, no taste comes through. It comes with honey-dijon dipping sauce, which is pretty spicy but does little to improve upon the chicken.
The chicken is presented on top of about a dozen french fries. I'm not sure why these are here. Presentation? You be the judge:
I remained optimistic, however, because the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are not a Guy Signature Dish. Who circumvented Guy on this one? Not kewl.
Next up was Guy's Big Bite Burger. My waiter informed me that the chefs ball up the patties and squish them flat on the griddle. He thwacked his open palm with a clenched fist while explaining this. It comes smothered in Donkey sauce, which I guess is something Guy is known for. Remember, I'm just a jerk who makes fun of him because he looks silly. My level of actual, operational Guy Fieri knowledge is low.
The story behind Donkey sauce goes thusly: Guy Fieri mixed together a bunch of stuff. I don't know what exactly because at this point, I was terrified of being seen with my notebook and couldn't write any of the specifics down as my waiter spoke. Guy tasted the sauce and said one would have to be an ass to dislike it. Hence, "Donkey" sauce.
Based on its description, I was hoping the burger would taste similar to one from Shake Shack. The beef comes from the same place, Creekstone Farms. (Creekstone was the subject of a Times piece from two years ago. Lots of restaurants in New York -- many of them hoity-toity -- are getting their beef from the Arkansas City, Kansas, supplier.) The burger is stacked with tomatoes, pickles, onions, and shredded lettuce. My word, is there a lot of lettuce. I daydreamed the cooks furiously stuffing full heads of lettuce into industrial paper shredders to get enough for my cheeseburger.
Be it from the Donkey sauce, grease, Whiz-like cheese, or the oily spawn of this unholy orgy, my burger came out sopping wet. It isn't horrible, though, and in a way reminds me of a Shake Shack burger. I don't particularly care for the Donkey sauce, identifying me, in Guy's words, as an ass (but you already know this).
I washed the burger down with a "Gimme a Light." This is a beer. A pale ale, to be specific, and a pretty good one. Guy's American Kitchen and Bar is co-owned by Jon Bloostein, who also owns Heartland Brewery. Beer is a safe choice here. For dessert, I tried the Baked Alaska upon recommendation from my server. I've maybe only had one other Baked Alaska in my life, but holy crap, this was delicious. I don't know what else to say. It's a thick, wonderfully consistent mound of Neapolitan ice cream, pound cake, and torched meringue, encircled by an orange liqueur that provides just the right amount of sweetness. This is a dynamite Baked Alaska.
In the spirit of journalistic integrity, I must mention that the Baked Alaska is not one of Guy's Signature Dishes.
I reserved what I thought would be the most important part of my meal for last: the gift shop. I've always had the overwhelming conviction that Guy Fieri is, above all, a commodity. If there really was a "Guy Fieri Experience" to be had, it would be at the gift shop. And after my meal at Guy's American Kitchen and Bar, I felt that I was being undersold.
What I felt most deprived of -- and this is going to sound weird -- was Guy's face. Guy loves his face for some reason. Whenever he visits a diner, drive-in, or dive, Guy stencils a colorful cartoon version of his head on the wall with the accompanying epigram, "Guy Ate Here," as well as a Food Network logo. Inside Guy's American Kitchen and Bar, his visage is pretty much absent. A smaller back room contains some framed pictures, and outside, above the massive sign, is an illuminated Jumbotron that plays clips of Guy Fieri on a loop. But once you enter from 44th Street, his absence is probably the most noticeable thing about the entire joint.
The gift shop, which is more of a gift shelf, has some aprons embossed with slogans like "Guy's American," or "Kulinary Kings." There are also a few mugs, shirts, and frying pans with flames painted on them (which seems somewhat redundant once they are put to use). Again, Guy's face is hard to find. It's on his cook books, but these were mostly presented spine-out.
Withholding Guy Fieri could be a strategy to disarm jackasses like myself who, based on some under-informed snobbery, think Guy's corniness is just the funniest thing in the world. What us jackasses don't realize is that there is preciously little to make fun of. Most every Guy Fieri joke is a lame retelling of another one (Even the extremely funny Bobby Moynihan's impression of Guy on SNL is just an extended visual gag). It's appropriate that Guy Fieri is one of the Internet's favorite targets, for that's routinely what the Internet has to offer by means of humor: recycled layers of the same joke. (Young people call these "memes.")
Whoever is (successfully) handling his image or managing his brand has ensured that the idea of Guy Fieri is solidified so concretely that there is nothing more to add. Not even to his own restaurant.
As I left the gift shelf, a middle-age couple walked in the front door. The man had on a Miami Dolphins shirt, and his wife rubbed her hands together in excitement and anticipation.
I wanted to tell them, "Forget it, Jake. It's Flavortown," but it was too late. They were off to try and find Guy.
220 E. 44th St.
New York, NY 10017
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