Whatever Happened to the Singles Bar?

The 1960s gave birth to a new era of urban nightlife centered around the "singles bar"—a genre of male- and female-friendly watering holes that proliferated along the far reaches of Manhattan's 1st Avenue and spread around the country. Aaron Goldfarb on the life and death of the singles bar, and whether they’re really gone for good.

the life and times of the singles bar illustration yoonhwa jang

In 1903 the Wright Brothers out of Dayton, Ohio built the world’s first successful airplane. By 1965, 20 percent of Americans had flown commercially and tens of thousands of stewardesses were stationed in urban hubs like San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Due to strict airline criteria, most all these women were unmarried, trim and under the age of 30.

In 1960 G.D. Searle & Company out of Skokie, Illinois, first submitted to the FDA for approval a new product they had developed called Enovid, better known as the world’s first oral contraceptive. It was an instant hit and, by 1965, 6.5 million American women were on “the pill.”

Also in 1965, Alan Stillman, a 28-year-old essential oils salesman in New York City, was trying to figure out a better way to meet single women in his neighborhood. “It was an extremely parochial time, even in New York. It wasn’t easy to meet women and get into bed with them,” Stillman told me over the phone. “Believe me, it wasn’t easy for women either.”

Stillman lived on the far east side of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which was a popular neighborhood for younger people—particularly flight attendants, as the nearby 59th Street Bridge gave them a quick exit to Queens’ two airports.

“There was a building on East 65th they called the ‘Stew Zoo.’ Girls would fly in and out, in and out; it was a real ‘hotbed’ place. You might have six stewardesses sharing a three-bedroom apartment,” says Stillman with a laugh. “Back then, we joked the laundry room in that building was surely the easiest place on the Upper East Side to meet single women.”

In fact, New York Magazine claimed 90 percent of the 15-story building was occupied by stewardesses—maybe 400 attractive single women in one location, by Stillman’s estimation. (An article from 1966 about this part of the Upper East Side was titled “The Girl Ghetto: Manhattan’s Swingiest Square Mile.”) Unfortunately, these flight attendants didn’t drink at bars.

Before 1965, your average couple met each other via setups from friends or family, they had been high school or college sweethearts, maybe even co-workers or fellow churchgoers. But they almost certainly hadn’t met in a bar. Stillman wanted to change that and, in doing so, would inadvertently change dating in the latter part of the 20th century.

Stillman was a regular at a bullet-riddled, 1st Avenue saloon called Good Tavern. He’d hit the dive after work for an occasional beer and, annoyed there were never any women around, one day suggested to the owner that he might want to clean the place up and start serving the kind of food and drink that would attract a female crowd. The owner didn’t like that idea, but did like Stillman’s offer to buy the bar for $10,000. Even if he didn’t realize it at the time, Stillman’s idea to make a bar friendly to women was revolutionary.

Thank God It’s Friday!—then a popular expression with college kids—opened on the northeast corner of 63rd and 1st Avenue on March 15, 1965. Stillman painted the building bright blue with red-striped awnings and stocked the interior with Tiffany lamps, stained glass, brass rails and a floor lightly brushed with sawdust. He had his waiters wear loudly colored soccer jerseys and offered a menu both affordable and enticing to a younger person—burgers and fries, cheap beer, Long Island Iced Teas and Harvey Wallbangers.

“Immediately, it was like someone had set off a release mechanism,” says Stillman. “I opened the door on day one and, just like that, 60 people were inside. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen, a bar so obviously meant for young people. [They] were like, ‘Whoa, we can actually go out and drink beers, meet people?’”

Stillman may have invented the singles bar, but he never used the phrase to refer to T.G.I. Friday’s—indeed, it doesn’t seem to have entered the American lexicon until around 1968, when, according to the O.E.D., it appeared in a Washington Post article. Nevertheless, a new kind of bar had officially been created.

By the summer of 1966, that small stretch of 1st Avenue was flooded on Friday nights with the police having to close down the street from 8 p.m. until midnight due to hordes of singles bouncing back and forth between bars like spaghetti-chasing tourists on Mulberry Street. By 1968, there were a whopping 85 bars on the Upper East Side, most of them singles bars. By the early 1970s, 20 to 25 percent of American couples had met at a bar, according to Stanford University research.

Within 18 months, several more “singles bars” were opened on 1st Avenue. A rare male tenant of the Stew Zoo—not to mention a light-hitting, backup shortstop for the Yankees—Phil Linz opened Mr. Laff’s up the block. Then came Gleason’s, owned by four brothers from New Jersey. And Hudson Bay Inn, started by an ex-Pan Am PR flack who cleverly used his mailing list of 2,200 stewardesses to find potential customers.

“Everybody was young,” notes Stillman. “But we weren’t sophisticated restaurateurs.”

That group also included Warner LeRoy, grandson of a Warner Bros. founder and son of a Wizard of Oz producer. LeRoy was a flashy, 270-pound, off-Broadway producer who had owned Toto the dog as a child, favored paisley-patterned suits and sometimes wore a replica of a silk cape he’d once seen on a circus elephant. He opened the massive Maxwell’s Plum a block from Friday’s in 1966.

“What the Beatles were to rock and roll, (Maxwell’s Plum) was to eating and courting,” auctioneer William Doyle recalled to the New York Times in 1989.

By the summer of 1966, that small stretch of 1st Avenue was flooded on Friday nights with the police having to close down the street from 8 p.m. until midnight due to hordes of singles bouncing back and forth between bars like spaghetti-chasing tourists on Mulberry Street. By 1968, there were a whopping 85 bars on the Upper East Side, most of them singles bars. By the early 1970s, 20 to 25 percent of American couples had met at a bar, according to Stanford University research.

Stillman may have been inexperienced when he started, but he was no dummy any more. “I took one look at what was going on,” he claims, “and, thought, ‘If I’m gonna fool around with this, I might as well try to make some money.’” By 1971 he had found partners in cities like Memphis, Dallas and Houston, where other, larger locations of Friday’s were opened. Copycats were now springing up everywhere.

Chicago had one bar that also initially dominated the singles scene. Opened in 1968, Mother’s was located just down the street from Carl Sandburg Village, a just-built apartment complex full of single women, again, many of them stewardesses. The concrete-floor, live-music basement bar was also one of the first in Chicago to start employing female bartenders once 1970 hit, something that had been illegal in the city until then.

Soon, other bars on that Division Street block got into the act, like the Hangge-Uppe, which is still open today and in 2010 offered a souvenir condom celebrating “40 years of hooking up.” Simultaneously, the West Coast took notice, with one man realizing that, to have a singles bar, all you really had to do was soften the decor a bit.

Enter the softest bars of them all, fern bars. Opened in San Francisco in 1969 by Henry Africa (real name: Norman Jay Hobday), an upstate New York farm boy with no extra money to decorate, Henry Africa’s iconoclastic look—defined by an abundance of cheap, potted plants sitting in wicker baskets hanging from the ceiling—was born out of necessity.

Fern bars would quickly replace Friday’s as the dominant singles bar model of the 1970s. Soon, copycat joints were popping up across the country, with names like Shenanigans and Bananas!. These highly welcoming places served fried foods and cheesy “for the ladies”-type concoctions like Lemon Drops, Piña Coladas, Bahama Mamas, Mudslides and, of course, white wine spritzers—the same crowd-pleasing drinks you still see offered on the laminated, spiral-bound picture menus at many chain restaurants today.

But even as singles bars was getting more inane, they were also getting sleazier. Cocaine and other drugs were becoming prevalent on the scene while the AIDs virus was also looming, first identified around 1983. “There’s this whole dark decade that no one wants to talk about,” says Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco’s famed modern tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove.

In the 1981 year-end issue of New York Magazine, a cover story, “Single in the City,” detailed a Friday night of bar-hopping at spots like Adam’s Apple, Grass and Boodle’s. These singles bars all of the sudden looked a bit different from the cheery Friday’s of yesteryear, with the story’s author Richard West noting: “For many single New Yorkers, singles bar rank unfavorably with the Hawaiian leper colony—‘body shops’ and ‘meat racks’ they’re called, containers of rubbish ranging from tourists to Mr. Goodbars.”

“Mr. Goodbar” was a reference to the 1977 movie Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which starred Diane Keaton as a teacher who enjoys hitting seedy singles bars for unsavory one-night stands and who is eventually raped and stabbed to death by a bar pickup. (It was based on a Judith Rossner novel of the same name, about a real-life incident from 1973.)

Throughout the 1980s the singles bar continued to be recast in pop culture as a genre of bar that had gone from safe to seedy. And a new kind of bar was emerging. In early scenes of 1988’s Cocktail, bartender Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise) works at that original T.G.I. Friday’s location on the Upper East Side. Eventually, he becomes an archetypal ’80s hot shot, the co-owner of the raucous, multi-leveled Cocktails & Dreams, where he confidently stands atop the bar encouraging rowdy single patrons to order drinks such as the Sex on the Beach, the Orgasm and the Ding-a-ling.

Flanagan’s quick change in scenery is a fitting analogy for how single bars had evolved in New York City. The unattached of the ’80s were now enjoying nights out at conspicuous consumption-type downtown spots. These were loud, large, often highly superficial joints like the Palladium, Nell’s and Tunnel, whose owner, Rudolf, told New York Magazine in 1986, “There is no (singles) ‘scene’ anymore, it’s just a bunch of people who go out, uptown or downtown, and look well.”

The 1990s would eventually come to reject the previous decade’s glitz and decadence. If Three’s Company’s Jack Tripper was going to the Regal Beagle to pick up foxy chicks in the ’70s, by the ’90s single characters were hitting coffee shops (Friends) and dumpy diners (Seinfeld) instead. Even from our modern lens, think how weird it is that such proudly promiscuous characters as Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer never went to bars. To a certain extent, who could blame them? By this era single people needed beds in their bars to make a night out seem exciting.

“These days, there aren’t singles bars; there are bars where there may be a lot of singles,” says Thomas Edwards. Think of the characters on How I Met Your Mother congregating at McGee’s Pub, hardly a singles bar yet somehow always full of single people. Edwards, who calls himself The Professional Wingman, spends his nights in bars helping clients meet potential partners. Since bars don’t call themselves singles bars anymore, the trick is knowing which bars are likely to be full of “singles looking to mingle.”

I think of NYC’s Murray Hill today. Go to bars like the Joshua Tree, Brother Jimmy’s, Bar 515 and Mercury Bar on a Friday or Saturday night. Though not “singles bars” per se, they will undoubtedly be packed with young, drunk and mostly single people. I met my wife at one of those Murray Hill dumps. Yet, we’ve never been back to the bar since our initial encounter. Why would we?

As brand strategist Dain Dunston posits, perhaps the insane success of singles bars was why they eventually declined. “The success of the Friday’s concept lead to a boom in marriage licenses, suburban homes and baby clothes,” he says. “And, as their customers moved to the suburbs, so did Friday’s.”

Today, the original T.G.I. Friday’s is now a sports bar called Baker Street. Maxwell’s Plum has become another Duane Reade—though one can still view its large, mahogany island bar at Tribeca Grill, which purchased it in 1989 for a mere $9,500. Mother’s is now the Original Mother’s but remains otherwise unchanged, with live music on the weekends and a “Naughty Little Cabaret” on Saturday nights. Henry Africa’s closed in 1986.

Of course, other things have radically changed since the singles bar’s heyday. In fact, most of the current generation can’t believe such a thing as a “singles bar” ever existed. Living in a world where a mere swipe of a smartphone is a pickup opportunity—an astonishing 35 percent of couples now meet online—the idea there once needed to be designated places for such a thing is hard to imagine. But it doesn’t mean we’ve surpassed a use for them for good.

With singles numbers higher than ever before—around 125 million Americans 16 and older (50.2 percent of the population), some 1.5 million singles between the ages of 21 and 35 in New York City alone—Tinder may not be enough.

Last month noted Williamsburg restaurateur Joe Carroll opened Oleanders, a somewhat serious, somewhat ironic fern bar. Plants line the walls, while Tiffany-style lampshades provide a glow that frames loaded potato skins and Dale DeGroff-composed drinks, including “improved” takes on the Long Island Iced Tea and Rob Roy. Meanwhile, Jenny Oz LeRoy, daughter of Warner, now owner of the LeRoy Redux restaurant group, is trying to reopen Maxwell’s Plum, this time in a 21,000-square-foot building in the singles-deluged Meatpacking District.

“I have always said, singles bars may dwindle at times,” says Stillman. “But as long as there are single people, they will never, never, ever disappear.”