Do you remember Fern Bars? In the prehistoric dawn of time, before dating apps and the Internet, you only had a few ways to meet other singles interested in dating. And one of those ways involved hitting the bar scene. Enter the “fern bar,” a bar designed to feel homey and comfortable so women would be happy to stop in for a drink or a glass of wine.
Bars in the 1960s and 1970s were often rough places where men went to drink and get drunk. A woman in such a bar could feel out of place and unsafe.
Fern bars, also known as “singles bars,” featured homey decor that aimed to give the feel of hanging out in a friend’s living room. The interior design often included live plants, especially ferns.
Everything in a fern bar was designed to create a relaxed, casual environment where young, single professionals could hang out, drink, and meet other singles.
TGI Friday’s was the First Fern Bar
Alan Stillman opened the first TGI Fridays (named for the expression Thank God it’s Friday!) in New York in 1965 because he wanted to meet the many single women who lived in the area. He intended the bar to be a public cocktail party where anyone could stop for a drink and conversation.
Unlike the typical bars of the day, TGI Friday’s focused on offering food as well as alcoholic drinks. The bar was decorated like a Gay Nineties Ice Cream Parlor (like Farrell’s, the famous ice cream place we all loved in the 1970s). The first TGI Friday’s interior included several details that became required for any self-respecting fern bar: Tiffany-style lamps, wooden chairs, a brass-railed bar, and stained glass.
TGI Friday’s was an almost instant success. Other singles bars offering casual dining, upscale cocktails, and intimate decor soon followed.
Fern Bars Were the Place to Meet Other Singles in the 1970s and 1980s
The 70s and 80s were a time of increased upward mobility for many singles. Women were marrying later and focusing more on their careers. Socializing and dining out became popular activities.
Fern bars were seen as a more sophisticated and stylish alternative to traditional pubs and bars, and young, single professionals flocked to them after work for happy hour and on the weekend to meet potential romantic partners.
You Dressed Up to Visit Your Favorite Fern Bar
Unlike the more casual atmosphere of today, you wore your best cocktail attire or your smartest professional suit on your fern bar visits. In a crowded bar, you needed to look your best to attract attention from the opposite sex.
Growing up in Atlanta, Ga, in the 1980s, my Friday night ritual was to meet a group of my best girlfriends at a singles bar in Buckhead like Clarence Fosters, Carlos McGees, or the OG singles bar, Harrison’s on Peachtree. We sipped our cocktails and smiled across the room at the eligible men.
We went all out for these evenings, spending hours on our makeup and hair and ensuring we wore the cutest 80s party dress we could find.
Fern Bars Fostered Intimacy
The typical fern bar was dimly lit to feel intimate and cozy. You could share a drink at one of the small tables, and the bar noise meant you had to lean in to hear the conversation. Plus, everyone looks great in soft light.
Fern bars also often played music with a DJ or live band. Couples could dance or sit outside the dance floor enjoying the music.
Typical Fern Bar Food and Drinks
Fern bars served popular bar food, such as hamburgers, nachos, chili, and, that 80s classic, the spinach salad.
But the real stars of a fern bar were the cocktails. Fern bars served fun, fruity, and easy-to-drink cocktails, such as sloe gin fizzes, fuzzy navels, and Harvey Wallbangers, a cocktail featuring vodka and orange juice with a shot of Galliano.
The Lemon Drop, a sweet twist on the vodka martini, was invented at Henry Africa’s, a popular San Francisco singles bar.
Here’s the cocktail menu from an Atlanta bar I frequented in the 1980s, The Harvest Moon Saloon. These drinks were sweet, smooth, and very dangerous.
Classic Fern Bars of the 1980s
By the 1980s, fern bars were both singles bars and date-night destinations. If you were single, you headed to the bar area for cocktails and companionship. At the same time, couples sat at a table in the dining area for a romantic meal.
Every town had its local fern bar, but some of the more popular national chains were TGI Friday’s (still going strong as a fern bar in the 1980s), Bennigan’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, Houlihan’s, and Applebee’s.
The fern bars of the 80s continued to focus on bar food like potato skins and onion soup, and every self-respecting fern bar had a signature cocktail. Those cocktails were still sweet, fruity, and heavy on liquor. In 1988, for example, the specialty cocktails in my local Bennigan’s were Electric Bananas, Caribbean Smugglers, and a Turbo Margarita made with lime sherbert. Yum!
“Fern Bar” was a Derogatory Term
Singles loved to hang out in fern bars almost as much as restaurant food critics and social commentators loved to hate them. Describing a place as a “fern bar” meant a place with kitschy decor and generic food that catered to singles.
This critique from the April 19, 1987 edition of The Morning News (Wilminton, DE.) was typical of many fern bar reviews:
“And so the fern bar was born. It borrowed booze from bars, food from restaurants, and mating rituals from the 1950s high school dance, tossing it all in a blender full of trendy decor.”
People who frequented fern bars were equally despised. The “fern bar crowd” was seen as vapid yuppies who only cared about their appearance. Joe Rogers of The Clarion-Ledger described the fern bar crowd as “people who don’t really want to drink but like the way they look with a drink in their hand.”
The End of Fern Bars
The Random House Dictionary added “fern bar” to its list of words in 1987, but the trend was already winding down. The increased focus on preventing drunk driving meant many bars cut out their 2-for-1 happy hours and stopped promoting high-alcohol cocktails.
The baby boomers, the main demographic fern bars appealed to, grew up, married, and had families. In response, many of the fern bar restaurants of the 80s pivoted to become family-friendly establishments.
You can still find restaurants with the fern bar decor aesthetic of live plants and kitschy accessories. Still, bars and restaurants catering to the singles scene are rare now that dating apps are so widely available.
Is It Time to Bring Back the Fern Bar?
Meeting someone online is easy and efficient, but it doesn’t match the thrill of getting dressed up in your favorite head-turning outfit and heading out with your friends to see who you might meet at your favorite bar.
In addition to providing a place for singles to meet, fern bars can also be great places to hang out and have fun. I’d love to see a bar bring back the old-fashioned singles night so today’s young singles have a welcoming place to go. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a fruity cocktail now and then?