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Here’s When the Upper East Side Became Cool

While the Upper East Side may be filled with an endless supply of fun bars and restaurants, the neighborhood – especially along First and Second avenues – was once known best known for its “dullness after sunset,” according to a 1970 New York Times article which seems to have marked the area’s official transformation into something cool.

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The 1960s Upper East Side was a “wasteland” – at least according to Dr. Jessica Spector, a Yale professor who specializes in intellectual history, ethics and drink culture. But that would all soon change, thanks in large part to Alan Stillman, who opened the first T.G.I. Friday’s on 63rd Street and First Avenue – a meeting place that would become legendary and catalyze change in the area.

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The first T.G.I. Friday’s (now home to Baker Street Irregulars) opened at 1152 First Avenue in 1965. The neighborhood’s social scene would soon revolve around the establishment, which – unlike most NYC watering holes – catered to young women with its Tiffany decor, sweet drinks, and $1 admission for men.

original TGI Fridays

c/o TGI Fridays via Facebook

“Now it’s not true there weren’t places for women to drink [in New York] at the time,” Spector told InsideHook in 2020. “But women of a particular subset of society, the kinds of women who went to college, didn’t go to bars before this. And then they did.”

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A perfume salesman who wanted to create a female-friendly bar vastly different from the male-dominated saloons and dives that dotted the city, Stillman positioned the first T.G.I Friday’s near the Queensboro Bridge to cater to stewardesses who lived in or passed through the area on the way to or from NYC airports. The success of Friday’s began a trend that was soon adopted by other bars, both existing and newly opened, in the area.

“We’re from Queens, but there’s a Brooklyn Group and a Bronx group, too,” Jill Bell, a mid-20s kindergarten teacher, said at the time from a seat at Friday’s bar. “I guess I looked down my nose on this before I came, but now I look at it as a pleasant place to meet people.”

“It’s not necessary to always end up with a date. If it happens, fine. But I really just enjoy the companionship.”

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In the 1970 article titled “Upper East Side No Longer Dullsville to Young,” the NYT cites Maxwell’s Plum (64th and First) and Mr. Laff’s (right next door, owned by former Yankee Phil Linz) as other area bars that helped transform the neighborhood into an attraction for singles from all over New York City.

Maxwell’s Plum

Postcard photo of the now defunct Maxwell’s Plum restaurant and bar in New York City.

“This place used to be the dullest around,” a young male UES resident said of the neighborhood. “Now it’s the place to be in the city. It’s ‘The Scene’!”

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By the late 1970s, the Times had dubbed Manhattan’s East Side as “the singles’ Gold Coast.” Single twenty-somethings flocked to the area, which tried to both accommodate and capitalize on the shift. Local boutiques changed their hours to stay open until midnight or later. Movie theaters popped up along Third Avenue. First Avenue between E. 63rd and 64th streets shut down every Friday night at 8 p.m. to allow room for overflow crowds.

“During the day, this is a family neighborhood,” 59-year-old Milton Weber, walking through crowds with his wife, told the NYT in 1965. “But we love to come here and look at people. Lately, it’s become very honky-tonk. Such hordes of people, with that young opulent look, you know. There are more kooks, but I wouldn’t miss it.”


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