I don't really remember who mentioned it in the first place, but suddenly I was making reservations for me and three of my friends to eat at Guy Fieri's American Kitchen in Times Square. It's been five years since Guy's opened, and five years since it received this now-classic scathing review from Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. We went ironically, of course, but also because we thought that the food would be so bad (for us) that it was actually good (tasting). Although I've somehow never seen an episode of a Guy Fieri show, I have eaten at a few diners while his spray-painted on signature and face looked on (presumably because he had visited for his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives).
We made reservations not because we thought we needed to, but because the formality of it made me laugh. I once made reservations for the Hard Rock Cafe (also in Times Square, on a Tuesday night) and as the host was leading us through a near-empty dining room he asked, "So, where are ya'll from?" When we said "Brooklyn," he paused and then said in all seriousness, "Really?"
As you approach the entrance to Guy's, you're immediately bombarded with sensory input—screens and speakers and flashing lights competing for your attention in an already chaotic neighborhood. The decor consists of mostly car and guitar-themed pieces, including a few photos of what I assume is Guy's signature red Camaro bearing the license plate "FLVR TWN."
"Flavor Town" is a destination reached presumably by ingesting Guy's signature creations, which included dishes such as "Guy-talian Nachos", “'Awesome' Pretzel Chicken Tenders," and "Volcano Chicken." I'm by no means a food critic and my culinary tastes are decidedly basic so I genuinely went into Guy's expecting to love the unhealthy, greasy food and to be entertained by the ridiculous atmosphere. Well we were certainly entertained (by each other, mostly) but I'm sad to report that in five years the food doesn't appear to have improved much, if any from the same, bland, lukewarm fare that Wells wrote so memorably about.
The food wasn't by any means inedible, it was just perplexingly (and ironically?) flavor-less. At one point one of us said "This literally tastes like nothing," and though we tried, we never came up with a better one-line review of our experience than that. We started with a round of drinks and disappointment when three of us ordered the Sailor Jerry "High Honor" drink partially because it was supposed to come in a souvenir tin. Our waiter, Sal, informed us that they had long ago run out of tins and that the specials card on our table was "from Memorial Day," and he "had no idea why it was still being advertised."
The Dragon Chili Cheese Fries arrived barely warm, and despite being piled with recognizable ingredients like chili, tomatoes, cheese and bacon, barely tasted like any of those things. We all approached them tentatively, expecting them to be spicy (or at the very least, hot temperature-wise) enough to live up to the "Dragon Breath Chili" name, but found them to be woefully tame. The same can be said of the "Awesome" chicken tenders, which were fine—but dry and inexplicably cutlet-shaped. Whether you call them fingers or tenders it doesn't seem difficult to at least get the iconic shape correct. One review: "I'd rather eat a McDonald's chicken nugget—at least they're juicy."
Despite still remaining solidly on the outskirts of "Flavor Town," we awaited our entrees with hope. We decided to go full Fieri with two Bacon Mac n' Cheese burgers and one "Big Dipper," Fieri's take on a French Dip. One of the burgers came with a burnt top that we initially thought was a purposeful brand—until the waiter interrupted to say "I hate to burst your bubble, but it's not Guy's face. It just got too close to the broiler." The burger was woefully bland, despite claiming to be slathered with garlic butter AND Fieri's signature "Donkey Sauce."
Speaking of Donkey Sauce, apparently Fieri very recently admitted that it's really just garlic aioli, although I think that's an unfair comparison. I've never met an aioli—and especially a garlic aioli—that I didn't love, and our side orders of Donkey Sauce were grey, nearly tasteless and the consistency of Vaseline. I'm having a hard time choosing which flavorless item caused me the most distress, but it's probably the mac n' cheese. Mac n' cheese is one of my all-time favorite foods, and I'm still confused how exactly they got it so very wrong.
By the time it came to dessert, we had decided to go full-on Thelma and Louise—holding hands and just driving over the cliff together (hoping at the very least to finally end up in Flavor Town). We ordered the Deep Dish Cookie Dough Pie, described as a "warm chocolate chip cookie dough pie, toasted walnuts baked in a sweet, brown sugar crust + dollop of vanilla bean ice cream." We wondered how baked cookie dough could possibly differ from a regular chocolate chip cookie but that was the least of its problems. The vanilla ice cream actually had taste—not vanilla, unfortunately, but freezer burn. The pie was dry and brittle and I could occasionally taste a walnut, but not much else.
The only thing the whole evening that hinted that we might be in the near vicinity of Flavor Town? The strawberry garnish on our dessert actually tasted like strawberries, which might not sound impressive but it was a welcome reminder that our taste buds weren't inexplicably malfunctioning in unison. Our bill was $161 for the four of us, which isn't cheap even by New York standards, and we certainly didn't go to Guy Fieri's for an authentic New York experience.
Do I recommend eating or drinking at Guy's American Kitchen? No. Would I go back? Definitely not. Am I glad that we went? Absolutely. Like war buddies, the four of us emerged from Guy's greasy, confused and strangely full yet unsatisfied—forever bonded by our shared experience. We may not have ever actually made it to Flavor Town, but damned if we didn't try.