Guy's American Kitchen and Bar
220 West 44th Street, New York NY 10036 (b/n Seventh and Eighth Aves; map); 646-532-4897; guyfieri.com
Service: Eager to please
Setting: Massive Times Square restaurant with multiple bars and TVs everywhere, "American" to the point of caricature
Must-Haves: None, but wings and burger are better bets
Cost: Easy to inadvertently spend $40+/head
Grade: Not recommended (come on, are you surprised?)
Every restaurant exists in context, of neighborhood and price, of cuisine and competitors. A sandwich that tastes great when you pay $5 wouldn't give you the same feeling if it were $15. Somewhere excellent for one corner of Brooklyn might not seem the same way in another. And a spot that trades heavily, and exclusively, on the reputation of a TV chef personality... well, it's aiming for a different crowd than many other NYC restaurants.
So Guy's American Kitchen and Bar—the massive big-box restaurant that Food Network star Guy Fieri opened last week in Times Square? No one expects it to be good, per se. The questions you're answering: would a tourist wandering in after a Broadway show have a better meal than he would elsewhere in the neighborhood? Would a Food Network fan visiting from out of town enjoy her Slammin' Jammin' Chicken Parm? Basically—is Guy's American Kitchen and Bar better than the Cheesecake Factory? After all, this thing has "replicable concept" written all over it—from the already-curated gift shop up front to the custom butcher paper that covers the tables. About the only thing that gives you a sense of place is the neon flashing sign walking in—this is Broadway, after all. Even the doormen sounded like Guy Fieri, that amped-up rasp of a voice.
What we found wasn't a disaster, per se. But if one turned up in a suburban mall next to a Cheesecake Factory... we'd send you to the Cheesecake Factory. Hands down.
The best part of a visit to Guy's is reading the menu. "Are we gonna get the Slammin' Jammin' Chicken Parm?" asked Robyn in a quaking voice. "Is Guy Fieri actually here?" wondered Ben. (No; he'd flown out to LA that morning, we were told.) "If he's not, I'm gonna be furious." Jessica corrected him. "Fieri-ous." You can't escape Guy. There are TVs in the bathroom screening his shows (which I found more than a little unsettling). But the man himself, you're not likely to find. I'm trusting this doesn't surprise you.
If you're drinking, I'd recommend you go with one of their house beers, brewed together with NYC's Heartland Brewery. They're nothing remarkable, but let's put it this way: a Miller High Life is $6.50. A pint of their inoffensive, gets-better-with-lemon El Jefe Weizen is $7.50, and it comes in a pretty memorable glass. When bottom-shelf beers are this expensive, you might as well go the slightly nicer route.
I'm critical of my cocktails, but when it comes down to it, I don't find many things undrinkable; I'm more than capable of putting back a mediocre margarita or mojito. But the margarita here ("Guy's Margarita de la Casa," $12.50) was the only one that got finished (and we were at that table for two hours). Blanco tequila, Cointreau, agave, and "Fresh Squeezed Lime Sour" (which is terminology we found a little puzzling, but hey, we'll go with it), it's on par with what you'd find at most cheap Mexican spots, or a TGI Friday's. (Applebee's and Chevy's, as I can attest from plenty of tagalongs on Cheap Buzz tastings, both make a better one.) It went downhill from there. A Wild Lemon Martini ($13) of Absolut Wild Tea, peach vodka, St. Germain, and a "lemon reduction" started off peachy-nectar sweet and immediately kicked over to a harsh, floor-cleaner alcohol burn. It reminded me of what I thought alcohol tasted like when I was about 17. The Big Island Punch ($13)—Captain Morgan, Bacardi Dragonberry, mango, lemon, and lime—didn't fare much better. Again, we're not looking for the forefront of modern mixology here. But I can say without hesitation that Dave and Buster's makes better drinks.
At least, if you're at the bar, there's a TV overhead to distract you. "Is this the Food Network, or just Triple-D [that'd be Fieri's Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives] on loop?" wondered Ben as we all found our eyes drifting to the many, many screens. It's the latter. It sets up a bit of a hard act to follow. I don't always love Fieri's picks, but he does manage to hit some real treasures... or at least, restaurants with character. And when you're watching him chomp into a shrimp po' boy in New Orleans, say, it's hard not to compare that sandwich (which costs about $6) with the vastly inferior $18 version sitting in front of you.
Let's start with that po' boy, as it was one of the better options here. "Lightly seasoned and fried cornmeal-panko shrimp" (translation: intensely salted and dried-herbed batter over shrimp") were fried quite well and of ample size, but there were maybe six of them in the massive roll; pretty quickly, you end up with the end of a big crusty roll, with only mayo, lettuce, tomato, and pickle. Guy's Big Bite Burger ($13.95) suffered from over-breadage, too: a massive "garlic bread brioche" that dwarfed the fast-food portioned patty inside. Bun notwithstanding, it wasn't a bad burger by any means; it delivered the juicy, beefy satisfaction of, say, a Wendy's burger. (Though for the price, that's about a dozen Wendy's burgers.) But "Guy's Pat LaFrieda custom blend of all-natural Creekstones Farm black Angus beef" ends up leaving no particular impression. The much-discussed "Donkey Sauce" (mustard, mayo, Worcestershire sauce, and garlic--but that's no fun to say) ends up getting somewhat lost in the bun and toppings—"LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), and SMC (super-melty-cheese)."
Buffalo Bleu-Sabi Ain't No Thing Butta Chicken Wing ($13.50), while not perfectly crisp, are better than you'll find at plenty of bars around town. "It's considerate that they pre-sauce the celery and carrots," quipped Max. Resident wings expert Ben Fishner voiced his approval, even suggesting that they might become his "go-to pre-theater wings spot." But at more than a dollar a wing... well, we could probably do better.
The "Bleu-Sabi" also shows up in Vegas Fries ($9.95), quite a confusing thing. Called "A throw-back to Guy's UNLV day's!" [sic], they're fries tossed in Buffalo sauce (whose presence we hardly noticed) in a portion that, at most restaurants, would be a side dish. The "Bleu-Sabi" essentially delivered what was promised—a creamy, not-too-funky blue cheese sauce laced with a noticeable but mild wasabi kick—but a "dish" worthy of $10, this was not. For that amount, go for the also-overpriced but generally better Rojo Onion Rings ($9.95), with an appealing panko crust and a slightly spicy ranchlike dipping sauce that ended up being one of the best things we tasted. It tastes like something they'd deliver with your Domino's order to dip your breadsticks in (though if that were served at Guy's, it'd probably be "breadstix.")
We don't ask much of nachos other than that the cheese be melted and the chips crisp, but the Guy-talian Nachos ($12.95) failed on both those fronts. I didn't mind the herb-pepper-meat pile on top, except the turkey sausage, which tasted like it had gone off, to a point where I couldn't bring myself to swallow that mouthful. Root Beer Pork Ribs ($26.50) were similarly unpalatable, their "Heartland Root Beer and brown sugar BBQ sauce" cloying and eerily medicinal—reminding me uncomfortably of the grape-flavored Dimetapp my mother would make me drink when I came down with a cold.
It was about here that I realized: we hadn't picked up a fork for the entire meal.
It's the Bacon Mac n Cheese ($14.95) we ended up eating most of; multiple cheeses, bacon, and Goldfish as a crunchy topping? This couldn't be bad. But it was delivered with head-scratching instructions: "There's more cheese in the middle, so make sure you stir it all up!" What that meant: a softened, misshapen, but by no means melted slice of American cheese hiding out halfway into the noodle bed, resisting our efforts to "stir" and ending up doing little but adhering a few elbow noodles to each other. And that was one of the better dishes we tried.
Could dessert redeem Guy's? After all, it's hard to mess up a hot fudge sundae; I predicted the dessert menu would be mostly mediocre ice cream with toppings tasty enough that we wouldn't notice. Alas, it was not to be. The Fried Ice Cream ($11) appeared as a misshapen lump of unappealingly breaded ice cream, a sort of mushy cornflake event with nearly rock-hard ice cream in the middle. A Salted Whiskey Caramel Fool ($12) had us believing that we'd been brought the wrong dessert, so small a role did the not-that-salty caramel play; it's really a glass of pound cake cubes with frozen-tasting strawberries and a healthy ploof of whipped cream. Nothing really got eaten except the whipped cream.
If you go in with a sense of humor and an appreciation for the ridiculous, sure, you can have fun with it. (Frankly, we had a great time.... though I ran off to The Dutch immediately afterward, for a very different sort of all-American meal to erase my memory.) But you can also make a good time out of ordering some wings from Domino's, gathering friends and a few six-packs, and watching Food Network reruns at home.
Let's take the most charitable view: you're a huge Guy Fieri fan who genuinely doesn't mind overpaying for macaroni and cheese—still, you won't find the sort of unabashed excess that Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives celebrates.
For all its shortcomings, DDD celebrates a particular kind of restaurant: mom-and-pops with devoted local followings and a real sense of character. The fundamental truth of the show is that you win recognition by being present at your own restaurant, interacting with customers, being the face of your own enterprise; finding signature dishes and doing them well; and, frankly, caring about the food that's on the plate. Guy Fieri, the television host, wouldn't come within a mile of Guy's American Kitchen and Bar. Is this surprising? Of course not. Fieri has long been divorced from a single television show; at this point, his brand is simply shorthand for a distinctly American way of eating, cheesy and overstuffed and indulgent. But his first New York restaurant doesn't even really hit those cravings. Walk down the block and get a burger and concrete at Shake Shack—that's your ticket to Flavortown.
Plenty of media have already treated Guy's like a punchline, which, deservedly or not, it was always going to be. At Serious Eats, we try to appreciate restaurants on their own terms, by their own merits. Unfortunately, we found very little merit at Guy's American Kitchen and Bar.