Let's consider the old wink/nudge rationale that the sophisticated gentleman reads Playboy "for the articles." Anyone familiar with the magazine knows there's truth to it: The writing in Playboy has always been top-notch. As an intellectual bonus, seeded between pages of original fiction by Michael Chabon and an interview with Salman Rushdie or Bill Gates, there are pictures of naked women.
The culinary corollary is Hooters. The sophisticated gentleman goes to Hooters "for the wings." It's a longstanding fact that the connoisseur in search of a quintessential buffalo-chicken experience finds his booty here. Meaty parts, memorable sauce, light grease—proportional, tongue curling, deep-fried. An ideal wing. And what's this? Our all-American delicacy delivered by all-American nubiles in short-shorts and tank tops? Synergy!
That's how it used to be, at least. In late-1980s South Florida, Hooters was a locals-only source of hometown pride. There were five or six Hooters restaurants in existence then, from Clearwater (Hooters' humble birthplace in the backwaters of Florida's Gulf Coast) to Miami (its aesthetic apex amid the tacky, beachy adult playground). I first frequented the West Palm Beach location with my older brother when I was 14 or so. It had a unique, celebratory air—a baldly sensual vigor that my brother, six years my senior, was ripe for appreciating. Through him I learned to savor the perfect wing: served unbreaded ("naked" in Hooters parlance) with pungent, vinegary Three Mile Island sauce on the side, eaten with one hand wingbound, the other clutching a paper towel, the stance that encouraged maximum consumption and minimum mess. I learned to take a shucked oyster on a saltine with a jot of Tabasco. The waitresses—perky, cheerleader-like, not much older than me—were strip-club friendly, made you feel VIP, lingering at your table, calling you by name. Hooters Girls: They'd hula-hoop if you put Tom Petty on the jukebox. I learned they deserved the biggest tip I could afford.
In its heyday, the Hooters menu was rightly minimal—just wings, curly fries, raw oysters, steamed clams, and some sandwiches. Shellfish came from the Gulf of Mexico; buffalo sauce and blue-cheese dip were made in-house. Hooters Shooters—short, plastic medicine cups of beer sedimented with horseradish and a raw oyster—weren't on the menu, but were served by request by the tray of 50. The only frill was the floating Ziploc-bag ice buoy that kept my brother's pitchers of Bud near freezing. Narrow focus wrought expertise.
It also wrought better talent, to put it coarsely. Confined to only a handful of outlets, the Hooters Girl gene pool was deeper. Thanks to Clearwater native Lynne Austin, Playboy's Miss July 1986, Hooters Girls earned the rank of minor celebrity. In West Palm, they were frequently beautiful, often clever, occasionally exceptional. By senior year of high school, friends and I were skipping seventh-period chemistry to spend Friday afternoons with our favorite. She went to a rival high school and would hang out at our table while we guzzled bucket-size glasses of iced tea. I forget her name.
For a suburban teenager, Hooters offered a simple, seemingly sophisticated joy: These Hooters Girls were empowered. We were too young to drink beer, but we were at a place that served it. We ate raw oysters by the dozen. And those wings were damn good. We knew no better.
As of 2008—Hooters' 25th anniversary, woo-hoo!—Hooters of America, Inc. operates 440 locations in 43 states and 25 countries. The company also runs Hooters magazine, Hooters MasterCard, and the Hooters Casino Hotel in Las Vegas. Most anybody aware of its ubiquity would have a hard time mustering unironic enthusiasm for Hooters' well-worn ambience. The current state of its oversized menu and underenthusiastic wait staff is a testament to the diluting effects of globalization. There are families at Hooters now. The talent is spread too thin. The thrill is gone.
Especially in Seattle in late winter. For one thing, there's valet parking at the dockside South Lake Union complex where Hooters is situated. To Toothsome and News, my companions on a recent visit, this is incongruous with the place's thoroughly lowbrow MO (NASCAR paraphernalia on the walls, sports highlights on the TVs, fluorescently lit dining room, etc.). For another, our waitress is draped in an oversize, baggy T-shirt. We are disappointed. We ask. She's pregnant, she says. Toothsome ponders aloud: "What am I supposed to fantasize about when I get home?"
The wing, thankfully, remains a winner, especially in Seattle in late winter. It's oversize and crisp, whether breaded or naked, and the Three Mile Island sauce scorches an adult (read: nicotine-numbed) palate. Its vinegary tang is a sweat-inducing endorphin rush—the effect you go to Hooters for. Whether the wing is worth the ostracism from friends and coworkers when you tell them where you're going depends on how badly you crave it. Like most wicked things, the wing is eminently cravable.
The curly fries are curly and fried as promised. The Hooters Shooter—still not on the menu, but available by request—is as brazenly gross and weirdly satisfying as I remember. There is also plenty of cheap and not-so-cheap beer available, though our pitchers arrive sans ice buoy.
The rest of the menu should be avoided completely. My dining companions are fearful of Hooters' rendition of raw shellfish, so we pass on oysters. As for the onion rings (served with Thousand Island dressing?), the nachos, and the coleslaw—just don't. For some reason, Hooters now serves nonfried things like quesadillas, a chicken Parmesan platter, and a Cobb salad. There is also a deep-fried pickle. To enjoy these items, people should go to places other than Hooters. Then again, people used to host their 11-year-olds' birthday parties at places other than Hooters. Things have changed.
After a few pitchers and a couple dozen wings, the three of us leave let down and mercifully drunk. I'm the only one disillusioned by the unfun food-court plasticness of the experience. "What the hell did you expect?" News asks. "It's Hooters." Exactly. The writing in Playboy is still top-notch, but the Hooters I remember is gone for good.
Except for that ideal wing. Your best bet: Call in your order of two dozen naked, Three Mile Island on the side; skip the valet and get the wings to go; enjoy them at home with a copy of Hooters open on the coffee table and NASCAR loud on the TV. You're guaranteed all the goodness, minus any preteen birthday parties.