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Chicken, cheese and the gender gap at Hooters

Men are visual creatures; it is a simple anthropological fact. Hence, Hooters. Don't let the claims of "neighborhood bar" and "fun for the whole family" sway you -- this place was designed for red-blooded American males, ages 25 to 54.

In order to fully understand what could potentially draw our boyfriends, husbands, brothers and friends away from us on a Saturday night, I asked a few close women friends to meet me at our own neighborhood Hooters (which happens to be inside the Citadel Mall) last Friday. After a bout of arm-twisting and bribery, they agreed.

It was not as packed as we expected. And the diners who were there were not what we had envisioned: a young woman, cradling a bouquet of a dozen peach roses, seated with her devoted date; two middle-aged women drinking Coronas and smoking cigarettes; an older couple who looked fresh off the bus from the seedy side of the Vegas strip; and a family with a four- or five-year-old girl. A few tables were occupied by lascivious-looking solitary older men, but only one was filled with raucous, beer-swilling military boys, what I had assumed would be the restaurant's bread and butter.

Our little group consisted of a young homemaker and her baby (the only male at the table); a single graduate student; an old-fashioned 24-year-old sales professional; a young newlywed bent on moving up the corporate ladder; and me. I'm single.

The fact that Hooters is by and for men was evident early on, mostly by the look on our waitress' face as she took our drink orders. It was that "great, no tip for me" look. The other Hooters girls, in their trademark skintight orange hot pants and white tank tops, seemed to have scored with their tables; they flitted from one conversation with a single man to another, collecting single dollar bills as they went. Their opaque pantyhose -- like the ones dancers wear -- shone in the artificial light.

We tried to placate our disappointed waitress with smiles and orders of beer, but no one wanted to order a big meal. The members of my party were visibly confused, trying to deny the absurdity of our situation. Here we were, a group of women and a baby, sitting in a chain restaurant with rough-hewn log floors, beer signs and NASCAR memorabilia galore, and a beautiful woman in a skimpy, revealing outfit asking if we wanted ranch and bleu cheese.

Hooters' culinary offerings run rich in the junk food vein: almost nothing requires a fork. One unexpected menu choice was oysters, raw on the half shell or Carolina roast style. They sounded appealing, but a disclaimer on the menu regarding the danger associated with raw oysters ("... shuck at your own risk ...") as well as a large sign on the wall warning the same steered us away. Far, far away.

We ordered the wings, because they had been voted the best in town in several readers' polls, buffalo shrimp fried in wing sauce, and curly cheese fries. The wings arrived fanned out on the plate, soaking in a puddle of oily red sauce. The medium sauce was neither medium, nor sauce -- more like flavorful butter or savory grease. The shrimp was more of the same. The fries were in fact curly, but the associated cheese was a pile of 7--11-style nacho goo.

For my comrades' palates, the dishes were too rich, too heavy, but the patrons seated around us ate the same fare with gusto, especially the military group. Their waitresses brought them platter after platter of wings, chicken strips, burgers. Our waitress had simply stopped coming over to our table, spending her time instead catering to the tables full of guys, earning serious tips.

Our evening at Hooters turned out to be about as racy as brunch at IHOP. The food turned out to be basically mall food, unique inasmuch as it was served by a beautiful, scantily clad waitress whose patience with our group was laudable. Can't say I'll go back, but at least now I know what the attraction is -- you know what they say, it's all in the name.

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