The one time I suggested to my wife that we visit Hooters for some wings, she looked at me like I had sworn in church. She would never step foot in that den of smut, not in a thousand years. For me, it was all about the Buffalo-style fried chicken wings, which I found delicious. But it was a hard sell convincing her I was indifferent to the waitresses in skimpy outfits, sort of like saying I read Playboy solely for the articles (which I do, for real).
In that spirit, I suggested taking one of my female colleagues to the Hooters by our office. My next-desk neighbor, A.V. Club News Editor Katie Rife, volunteered. She had never been—“Why, out of all the restaurants in the world, would I go to Hooters?” she said—and found the concept to be rather retrograde and objectifying. My goal was to answer this: Are the wings delicious enough to justify whatever moral objections one might have? Or is its tawdry premise too difficult a square to circle, no matter how tasty the food might be?
Kevin Pang: We’re outside our neighborhood Hooters. What’s going through your mind?
Katie Rife: I mean, it’s not for me. I have nothing against Hooters per se. But it never occurred to me to go here and eat.
Kevin: How do you feel when someone says they’d never step foot inside a Hooters because its concept is vulgar?
Katie: They’re not wrong. But—and this is a personal philosophy I’ve been developing lately—you can’t be mad about everything all the time or else you’ll explode. You have to pick your battles, and I don’t know if Hooters is the battle to fight. That being said, I wouldn’t work at Hooters, or have my birthday party here.
Kevin: But here’s the important question. Will you eat Hooters on the company dime?
Katie: Uh, yeah!
We’re seated in a booth at the back of a restaurant. A perky, contagiously upbeat waitress greets us.
Waitress: [To Katie.] I love your ring by the way! Oh my god!
Katie: Thank you! I have a question. Are there any rules for appearances besides the uniform?
Waitress: You can’t dye your hair an unnatural color. You can’t have any facial piercings. And we have to cover up all our tattoos, so I’m wearing two pairs of tights right now. Other than that it’s pretty relaxed!
The waitress takes our order and departs.
Kevin: What are your impressions?
Katie: I’m getting an ESPN-Hard Rock Cafe kind of vibe. There’s some centerfolds on the walls here, and I can’t help but notice the waitresses’ asses are hanging out. That’s the uniform, I guess, wearing a low-cut shirt and tiny shorts. But any woman who’s waited tables can tell you, if you want tips, it doesn’t hurt to dress a bit provocatively. So it’s more like they’re making an unspoken thing very obvious. They’re also being attentive and excessively complimentary—I’m also willing to bet that because it’s a chain restaurant, they watch videos about “the Hooters experience” in their customer service training. They probably emphasize being extra nice.
We peruse the drinks list, and encounter a drink called the Hooterade.
Katie: Oh my god. UV raspberry vodka, lemonade, and Mountain Dew! I’ll bet you it’s going to make your teeth hurt.
The drink arrives and it’s the color of Windex.
Katie: This tastes like blue Pop Rocks. They probably pour liquor down the straw here. Do you know about this bartender trick?
Katie: If a customer sends a drink back and says it’s not strong enough, you pour a little liquor down the straw and you send it back to them. That way they taste the liquor.
We ordered Hooters’ original breaded wings with hot-level sauce, as well as Daytona wings—fried without breading, then grilled and brushed with barbecue sauce. We try the original breaded wings first.
Katie: Pretty good! I do like the texture a lot. The crunchiness is delicious. The sauce isn’t blowing my mind, though. It’s good, but not like holy shit wow.
Kevin: Here’s why I like it. It’s crunchy, it’s buttery, the spices aren’t overwhelming.
Next we try the Daytona wings.
Katie: Oh shit, these are good. They’re roasted but also there’s a nice crunch.
Kevin: Grilled wings can be flabby, but these aren’t. Having sugar in the barbecue sauce helps caramelize it, and that gives it enough crispness to sink your teeth through.
Katie: Both these wings are good, but can’t you go to a number of places that do deep-fried wings that don’t have peoples’ asses hanging out?
Kevin: I think there’s a lot of fried foods that taste plain. Frying is more of an art than people think. There should be some residual slickness to the crunchiness, but not too much. It depends on oil temperature—too cold and it absorbs too much oil, too hot and it burns. I think what Hooters does well is they’ve been doing this so long—nearly 35 years now—they’ve got chicken wing frying down to a science. I’ll bet you they fry this for exactly four minutes 48 seconds or whatever. They’ve got the oil temperature and time down precisely. I think these wings are fried beautifully, with an exterior breading that’s not too thick or light.
Katie: Part of me remains skeptical because it’s a chain restaurant. They probably have a timer on the fryer to maker the wings perfect. But then where’s the art in cooking?
Kevin: Does everything need to be artistic? If the goal is to have the most delicious product possible, I’m okay with it being down to a science.
Katie: McDonald’s French fries are always good. Same principle, right?
Kevin: Have you ever had fries from a steakhouse that were as addictive as McDonald’s fries? I’m going with no.
Katie: I’m gonna go on record and say these are better than Buffalo Wild Wings and Wing Stop, for sure.
Kevin: I can’t think of a chain outfit that does Buffalo-style fried chicken wings better.
Katie: So really, the best thing Hooters could possibly do is get rid of the booty shorts. Because if that’s what’s keeping people away…
Kevin: The counterargument is that’s what bringing people in, too.
Kevin: But they’ve smartly decided to open a second concept called Hoots, which is Hooters wings in a fast-casual setting, minus the tacky outfits. That’s really smart to me. I mean, the double entendre is gone. Anyway, what’s your conclusion about this place?
Katie: The wings are quite good. Better than other mass-market wings I’ve had. But the drink is terrible. I’m having a cocktail during work hours and I’m not finishing it, which tells you how shitty the cocktail is.
Kevin: Would you come back?
Katie: I would get the wings to go. I could do without the atmosphere. It’s not offensive to me, but it’s not my taste either.
Kevin: Was the restaurant as raunchy as you thought it might be?
Katie: How should I put this? I expected more boobs and less butt, and it was the opposite, so it was different, but about as objectifying as I expected. The shorts are ridiculous, but the waitress wasn’t at our table that often so it’s not a constant sensory assault. Coming in, I think had this prejudice that working at Hooters was sort of a low-tier serving job. But from interacting with our waitress, I can tell they train them a lot and are really big on customer service. I’ll bet they’re pretty picky about who works here, and I bet they get good tips. They have extra nice waitresses, which I guess is part of the “appealing to men” thing.
Kevin: I see nothing wrong with being extra nice.
Katie: There’s nothing wrong with that. But she’s not actually flirting with you.
Kevin: I don’t care! I’m married, it’s not like I’m going home with any of them. Sometimes being nice isn’t an ulterior motive. Maybe they’re just nice?
Katie: No, I think they want tips. It’s in their financial interest to make the guys think they like them.
Kevin: Would you go to their booty shorts-less Hoots concept? And if so, how far would you drive to justify a trip?
Katie: I’ll definitely go to Hoots. I wouldn’t drive more than 15 minutes each way, though. And I would get a beer.