'Friends' Central Perk: What I saw (and what Gunther told me)
For 10 years, the dream has always been there: What if Central Perk were a real, functioning, undeniably cozy coffee shop? Though real jobs preclude all of us from waxing Bing and spending all day with hazelnut roasts and crullers, any avid Friends watcher has long imagined what it would feel like to set foot in the show’s iconic coffeehouse, if only to feel—just for a second—that the magic of the 10-season sitcom was real.
Well, it’s real, thanks to a new pop-up installation in downtown Manhattan, just minutes from the show’s West Village setting. You can’t miss the store logo on the windows of the renovated SoHo café, or the awnings emblazoned with “Friends 20th Anniversary.” And when you enter the inherently nostalgic space, it’s like 2004 to 2014 never really happened. It’s surreal for a die-hard Friends fanatic like myself—and even more so for the one cast member who has become synonymous with the name Central Perk.
“This is way too surreal,” James Michael Tyler tells me while we’re seated with giant Central Perk mugs on the show’s iconic orange couch—the same one used in the show, which fans can squish into for photo opps. For a decade, Tyler inhabited the brighter-than-the-sun blonde buzz of Gunther, the friendly barista who hired and fired half of the group and loomed behind the scenes during each and every coffee-shop moment. “Seeing the props and the couch and the espresso machine—I worked around this stuff for 10 years,” Tyler continues. “I will say, it’s a lot bigger than our actual set because we didn’t have a fourth wall, so that’s a bit surprising, but I can imagine this is probably what Central Perk would have looked like if it were real. This is pretty stunning.”
Tyler and I have the same air of nostalgia—for him, certainly, quite a bit more—as we survey the pieces on display here in the shop. There’s the couch and the tables and of course, the coffee (free for all visitors, courtesy of Eight O’Clock Coffee); Pat the ceramic dog statue, who thankfully didn’t fall off the truck in the finale; signature costumes like Ross’s catastrophic leather pants; props like Joey’s Soap Opera Digest cover, Phoebe’s porn video, Rachel’s sonogram, Monica and Chandler’s wedding invitation, and Ross’s Science Boy comic. Old episode highlights (the prom video, the Phoebe-Chandler they-don’t-know-we-know-they-know-we-know) play on screens around the store.
And there’s another recall to the show that isn’t behind any display.
“This is the first time I’ve bleached my hair since the show ended,” Tyler laughs. “I had to bleach it every week for 10 years, and that was one of my least favorite things to do, but I thought, it’s the 20th anniversary, and if they’re going to honor it in this way, I can honor it by bleaching my head again. Although it was weird. Really weird. I woke up the next day and forgot I did it, and I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Oh my gosh, Gunther’s in my mirror.’ That was kind of freaky.”
As a fan, I had to engage Tyler in a deeper discussion of what went into Gunther’s bleach-blonde psyche. “I definitely did have a backstory as it progressed,” he shares. “There was a scene that wasn’t included, actually, where someone asks where Gunther lives or how he gets to work, and he says, ‘I don’t drive—I take three trains, two buses. I have 18 stops.’ So that would have put him somewhere in Jersey, right? But I think maybe he lived in the back room of Central Perk. Maybe he had a little cot. I don’t know what Gunther did in his free time.” And as for 2014 Gunther? “Hopefully he would have franchised out Central Perk by now.”
Over the years, fans have long accused Tyler of actually being Gunther—one familiar story involves a woman on a subway screaming at him for breaking up Ross and Rachel in “The One The Morning After”—and they frequently wonder whether the show’s stars were truly a close group. “Were they really friends? That’s the number one question I’m asked, and it boggles me—do you think they could work together with that sort of camaraderie and chemistry for 10 years if they weren’t?” says Tyler. “I’ve been on other shows where there’s friction and the chemistry isn’t quite there, but the first day on this set, from the get-go, they really were friends. I remember thinking, wow—this could really go somewhere.”
Tyler will be on hand for a string of surprise appearances at Central Perk during its month-long ‘run’ at the corner of Lafayette and Broome (through Oct. 18). Fans can also expect unexpected musical performances—including “Smelly Cat,” because obviously—and occasional giveaways, trivia, and merchandise. The store-event officially opens Sept. 17, and though lines will likely pack the sidewalk, it’s a necessity for fans in New York to experience the joy of Central Perk, with or without the six Friends in tow.
By the way, that couch is comfy.