I Made A Pilgrimage To Shanghai's Central Perk Replica "Friends" Café
I suppose I am a typical millennial gal. I have the standard millennial traits of craving instant gratification and boasting a 10-year-old Facebook account. I grew up with a Tamagotchi and now own the grown-up equivalent -– an oh-so-Instagrammable shelter pup. I watched Nickelodeon long after it was acceptable, and I absolutely lived and breathed that completely realistic show about young people in New York -– "Friends."
My sister and I faithfully watched the loveable group of oddballs each week, starting off each episode by clapping our hands in time to the theme song (you know you did it, too). When Rachel and Ross finally got their act together, I was becoming an “adult” and heading off to college. Ten years later, I live in Shanghai, China, where I allegedly run around conducting an adult-like life. I have called Shanghai home for close to a year without seeing what has to be the city’s single most important landmark -– a replica of Central Perk, the ubiquitous "Friends" hangout spot.
A week ago I set out to remedy this grave error. This is the story of a girl who once lusted for a swingy Rachel Green bob, and her pilgrimage to the one place that could put the capstone on the millennial dream.
Like many who grew up watching "Friends," I was blown away by the gang’s big city lifestyle. They were obviously fabulous and eclectic, and that existence could only be achieved in a bustling metropolis. I grew up in rural Virginia, so I was inherently behind on hip urbandom. Now I find myself in Shanghai, which is legitimately a big city, as in, one of the largest cities in the world. When I learned that I could actually go hang out at Central Perk my first thought was, of course I can. This is Shanghai, fabulous glittering land of Buddhist temples, Dolce and Gabbana on every block, and toilet-themed cafés.
My second thought was that I should seriously consider whitening my teeth to the extreme a la Ross before finding Central Perk, just to see if there were any other true fans there. Either that or buy a duck and chick off the street before heading inside.
Like the true big city girl that I now get to be, I hailed a cab and spit out directions, knowing that the driver could not possibly comprehend the significance of this particular fare. It was 26 kuai by the way, not a New York price (thank you, China!). I am not embarrassed to say that I had some serious anticipation adrenaline pulling up to the cross street.
Upon arrival, I learned that the actual name of the café is not Central Perk, but The Friends Café. Okay, I could deal with that. The proprietors have cleverly decided to give devotees such as myself the full Central Perk experience. I opened the front door to enter what looked like a soundstage set, complete with front stoop, red and white striped awning, green paneling, and there it was –- the Central Perk logo. A handwritten sign on the “front door” dispenses Monica’s wisdom to the masses, “Welcome to the real world. It sucks. You’re gonna love it!” Because nothing says the real world like a functioning replica of a fictional café featured on a decades-old American television show, in China.
As the waitress ushered us to the “Chandler” table I cursed her for not seating us on the orange couch (there was a wait and I needed caffeine), and myself for not wearing a version of this amazing white button down/black halter top combination that Rachel rocked to work one time. I still wonder how she pulled that off, but she was Rachel Green after all.
Minimal Internet research had informed me that the café only served food that was mentioned on the show, but upon arrival I learned that they now serve personal pizzas and character-themed cupcakes. I had a brief pout and then chose a Rachel red velvet cupcake with a vanilla latte.
Before you could be a Hannah, a Marnie, a Jessa, or a Shoshanna, even before you were a Carrie, a Miranda, a Charlotte, or a Samantha, you were a Rachel, a Monica, or a Phoebe. I have typed “Rachel” five times so far, so it should be obvious which friend I chose to identify with as an awkward teenager. Of course the ideal was to be a blend with Rachel’s hair, Monica’s drive, and Phoebe’s grandma’s cab, but you had to pick a single facet of quirky femininity. Thus, the Rachel cupcake.
The barista, having picked up on my character identification, graced my latte foam with a chocolate “I ♥ Rachel.” By the end of the latte, it said “Rach” in the bottom of my mug. I took this as a sign to mean that Rachel and I would have been on nickname terms if we had ever become friends, oh and also if I had not been a teenager when she was in her 30s, oh and also if she was a real person.
Shanghai’s Central Perk is a fairly faithful, if cramped, replica of the original. They got the neon “Service” sign, the chalkboard menu, and of course, the overstuffed orange couch, all right. There was even an odd amalgamation of fake flowers and ivy up by the front door that I cast the stink eye before I did a Google image search and was put in my place. I spied several giant cups, but my latte came in a mug with “I’ll be there for you” emblazoned around the middle. That became much less satisfying when I learned that there was a “Smelly Cat” lyrics mug in rotation.
Even when I was willing to buy in to the "Friends" universe, I never found Phoebe to be a believable character. It was not until I grew older that I realized that delusional singer-songwriters really do haunt coffee shops, but I was thankfully spared reality at the fake Central Perk. The café also boasted, wait for it, a Hugsy. If you do not know who Hugsy is, then you do not deserve to finish reading this. Seriously, leave now.
I had to wait almost 10 years and 15 minutes to get my turn with Hugsy. When that cuddly penguin finally fell into my arms for a photo shoot, all I could think about was how many people touched him on a daily basis and whether or not he had ever met a can of Lysol.
The very best part about visiting Shanghai’s Central Perk is how über meta you get to feel while you sip your caffeine vehicle of choice. A flat screen mounted in the corner plays "Friends" all day, every day. I was surprised that they did not have Chinese subtitles displayed, but I was too focused on scouring the room for accuracy during each Central Perk scene to be too worried about cultural sensitivity.
The fake Chinese Central Perk knew I was coming, because I sat through a couple pregnant Rachel episodes. No, I am not expecting my own Emma, but the terrifying thought that I may push a human out of me in the next decade was perfectly captured by that moment where Monica and Chandler accidentally watch a birthing video instead of porn.
All in all, I would give Shanghai’s Central Perk one “How you doin'?” and a bushel of “Unagi.”
"Friends" seems to be a polarizing show among millennials. Some cite the show’s lack of diversity and laugh track as proof that it was naïve youthful indulgence. Others publicly declare their love and maybe even legally change their names to Princess Consuela Bananahammock. I fall safely in the middle. I am aware that that fabulous apartment would have to be occupied by about 12 and a half twentysomethings in order for it to be remotely affordable, but I also laugh out loud just thinking about Miss Chanandler Bong.
I left the dregs of my latte with the chocolate “Rach” and called it a day at Central Perk. I stepped out onto the street warmed by the glow of nostalgia and Hugsy’s germy embrace before I promptly remembered I was in China, I am at the same age that the friends were at the height of the show’s popularity, and my hair still does not bounce like Rachel’s.