R.I.P. Restaurants

The next time you dine out, take a good look at the menu options. You may find a few favorites missing thanks to COVID-19. Whether gaps in the supply chain or trims in the workforce, the virus-born experiment of modified operations has restaurants scrutinizing menus for what makes (fiscal) sense and what does not.

Examples: McDonald’s “all-day breakfast” – implemented in 2015 and an immediate success – retreated to morning hours shortly after the virus exploded. Drive-thru wait times promptly decreased – by an average of 25 seconds – so the change may be permanent. Outback Steakhouse axed its wedge salad and French onion soup, favoring fewer appetizers with faster production.  Before you know it Outback may offer steaks, potatoes, and nothing else.

Subtle menu changes like these got me thinking about restaurants closing their doors for good.  At some point all of them go to their graves.  Maybe this is the beginning of the end for McDonald’s and Outback.  Maybe ten years from now we’ll look back and wonder what brought on their respective demises.  I know I would, which brings me to the real topic of this post: what happened to the eateries of my youth and why are most of them now defunct?  Here then, a eulogy of my more memorable ones:

  • The All-American Burger – We had one of these red-white-and-blues in my hometown just a few blocks south of the church where I went to Sunday night youth group.  Mom supplied the cash while All-American supplied the fast-food dinner on those Sundays.  Not sure why AAB closed but they did have their fifteen minutes of fame in the 1982 classic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
  • Chi-Chi’s – A super-size Mexican restaurant and one of the first dates for my wife and me in college.  Great food, but Chi-Chi’s U.S. downfall was a grand-scale outbreak of hepatitis-A in one of its Pennsylvania restaurants, in 2003.  You can still find them in Europe and the Middle East.
  • Farrell’s – An ice cream parlor and a great place for parties, since the birthday kid got a free sundae.  Farrell’s had an early-1900’s theme: straw-hatted waitstaff, player-pianos, and menus printed on newspaper.  My favorite Farrell’s memory: “The Zoo” – a giant bowl of ice cream intended for ten or more topped with a menagerie of colored plastic animals.
  • Hamburger Hamlet – “The Hamlet” also had a location in my hometown, and for a burger joint the menu and decor were decidedly upscale.  It was known as a Hollywood celeb hangout.  Curiously, I associate Hamburger Hamlet with O.J. Simpson more than other celebrities.  Simpson’s wife Nicole and friend Ronald Goldman were murdered at the Simpson house, in the residential neighborhood nearby our Hamlet.  Nicole Simpson had just been dining at Mezzaluna (the restaurant where Goldman worked), also just a couple of blocks up from The Hamlet.
  • Lyon’s – The quintessential 1980’s smoke-filled greasy-spoon diner.  There was nothing memorable about Lyon’s (nor healthy on the menu) except the rip-the-boss conversations my coworkers and I had over lunch.  Lyon’s filed for bankruptcy in 1998 and never recovered.  No surprise; none at all.
  • Naugles – My go-to choice in college, Naugles never skimped on their portions of Mexican food (so who cared about the taste?)  Whether it was the massive “Macho Burrito”, the messy “Naugleburger”, or the trash-can sized sodas, Naugles was my all-nighter study buddy. Del Taco took over most of the chain in the 1990’s.
  • Pup ‘N’ Taco – Hot dogs, Mexican food, and – pastrami sandwiches?  I remember Pup ‘N’ Taco more for the buildings than the food; obnoxious red, white, and yellow structures with steep-sloped roofs, similar to the look of the Der Wienerschnitzels of the time.  Taco Bell bought out Pup ‘N’ Taco in 1984, more for the locations than for the menu. Obviously.
  • Sambo’s – I can’t tell you why I remember Sambo’s; I just know my family and I had several meals here.  At its peak Sambo’s had over 1,000 locations in 47 states.  Fittingly the only remaining location changed its name this year, to disassociate with the children’s story The Little Black Sambo.  George Floyd and all, you know.
  • Victoria Station – Chain together several boxcars and a caboose, add kitchen, tables, and steak-and-shrimp menu, and you have a heckuva unique restaurant. Victoria Station ballooned to almost a hundred locations at its peak.  The railcar restaurant concept evolved from a joint graduate project at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Victoria’s seemed like an upscale meal but maybe it was just the train car dining that made me feel upscale.

Someday soon (soon) we’ll be able to say we’re “post-pandemic” but by then it’s predicted thirty percent of our restaurants will have closed.  I’ll pray for those restaurants to R.I.P. as well, but not without another deserving eulogy.

Some content sourced from the 6/27/20 Wall Street Journal article, “Why the American Consumer Has Fewer Choices – Maybe for Good”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Author: Dave

Three hundred posts would suggest I have something to say… This blog was born from a desire to elevate the English language, highlighting eloquent words from days gone by. The stories I share are snippets of life itself, and each comes with a bonus: a dusted-off word I hope you’ll go on to use more often. Read “Deutschland-ish Improvements” to learn about my backyard European wish list. Try “Slush Fun” for the throwback years of the 7-Eleven convenience store. Or drink in "Iced Coffee" to discover the plight of the rural French cafe. On the lighter side, read "Late Night Racquet Sports" for my adventures with our latest moth invasion. As Walt Whitman said, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Here then, my verse. Welcome to Life In A Word.

9 thoughts on “R.I.P. Restaurants”

  1. Hard to believe… the poor restaurant industry right now. When I was driving home from MI, I was going to stop at McDonald’s to get a drink. The drive in had such a long line. I would venture to guess they are still doing well. I would have to check if their normal lunch menu has changed. Good topic, you sure had a big list of closures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Drive-thru lines are a positive these days; an indication of continuing support for our restaurants. Won’t it be something when someday soon we can all enjoy a worry-free indoor dining experience again?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazingly there is one Hamburger Hamlet left – just a few miles from me in Sherman Oaks and I meet a good friend there for lunch occasionally. The only reason it is still there though is that it was acquired by Killer Shrimp – that’s an odd pairing

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I went into a MacDonalds for the first “pandemic: time on Tues, after taking my mother for her hearing test, which I had booked for 9:30 so she would be the first to use the booth, in case there were any of the Covid particles floating around. I loved the all day breakfast too, but as it was 11am, we got the Filet O Fish meal deal. They do have the best fries still, but I noticed the menu is more limited, esp the deserts. I loved their cherry pies, but now only apple. I was the only one in there for takeout, so no lineup. I don’t know if you had The Magic Pan in the US…..it was a franchise crepe restaurant which went bankrupt, they had the best chicken divan crepes, and apple pie crepes?

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  4. Joni – so many thoughts in common here! The Filet-O-Fish may be smaller than it used to be but it’s still a great choice. McDonald’s fries ARE among the best out there, but the removal of the “cherry turnover” from the menu was a travesty of epic proportions. Finally, I could’ve/should’ve included The Magic Pan on my restaurant list. My family and I went to the one in Beverly Hills for special occasions (perhaps to feel like we resided among the elite). I can still picture the ring of rotating upside-down frying pans (single revolution = perfectly-cooked crepe). I remember the chicken divan crepe as well, but my favorite was the “Alpine Cheese Sizzle” – a simple sweet dessert crepe. We still have a walk-up Magic Pan in one of our airport concourses in Denver.


  5. Some great sounding places I would have loved to have had a chance to try. I did chow down a lot of pancakes at Sambo’s as a kid (complete with tiger butter, of course).

    I fear for some local places, like my favorite mom & pop Chinese place that has changed almost nothing since they opened in 1979. I think places that had a robust take-out business before will hang on. Our local Culvers seems quite busy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tried Culver’s once or twice but didn’t think the “butter burgers” or “frozen custard” tasted good enough to justify the calories 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I only know two of these restaurants that you spotlighted Dave and those were Farrell’s and Chi-Chi’s. My friends and I went to Farrell’s all the time in high school, often on Friday nights and I had a surprise 17th birthday party there, complete with a Zoo. What a fun place that was back in the day. We’d wait in a long queue that began in the parking lot, and snaked through the little store area until we were seated. Chi-Chi’s was a favorite place for me too and though some folks would protest it was not authentic enough and why not just go to Mexicantown in Detroit for the real deal, it was my favorite place to go for Mexican food. I had no idea why they closed. Here in Michigan we have had many hepatitis-A cases the last few years (30 deaths and 920 cases) all related to food-handling issues. I am reluctant to go out to eat, buy deli meats or salads because of the outbreak.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I will always associate Farrell’s with my childhood. It was a “special occasion” kind of restaurant. I didn’t discover Chi-Chi’s until college but I don’t think the chain was in CA at the time. Finally, that’s terrible about the hepatitis-A. I didn’t realize there were enough cases in your area to lose trust in your restaurants.


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