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.