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”.

Blame it on the Dutch

Last Saturday, after the umpteenth edition of dinner-and-a-movie with my wife (or in this case, movie-and-a-dinner), we arrived back home to a phone message from the restaurant, saying I’d left my credit card behind. I never make that mistake. Let me rephrase – since my wife reads this blog – I almost never make that mistake.  Credit the restaurant for taking our phone number when we arrived, “just in case we need to contact you later”.  Credit the very nice bottle of wine – empty by the end of the meal – for contributing to my forgetfulness (though not to my driving).

Hey, at least I paid the bill before I left my card behind.  Because that’s what I do when it comes to nights out with my wife.  The gentleman pays.

“The gentlemen pays” is up for judgment in the new world order.  “Paying etiquette” – especially on first dates – has become a lot more complicated with modern social conventions (i.e. dating apps).  As if first dates aren’t stressful enough already.

Whether the guy invites the girl out for a drink, or the guy invites the girl out for dinner, or even the girl invites the guy out for dinner, you’d be inclined to say he/she who does the inviting picks up the bill, right?  I know I would, but it’s not that simple.

“A drink” (as in, the result of a swipe on the Tinder app) implies a quick meet-up, where one or both parties dance around the potential for a longer-term relationship.  If this really is the agenda (and nothing else), I’d argue both parties split the bill.  Could get awkward.

“A dinner” (as in, the result of a well-designed profile on the eHarmony app) implies a more serious stab at a relationship.  In this case I’d argue the “inviter” pays the bill, not the “invitee”.  Unless you’re in New York or San Francisco.  Social convention in those cities leans towards both parties splitting the bill, since restaurant tabs flirt with the $200 mark. Not exactly disposable income for most young people.  Could get awkward.

In “the girl invites the guy” (as in, the Bumble app, where only she can “make the first move”), I’d argue the girl pays.  But what if the girl is “traditional”, and holds out on paying just to see if he’s a “gentleman”?  Again, could get awkward.

If “who pays?” hasn’t been decided beforehand, the mind games really kick in with gestures to pay the bill, otherwise known as “the reach”.  Some women do “the reach” to appear a team player (when in fact they have no intention of paying the bill).   Some men interpret the woman’s reach as her wish to pay; in return, somehow “looking good by not falling into stereotypes”.  Other men pounce on the woman’s reach as the perfect opportunity to suggest half and half.

Half and half is also known as “going Dutch”; a phrase with take-your-pick origins.  The most common origin ties back to the 17th century Anglo-Dutch wars (also coining the phrases “Dutch treat” and “Dutch courage”).  The more fitting origin however, comes from “Dutch door”; the farmhouse invention of two equal halves.  A Dutch door is sometimes referred to as a “split door”.  “Fits the bill”, wouldn’t you say?

Going Dutch is not as safe as it sounds.  One time my wife and I met a couple in downtown Chicago, for a pricey meal atop the John Hancock tower.  As we waited in the bar for our table, the husband knocked back several expensive drinks, followed by several more at dinner.  Imagine my shock when the dinner bill was merged with the bar bill.  The husband casually said, “let’s just split this, shall we?”

My daughter is a twenty-something, brand new to the dating scene in Los Angeles.  As far as she’s concerned, forget everything I’ve discussed in the paragraphs above.  She has one and only one rule: the gentleman always pays.  Frankly, that’s just fine with me.