The last time I was inside a Round Table Pizza I noticed that they no longer had any actual round tables. This made me somewhat sad, and left me longing for the days when pizza parlors were weird, dark, and full of gimmicks. Round Table used to look like medieval dungeons on the inside, with dark rustic wooden booths, fake stone castle interior walls and, yes, round tables.
Shakey’s used to have live banjo players and weird hillbilly crap all over the place, and silent movies and a player piano. It was also: dark.
Straw Hat Pizza. I know they’re still around because I drive by one down by the day-old bread store every once in awhile. They used to actually wear straw hats, and show old-timey movies on the walls.
Pizza Hut was the place we’d go when we had a coupon, and then remember why we never went to Pizza Hut. I think there was never an actual restaurant; the pizza just issued forth from a hole in the ground somewhere, like a slow oil leak.
It wasn’t just the pizza places, which now all look uniformly food-service standard cheerful, with “subdued” track lighting and ferns and shit. And random geometric patterns on the wall so as not to offend anyone who might be put off by the sudden appearance of a pizza-obsessed Wizard.
Sizzler used to have freaking straw on the ground. And bull horns. And big meat diagrams, showing where all the meat parts on the cow you were about to eat were going to be located.
You stood in line to get meat at Sizzler, a long trough-like line where they made you look at slaughter implements and pictures of cow apprehension devices while you waited to order your dinner. You had a choice of meat and potato. If you asked for a salad they rolled their eyes and pegged you as queer, then pressed a special button on the cash register that authorized the cook to pee in your soup.
Then there was Taco Bell. There were no windows at Taco Bell. It was just a stone mission-shaped building, basically. You sat outside at round metal tables with metal umbrellas, and there were five things you could order, most of them burritos. If it was cold and windy outside: fuck you! How much do you think you’re paying for Taco Bell?
McDonald’s was basically the same. The last time McDonald’s really added anything new to the McDonald’s Experience was in 1967, when Ray Kroc invented napkins. Well, and the playground thing, but we don’t go in there because kids poop in the ball pits.
Arby’s was basically just a cowboy hat-shaped shack with a big meat-carving machine right behind the counter. You ordered a big pile of shaved meat on a bun, and you got it. They might have even gone straight to the machine and carved that shit up right in front of you while you waited. Like Sizzler, the secret was the simplicity. I think Arby’s now has more than 400 menu items, only about six of them involving shaved meat. Also you have to talk to a robot to order your food.
Jack-in-the-Box might be the weirdest food industry makeover of them all. It used to be literally a giant box. With a clown head outside. You talked into the clown’s mouth to order your food. The menu was more or less the same, but there was nothing about a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant that wasn’t a cheap, uncaring imitation of a better fast-food franchise. Even the kids toys were crappy knockoffs of McDonald’s toys, right down to the characters: Mayor McCheese became the Burgermeister at Jack’s; there was an onion ring guy instead of a french fries guy, and there was also some sort of Hamburglar doppelganger. I owned them all at one point.
You walk into a Jack-in-the-Box today and you think you might have walked into a trendy SOMA bar/bistro instead. There are weird modern art pieces and corrugated metal everywhere. Everything is ironically retro. That clown you bossed around is now the CEO.
Burger King, Carl’s Jr, Wendy’s: I don’t remember what you were like before you were like what you’re like now. You can go about your business.
Denny’s was more of an actual diner instead of a diner-cuz-marketing-people-said-so diner. The food wasn’t exactly the same at every Denny’s on the planet. It was no Sambo’s, mind, but it was funkier and better in every way before some MBA got his hands on it and put together a committee to find out how many ways you can assemble the same basic breakfast foods into 92 different Grand Slams, all with different price points. And how many sausage links can you fit inside a Cheesey Raspberry and Sugar Pancake Sandwich before people start catching on that you’re essentially trying to poison their eat valves?
Mall food courts, I’m looking at you. You used to be “International Food Faires,” with Mary Blair-esque murals showcasing the multi-cultural orgy of cuisine you were about to sample only ten feet from the indoor skating rink and the waterfall made of beads of oil cascading down hundreds of waxy kite strings into a burbling brook next to the Orange Julius stand. Now you’re Panda Express. What happened? Can we talk about it?
Bob’s Big Boy. Basically unchanged, but I suspect this was another marketing “return to our roots” decision and that the ’80s were sort of dire here. I don’t know because I haven’t eaten in one since 1974, and that one is now underneath a Mexican supermarket. Do they still refuse to melt the cheese on their cheeseburgers? Because I thought that was weird, even when I was eight years old and really only there for the comic books.