Sometimes there’s nothing more frustrating than having a sudden food craving for something from a restaurant that’s been out of business for a decade. Unfortunately a particular signature hamburger or special recipe pizza sauce can leave a powerful mental imprint that long outlasts the lifespan of the product.
Some of the now-defunct chains listed below were regional, some have one or two lonely outlets still hanging in there, but their common bond is that they are nostalgic favorites for a lot of folks. How many of them bring back fond food memories for you?
The original Lum’s was a hot dog stand which opened in Miami Beach, Florida, in 1956. The chain eventually expanded into a family-style restaurant, but their signature menu item remained their steamed-in-beer hot dogs. Lum’s also purchased Oliver Gleichenhaus’s recipe for his famous Ollieburger for $1 million in 1971. Gleichenhaus spent 37 years perfecting his recipe for “the world’s best hamburger,” which included a very specific (and secret) mixture of herbs and spices. The Lum’s chain went belly-up in 1983, but there are still a few Ollie’s Trolley locations in operation—still serving up those spicy Ollieburgers and equally spicy fries.
2. MOUNTAIN JACK’S STEAKHOUSE
Mountain Jack's was an upscale steakhouse with a unique take on the traditional salad bar: individual lazy Susans filled with salad makings were brought directly to your table. Their specialty was prime rib, which was slow-roasted to tender perfection and edged with a crunchy herb crust. Sadly, the chain’s California-based parent company, Paragon Steakhouse Restaurants, filed for bankruptcy in 2002, and by 2008 the majority of its Mountain Jack’s properties had been shuttered.
3. RED BARN
The first Red Barn opened in Ohio in 1961, and 10 years later there were approximately 400 barn-shaped outlets in 22 states and parts of Canada. Red Barn’s double burger was called the Big Barney and actually predated the Big Mac by four years. Their quarter pound burger was called a “Barnbuster," and their fish sandwich ... didn’t have any fancy, farm-related name. The chain, according to franchise owner Bill Lapitsky, was the first fast-food restaurant to offer a salad bar, but their true pièce de résistance was their fried chicken (which was sold in a barn-shaped cardboard box). The chicken was breaded in a special coating mix and then deep-fried (36 pieces per “run”) in large pressure cookers that were manufactured specifically for Red Barn restaurants. Anyone who has tasted the perfection that was Red Barn chicken will confirm that no other chain since has come close to that unique flavor.
4. SHAKEY’S PIZZA
Picture it: Sacramento, 1954. Armed with a pizza recipe and a love of Dixieland jazz, Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson, who acquired his nickname after suffering some nerve damage during World War II, approached “Big” Ed Plummer with the idea of opening a pizza parlor—the first of its kind. The J Street restaurant in East Sacramento served only pizza (no salads or pasta dishes), draft beer, and soft drinks. The combination of Johnson’s tasty pies (with their crispy made-from-scratch thin crusts) and live ragtime and jazz music provided by local bands meant Shakey’s Pizza Parlor had customers lining up for tables just one week after it opened.
The partners began selling Shakey’s franchises in 1957 and by 1974 there were 500 Shakey’s locations across the U.S. The chain was bought out in 1984, and then sold again in 1989 by which time the menu and recipes had changed and the majority of the U.S. stores (save for those in California) had closed.
5. BURGER CHEF
In 1971, Burger Chef was poised to surpass McDonald’s as the largest hamburger chain in the U.S., with 1200 locations nationwide. Not too bad for a restaurant that was created as an afterthought to showcase the General Restaurant Equipment Company’s new flame broiler. In addition to their Big Shef (double burger) and Super Shef (quarter pound burger), the company introduced a Fun Meal, which included a burger, fries, drink, dessert, and a toy for the kids. (Burger Chef sued McDonald’s six years later in 1979 when that company introduced their Happy Meal.)
General Foods purchased the chain in 1968 and added menu items such as the Top Shef (bacon/cheeseburger) and a chicken club sandwich (with bacon). The Works Bar allowed customers to purchase a plain burger and pile it high with the toppings of their choice. But in 1982 General Foods decided to get out of the burger business and sold the chain to Imasco Ltd., the parent company of Hardee’s. Many of the Burger Chef restaurants closed, and those buildings that remained were converted into Hardee’s.
Chi-Chi’s Mexican cuisine might have been about as ethnically authentic as Chef Boyardee’s canned pasta, but those cheese-smothered enchiladas and chimichangas were pretty tasty when washed down with a jumbo frozen margarita or two. And, of course, you’d want to save room for their signature dessert: Mexican fried ice cream. The chain was already ailing financially in 2003 when the final death blow was struck—an outbreak of hepatitis A (eventually traced back to some scallions imported from Mexico) that infected over 600 patrons in the Pittsburgh area. The $40 million Chi-Chi’s paid out in lawsuit settlements added to its financial distress and hastened the chain’s demise in the U.S.
7. BILL KNAPP’S
This family-style chain opened in 1948 and had more than 60 outlets in five states—Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Florida—at its peak. Bill Knapp’s prided itself on its “made from scratch” menu items with items delivered fresh daily in Knapp’s own fleet of trucks. The menu stayed fairly static, concentrating on family favorites like fried chicken, meatloaf, steaks, and burgers to encourage repeat customers. The chain also had a fairly extensive bakery and offered a free whole chocolate cake to patrons celebrating a birthday or wedding anniversary. On top of that, birthday celebrants received a percentage discount on their entire bill equal to their age, which is why a lot of seniors tended to have their birthday dinners at Bill Knapp’s. The last restaurant closed in 2002, but many of Knapp’s pastries and desserts—including that chocolate cake—can be found today at Awrey’s Bakeries.
8. FARRELL’S ICE CREAM PARLOUR
The original Farrell’s opened in Portland, Oregon in 1963, and 10 years later there were about 130 of the 1900s-themed ice cream parlors nationwide. The chain also offered “regular” food, like burgers and sandwiches, but its specialty was elaborate ice cream concoctions, like The Zoo, which was carried out on a stretcher by employees accompanied by a bass drum and blaring sirens. The chain had offered a free sundae to folks celebrating a birthday, and they made paying the bill a treacherous journey for parents because they had to make their way through an elaborate store that featured a huge selection of colorful candy and toys to get to the cashier. Declining sales hurt the chain in the late 1970s, and by 1990 almost all of the original chain stores had closed.
9. HOWARD JOHNSON’S
For some 50-plus years the bright orange roof of Howard Johnson’s restaurants was a familiar sight along America’s interstates for hungry travelers. The chain became famous for their fried clams, which were served as strips rather than the entire clam (including the belly) which had previously been the standard. Kids loved their hot dogs, which were grilled in butter (the buns were toasted in butter as well), and everyone loved the ice cream, which contained twice the butterfat of traditional brands and was available in 28 flavors.
The Marriott Corporation bought the chain in 1982 with an eye on the prime roadside real estate most HoJo’s occupied. They began dismantling the corporate-owned Howard Johnson’s restaurants and replaced them with motor lodges. The franchised outlets that remained suffered without corporate support and slowly went out of business, with a few staunch holdouts lasting until the early 21st century.
10. GINO’S HAMBURGERS
Folks who grew up on the East Coast in the 1960s and 1970s remember the great sirloin burgers at Gino’s, a regional chain founded in Baltimore in 1957 by several Baltimore Colts players, including defensive end Gino Marchetti. Their signature burgers were the “banquet on a bun” Gino Giant and the Sirloiner, a quarter pound patty made from ground sirloin, and French fries that were cut and cooked on the premises. The chain expanded to over 350 outlets at its peak, and most stores doubled as a Kentucky Fried Chicken carry-out since the Gino’s guys owned the Mid-Atlantic KFC franchise. Marriott purchased the brand in 1982 and slowly turned the remaining Gino’s stores into Roy Rogers restaurants.
11. CHICKEN DELIGHT
Chicken Delight was hatched in 1952 in Illinois when Al Tunick purchased some deep-fryers on the cheap from a restaurant going out of business. He experimented with food items other than fries that could be cooked in the fryers, and hit upon lightly breaded chicken pieces. (Up until that time, chicken was traditionally pan-fried or roasted, and the lengthy cooking time required nixed it as a fast food menu item.) Deep-frying the coated chicken sealed in the juices and cooked the meat in a matter of minutes, and a new franchise was born.
Chicken Delight offered carry-out or (free) delivery, and with more women entering the workforce during that era, “Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight!” rapidly became a household phrase. The company had over 1000 outlets across the U.S. at one time, as well as 50 restaurants in Canada. An antitrust suit between franchise owners and corporate headquarters led to a huge loss in revenue in 1971, and then there was that Colonel from Kentucky who had started his own fried chicken empire. By 1979 the chain was long-gone in the U.S., and the remaining Canadian stores were purchased by Winnipeg entrepreneur Otto Koch, who kept the chain running in the Great White North into the 2000s.