KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Have you ever been in a nostalgic discussion with an old friend about great restaurants you used to frequent in the past — and it suddenly dawns on you that some, if not many or all, of these same restaurants are no longer in business? I had such a conversation not long ago so last weekend I searched for background on several restaurants I frequented in the past that are no longer around today.
Thanks to an online article written by Patrick Kiger as well as other articles, I uncovered what happened to some of my favorites from the past that are either no longer in business or are no longer operating within my geographic area.
The first stop down Memory Lane regarded the Burger Chef chain. The restaurants were launched by Indianapolis-based General Equipment in 1958. Burger Chef TV commercials with Burger Chef and his sidekick, Jeff were long ago seared into my mind as TV commercials featuring both were pretty hard to avoid — they were aired constantly throughout the day years ago. By 1972, Burger Chef was doing very well and operating 1,200 outlets — second in number of restaurants only to McDonald's. But things got tougher for the chain as time went on. In 1982, General Foods Corp., owners of the Burger Chef trademark and name since 1968, decided fast-food was no longer something it wanted in its business portfolio and so the chain was sold to Imasco, owners of Hardee's. Maybe it was more than simply a case of wanting to buy out the competition, but the last Burger Chef restaurant closed in 1996. Too bad, as I downed my share of their hamburgers in the mid-1970’s while working as a full-time musician playing in a band at the Indy 500’s headquarters hotel lounge in Speedway, Ind. From what I remember, they were great-tasting hamburgers with the freshest of ingredients —and they were priced reasonably enough for struggling musicians to afford.
Another culinary blast from the past is the Steak and Ale restaurant chain, which was my home away from home during and after college in the early 1970’s in the far south suburbs of Chicago. Created by restaurant icon Norman Brinker, Steak and Ale opened for business in Dallas in 1966 to go toe-to-toe against conventional full-service restaurants. As the story goes, Brinker felt that middle-class customers would frequent restaurants that charged only $1.95 for an 8 oz. filet plus offered a self-service salad bar, which was unheard of at that time. Pillsbury bought the chain in 1976, but at that time many casual dining concepts began to flood the US marketplace. Ultimately, the business was owned by the Metromedia Restaurant Group, which closed all remaining Steak and Ales in 2009. The Steak and Ale I frequented also served great pizza.
One of my favorite restaurant chains of the past was Lum’s. After being discharged from the Navy in the summer of 1970, I helped a friend move that August from an apartment in South Miami into his first home several miles away. After moving them in and helping him paint the inside of his small ranch house, we celebrated one afternoon at one of the popular beaches in Miami. After baking in the sun and humidity for several hours, we were parched and noticed there was a Lum’s right across the street. That afternoon, I had one of the best hot dogs (and cold beer in an iced stein) in my entire life. After that experience, I sought out other Lum’s closer to Chicago but there weren’t any in my neighborhood.
This chain had an interesting history. Two brothers, a young lawyer named Clifford Perlman and his brother, Stuart, bought a relatively new restaurant in 1956 for $12,000 called Lum's in Miami Beach. That restaurant apparently was doing well while other local restaurants were not. Business grew and by the time the brothers left the restaurant trade for a Vegas casino and sold their chain to KFC owner John Brown for $4 million in 1971, approximately 400 franchises were selling the Lum’s trademark: hot dogs steamed in beer. Reports indicate the company eventually was acquired by a German business that went bankrupt in the early 1980s. The once-flourishing chain dwindled down to a single restaurant in Davie, Fla., which closed in 2009.
One of my favorite places for a burger and root beer while in high school was LouArt’s Drive-In, which was located at 138th St. and Halsted, in Riverdale, Ill. This legendary, massive drive-in was located just outside of the Halsted Drive-In Theater, which had the distinction of being the first four-screen drive-in theater in the US. (It was demolished in the mid-1990s to make way for a post office.) The fastest, souped-up cars in the Chicago area converged at LouArt’s nightly to cruise around looking for takers to drag race for money from the 1950’s to the mid to late 1960s. Aside from the fast cars, cute car hops, burgers and root beer, LouArt’s chili dogs were unbeatable.
I also frequented an A&W Drive-In on the east side of Dolton, Ill. off Sibley Blvd., in the mid-1960’s that had terrific char-broiled hamburgers and ice-cold draft root beer in frosty mugs. My friends from sister high school Thornridge (which was located right across the street from the drive-in) would sometimes meet me there on hot, summer vacation afternoons to get a burger and cold root beer on days off from our summer jobs. Unfortunately, that drive-in was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for another business or strip mall.
A&W reportedly was the first successful food franchise company in the US, which began franchises in 1921 in California, according to Wikipedia. Today, it still has franchises throughout the world and a number of them are drive-ins that operate with car hops. Former parent Yum! Brands sold the chain to A Great American Brand LLC, which is a consortium of various A&W franchisees in the US and overseas, in September 2011. Although A&W restaurants and drive-ins are no longer located in my neighborhood, consumers in these parts can still buy cans of A&W root beer at local supermarkets.
Today, I can hop in my car and drive nine miles and visit just about any fast-food chain that’s competing today: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s — and even White Castle is still around….as well as relative newcomers, such as Smashburger. Although the innocent days of cruising to a local drive-in or restaurant in my dad’s old 1956 Chrysler New Yorker — which was usually filled with a bunch of skinny, carefree teenagers — are long gone, the memories of lasting friendships, great-tasting, fast-food hamburgers and fun afternoons and evenings listening to the top songs of the day through the car’s AM radio still remain fresh in my mind.
But you have to wonder…..which defunct burger chains and restaurants will today's teenagers be discussing with their friends 40 years from now?