Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre

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It was Atari money behind what was touted as the first family-friendly destination to combine, food, entertainment and lots and lots of video games. Like I said, it was Atari. The maestro of all this was a rodent that Nolan Bushnell dreamed would one day be bigger than Mickey himself. But rodents and food are never a very pleasant pairing.

In the beginning, it really did have a theatre. Every hour, the show would start and Chuck E. himself (was he named after a Rickie Lee Jones song? Or the other way around? History does not record) would strike up his band of animatronic animals to perform a rousing medley of songs and jokes. I use the word animatronic loosely. Disney World had the marvel of long-deceased politicians shuffling around the stage of the Hall of Presidents. The Pizza Time Theatre had a bunch of immobile, herky-jerky “things” that looked like they had been slapped together by 5th graders for a science project. Think of the pathetic, beak-snapping birds of the Enchanted Tiki Room and you’re just about there.

Some locations actually sold beer and wine for the parents and this could lead to trouble when disputes between kids on the arcade floor escalated into full-out brawls between their supposed “guardians.” Sometimes weapons were drawn. To expire by bleeding to death on a filthy carpet in front of a Dig Dug machine while a bunch of cheap robots sing “Happy Birthday” is an ignoble end for sure. And yet it happened a few times each year. Also, to watch your drunken mom make out with the pimply teenager collecting skee-ball tickets was never going to promote the healthy mental development of your average 8 year-old.

Once the video game era came screeching to a halt, this place became a three-legged stool standing on two legs and both those legs were pretty weak. The pizza was shit and the floor show as captivating as watching automated garbage trucks lift and empty dumpsters. And yet Chuck E. Cheese still survives to this day, with something like five hundred stores tucked away in small-market strip malls all over America. Mice can be so hard to kill.

 

 

 

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Olympia

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Like-minded people everywhere are free to take their cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, raise them to their mouth and actually swallow as many ounces as they see fit. Please. Do so all you’d like. The joke’s on you. The stuff is rubbish.

Just a quick anecdote. I encounter literally dozens upon dozens of homeless people and SRO basket cases every day no matter what direction I’m walking in, and I never see any of these folks (all of whom like to drink) with a PBR in their shaking, begrimed paws. Steel Reserve 211, yes. Tecate, yes. Even Lagunitas IPA at times! But never Pabst.) Think about that for a moment. People who have systematically destroyed whatever varying amount of brains they were born with through alcohol and drug abuse and falling over and hitting their heads on the unforgiving hard plastic seat corners of municipal buses still have more sense than to take up their daily position against the wall of the San Francisco Public Library with a sixer of Pabst Blue Ribbon at their side. But some bearded, upper tax-bracket mollycoddle in $200 Scotch & Soda skim jeans and a Filson buffalo check lumberjack coat will elbow up to the bar and heartily guzzle it down and even pretend to enjoy it. Why? There must be a reason for it, but the modern American hipster is one head space I’d rather not poke around in. I value my sanity. So, as I said, “they” can have it.

Why this bellyaching about Pabst Blue Ribbon in an entry about Olympia Beer? Well, it’s because, in the 80s, they bought Olympia and wasted no time in irrevocably ruining it. They changed the recipe to one of their stock penny-pinching formulas, and cut the price of an already inexpensive beer to Meister Brau-like levels. That was it, the jig was up, my beloved Oly went from being a delight to undrinkable.

Before all this, it had magic, it really did. Yes, I know it was a middling grocery store lager and not Rochefort Blue Cap–no one’s trying to claim it was some world-beater brewed by an expat band of Trappist monks who immigrated to Thurston County, WA during the chaos of World War II. But damn, for $2.99 plus sales tax for six of ’em, you received a smooth, crisp drink that just plain tasted good. Refreshing, even. It’s hard to explain, but trust me, it was delicious. And when it changed, the difference was shocking.

It still exists today, brewed in California–a good thousand miles from the mythical Artesian wells. And hey, it’s even got a lot of the same sort of retro, working class fake cool that PBR makes a living on. But it hasn’t been the same for a long, long time.

Chi-Chi’s

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They took the first three letters of their signature dish, doubled it, added a hyphen, an apostrophe, the letter “s,” and presto, white-bread middle America had something incredibly exotic to explore.

Where I grew up, in bleak and isolated Northeast Ohio, the good citizens had to ease their way into the unique experience of consuming authentic South-of-the-Border vittles. There was distrust: “Was Mexican food taking away ‘American jobs’?” There was fear: “This building looks like the Alamo. It could be a trap.” There was a lifetime of rigid culinary habits that were nearly impossible to break: “I’d really, really like a baked potato on the side with this. And some ketchup.”

But Chi-Chi’s eventually won us over, no doubt aided by the inhibition-lowering giant Margaritas served in glasses with bowls as big as upside-down umbrellas. And huge piles of tortilla chips that were, gasp, free! At the peak of Chi-Chi’s popularity, waiting in the Cantina for a table to open up could take as many as four hours, and that meant a lot of playing the golf tee triangle game for sure. But it was worth it. It was so new and different. No sheltered Midwesterner can ever forget the first time they heard the sizzle of a tray of fajitas flying past their ear or the first time they were confronted with a healthy heaping of guacamole: “Mommy, this looks like the doggie’s throw-up!”

Celebrating a birthday at Chi-Chi’s was extra special as all servers were forced to immediately drop whatever they were doing to go circle the anointed one’s table and perform a special birthday ditty. To enhance the effect that guests were actually dining down in old Juárez and not some half-empty rust belt strip mall, of course the song was chanted in ENGLISH, with a token Spanish interjection tacked on at the end. Even better, a Polaroid picture of the birthday boy or girl wearing a lice-infested sombrero was provided “on the house.”

The chain managed to thrive for 20 or 30 years but the end came suddenly and swift. The entire company was laid low in 2003 after some tainted green onions slipped their way into the kitchen and nearly 40,000 people in western Pennsylvania died. It was so bad a Pittsburgh Steelers NFL football game was cancelled because of it. In less than a year every single restaurant had closed.

I, for one, miss the Fried Ice Cream. Dat shit was da bomb! It even looked like a bomb!

The Noid

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The Noid was a vicious little bugger. For decades, pizza chains had written off his baleful shenanigans as a “cost of doing business.” Big names like Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s, Shakey’s and Round Table cowered before him and if you were a “mom and pop” pizza shop, forget about it–your kids were going to school shoeless. This long-eared, blood-red bastard’s ability to impact a business’s bottom line was that pervasive. His tricks of the trade read like a veritable laundry list of disruptive practices including hampering the performances of easily impressionable teenage delivery drivers by providing them free joints and hip flasks of Popov vodka, calling in false orders at staggered times and disparate locations in order to keep drivers ping-ponging all over town, unplugging refrigeration units causing precious meats and cheeses to spoil, introducing vermin into food preparation areas during closing hours, rewiring “hot sleeves” so that they actually cooled pies instead of keeping them warm, and spray-painting anti-pizza graffiti all over public buildings and even some private homes.

God only knows the kinds of wickedness he would have spread had he ever had the chance to sign up for a Yelp account. But that’s just the point. The Noid never made it to the age of Yelp and Foursquare and UrbanSpoon. Because there was a certain Christian warrior named Tom Monaghan from up Ann Arbor, Michigan way who had seen enough of The Noid and decided his company would be the one to exerminate him. For the good of all.

Now, nobody has ever claimed that a Domino’s pizza has ever been anything but a mediocre pie, but the company’s willingness to confront this diabolical villain was admirable and the determination they demonstrated to defeat him (it took 8 years) absolutely heroic. The Noid hasn’t been heard from since.

Coors

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A long, long time ago, for persons living east of the Mississippi, the myth of the unobtainable beer called Coors flitted around the heads of drinkers at graduation parties, football tailgating sessions and family reunion picnics like a chimerical butterfly. It was something whispered about in reverent, almost unbelieving tones. Those lucky enough to vacation “out west” would sometimes bring back cases of it, smugly doling it out to a chosen few friends and relatives like each can was a gilded sippy cup brimming with 100 year-old Macallan. It could really bring out the worst in people. I know one kid who had to mow his next door neighbor’s lawn every weekend from April to October due to an arrangement his father had made after said neighbor had returned from a trip to Yellowstone National Park with a trunkful of Coors weighing down the rear end of his Oldsmobile Cutlass. This heartless bastard traded the sweat of his own offspring, his own flesh and blood, in exchange for a lousy six-pack. Of the 8 ounce cans! And the boy, why, he never got so much of a swallow of it, his dad drank all six cans in about 15 minutes and then started bitching about how he “didn’t even feel buzzed.”

Still, the mystique remained and one spring in the early 80s, word started to ricochet around school that this fabled entity the Coors Brewing Company of Golden, Colorado was planning to expand their distribution as far east as Ohio. That the timing for this historic event would roughly coincide with the end of the school year was a sign that God himself most certainly had a soft spot in His infinite heart for teenagers with drinking problems. Yes, this was going to be THE summer of Coors!

No “official” date for the beer’s arrival was ever really announced, so we spent a lot of time sticking our noses into various outlets trying to track down the stuff on a daily basis. And then one day in mid-June, at one of the larger beer and wine outlets, it was there. Since it was about 11 a.m. or so, the man working there had no problem convincing us that the case we were purchasing was the first one he had sold. Ever. So now, not only did we have the contents of these lovely flaxen-hued aluminum vessels to consume, we were also in the history books. The very first ever in Ohio to buy Coors! That is the kind of record that by its very nature can never be broken or taken away and I still mention it to this day to HR personnel and prospective in-laws at the earliest opportunity I can manage.

The taste–well, to our virgin tongues it was delicious, fresh, pure, airy, refreshing, dizzying, crisp–the plaudits fell from our mouths like the silver waterfall on the front of the can, and bear in mind, Coors hadn’t even begun advertising the stuff yet, so it wasn’t like we had already been hypnotized by their high-powered marketing men. It was all in our own minds. Again, the power of myth.

So, it wasn’t exactly Trappistes Rochefort 10 Blue Cap, but it was a damn sight better than Busch.

Red Barn

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The question most fast food scholars ask is why name the chain “Red Barn” and not Red Caboose or Red Dwarf? Well, Red Barn was named for a valid reason and the buildings they occupied were built to look like barns for that very same reason. This was a pioneering food chain. They believed in utilizing only 100% organic, locally-produced ingredients, refusing to even countenance the boxes of mass market deep-frozen staples that were being trucked into their competitor’s loading docks from God knows where by Sysco Food Systems, Inc. and their ilk. This chain was a breed apart and the blue-ribbon breed always gets to live in the big Red Barn. Every farmer knows this.

But pioneers also have it rough and Red Barn was bit too far ahead of their time. Their cheapest basic meal started at $11.99 (remember this was 30+ years ago) and that was before adding a small 7.5 ounce bottle of the purest mineral water to wash it down with. People loved the food, but in the end it proved to be too dear for them. They had mortgages to pay and college tuition to save up for.

It is a cult of fond remembrance today. At its peak Red Barn had 400 or so restaurants in 19 states and every single one had its own unique sourcing in place to fulfill the basic menu of hamburgers, chicken and fish. We actually had a Red Barn in the tiny faux-Colonial village in which I was raised and it featured delectables no sane gourmand could refuse. Fish sandwiches crafted from the succulent inland freshwater cod hauled in daily from the sparkling Mahoning River, fried chicken delivered straight from the world-famous poultry farms of nearby Farrell, Pennsylvania, where birds would routinely grow to be the size of Verne Troyer, and of course the belly-busting 1/2 pound hamburger patties fashioned from exquisitely marbled beef that came straight from the cattle ranches of Campbell, Ohio, where the bovines were fattened up on a steady diet of the richest Greek yogurt.

Best of all were the mascots. Red Barn had no interest in nonsensical made-up names like Grimace or complex portmanteaus like Hamburgler. They kept it simple. Hamburger Hungry, Fried Chicken Hungry and Big Fish Hungry. They had a great song that they sang and “live” versions of these delightful characters were required to be on-site at every Red Barn during operating hours. The kids loved it. If only their parents had been willing to sacrifice just a tiny bit more, all of us might still be enjoying this unique dining experience even today.

Rebel Yell (the bourbon)

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All you had to do was look at the label and it was right there in maroon letters on a parchment ground: “Especially for the Deep South.” There was a time, and that time stretched as late as the 80s (the 1980s, not the 1880s) when you literally could not purchase this bourbon anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line. It wasn’t just legend, it was fact, and woe betide the distributor who tried cross it. History does indeed record at least a half-dozen skirmishes between bootlegging agents of rogue distributors and hastily mustered irregulars determined to defend the distillery’s wishes at any cost in border towns like Delmar, Maryland and Cheat Lake, WV.

Speaking of the label, it was a wordy one, making this bourbon a great drink for college students because along with your hooch, you’d also receive a brief history lesson, reprinted here in full:

“The rebel yell, one of the most enduring legends of the war between the states, was infused with passion, commitment, and honor. Those same qualities are what make Rebel Yell Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey the true taste to embody our country’s storied history. Fourteen years prior to the great battle of Chickamauga, Georgia, the first bottle of Rebel Yell was produced. Its heritage still lives on to this day.”

At the time, I was “able” to drink an entire bottle of this over the course of a weekend–half on Friday night, half on Saturday night. Rather than fuss with the expense and maintenance of a glass or even a red Solo cup, I seem to remember walking around various dorm mixers and parties with a bottle of this in one hand and a chilled can of Coke from the laundry room vending machine in the other. I would basically take a swig of bourbon and then chase it with Coke, repeating as necessary until incoherent and unable to stand. I believe the medical term for this type of behavior is “Acute Assholism.”

These days, the geographic embargoes seem to have been lifted as I recently had no trouble at all purchasing a bottle in the liberal, heathen West Coast city of San Francisco, and for only $14 to boot! Thankfully, this time around I managed to consume this tasty throwback to the past in a much more civilized manner.