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When Pizza Hut Was King

As a kid in the early-‘90s, my family never ordered take out from Pizza Hut. No, it was strictly a dine-in option for us. We didn’t have too many restaurant options where I grew up and we didn’t visit frequently, but when the spirit moved us, nothing compared to its pizza parlor aesthetic. From the red roof on the building to the dimly lit interior with its brick walls, dark wooden booths lit by a candle on the table, and a stained glass tiffany-style lamp overhead… Pizza Hut had a very cozy, almost late-70s Italian restaurant ambiance at this time. There was even a salad bar and some arcade games lining the back wall. The first time I ever played the arcade classic Off Road (the one with three steering wheels) was at my local Pizza Hut.

The restaurant was always bustling. Kids would show up with their little league teams to celebrate wins, families would have cheap dinners out with the family, and bored teenagers would screw around in the kitchen doing god knows while the boombox in the kitchen blared grunge. I would always get a personal pan pizza, which was deceivingly tiny for the gut-busting caloric punch it always ended up delivering. Pizza Hut also had their “Book It” program that encouraged kids to read books by rewarding them with pizza, but I wasn’t much of a reader at this point and my parents were paying for it anyway, so that incentive held very little water for me. Our location was also very close to a video store (speaking of lost relics) and I have fond memories of renting Poltergeist on VHS for the first time after dinner one night. What combo is better than pizza and a movie?

Without getting into too many anecdotes, I’ll just say the place had a unique and very special atmosphere. Is it weird to romanticize a chain restaurant with mediocre pizza? Sure, but something about the overall vibe of the place elevated those buttery, greasy pizzas and really sold the experience. So what happened?

Fast-forward to 2017 and the Pizza Hut experience is a bleak one. Most of the iconic buildings have closed and have been converted into bail bonds offices and funeral homes. The restaurant now exists in the form of numerous little hole-in-the-wall locations dotting the landscape, some no bigger than a walk-in closet. The prices have gone up and the pizza quality has gone way down. And in a strange twist, Dominos has started opening locations with seating, seemingly to usurp the fast food dine-in pizza crown from the once impenetrable Pizza Hut. Did we do this? Did our laziness and reliance on convenience strike down the mighty Pizza Hut in its prime? 

After hearing that my hometown location had shuttered, I decided to go on a search for a dine-in location near Los Angeles where I currently reside. Surely one had to exist somewhere. After google-mapping to no avail, I had pretty much given up hope. Then, one night en route to a friend’s party, my girlfriend pointed it out to me: the red roof, the Pizza Hut in its original form. I almost swerved into another car in excitement. I had to visit! We made plans to return a couple days later and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little disappointing. I came to discover that there are in fact a few dine-in locations left in the country but most of them happen to be in the more poverty-stricken parts of town, so they are usually pretty run down and dirty. Most of them got a facelift sometime in the early-2000s which unfortunately rid them of that dark pizza parlor charm and tried to fill the void with flat screen TVs and modern lighting fixtures. I had mixed feelings. While I was glad to see a couple locations were still hanging on by a thread, it was sad to see how neglected and aimless these locations had become, with their soulless interiors and 1-star yelp reviews. After leaving, I decided its probably better to remember them as they once were, back when it was in a league of its own.

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Superman Posted on Jan 15, 2018 at 06:29 PM

I guess I'm fortunate. I live not too far from a dine-in Pizza Hut that is in good shape. I wasn't aware that these places were disappearing or often in decay if they do still exist.

DirtyD79 Posted on Jan 04, 2018 at 08:13 AM

While personally I prefer small mom and pop type place for pizza, I always thought Pizza Hut was the best of the chain pizza shops. I remember we used to have this one pitcher Pizza Hut was giving out as a promotional item. We had it for nearly 10 years and kept on using it for Kool-Aid and iced tea until one day it just got too grungy to keep using. :( I also remember one time when I was a kid my Dad's bowling league did something pretty cool where all of us kids got to take a tour of a pizza hut and make our own small personal pan pizzas. It's such a sin to see the sit down restaurants going away. They had a style all their own and definitely look a lot better than the boring boxes that pass for restaurants these days.

squidbee Posted on Dec 31, 2017 at 05:15 PM

I understand your excitement at finding the elusive Pizza Hut dine-in restaurant. My wife and I were heading to a conference in Santa Fe earlier this year, and I would fill with joy at spotting the familiar rooftop as we passed through poverty-stricken towns. Unfortunately, once we got close to the buildings they were all shuttered or broken down.

I have extremely fond memories of my local Pizza Hut, and I probably still carry around the calories from all the book club personal pan pizzas I ate as a child.I don't know who thought it was a good idea to reward a child with high-calorie food for performing a sedentary task.

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