Restaurant Chains We Miss
Burger Chef/facebook.com
Restaurant Chains We Miss
Burger Chef/facebook.com

Delicious Memories

Americans have been going out to eat for as long as there's been a United States, but it wasn't until after World War II that fast-food and sit-down restaurant chains became part of the national fabric. Over the decades, tastes have changed and not all of our favorite restaurants have been able to keep pace. Howard Johnson's, with its iconic 28 ice cream varieties? Gone. The smiling Burger Chef and his yummy Top Shef burger? Vanished. Naugles' California-meets-Mexico tacos and burritos? Kaput. These and other beloved chains may be gone from our roadsides, shopping malls, and suburbs, but they are definitely not forgotten. (A few have even made a comeback.)

Editors' note: This story has been revised since publication.

Related: The 19 Biggest Fast-Food Flops of All Time

Burger Chef 2901 N Dixie - 1962
Burger Chef 2901 N Dixie - 1962 by Northridge Alumni Bear Facts (CC BY-SA)

Burger Chef

When the founders of Burger Chef opened in Indianapolis in 1957, the primary goal wasn't to sell burgers — it was to showcase the broilers and milkshake machines their restaurant equipment company manufactured. Within a year, however, the restaurant proved so popular that brothers David and Frank Thomas Jr. decided to go into the burger business full time. In less than a decade, they had 500 stores. Like rival McDonald's, Burger Chef offered a double burger (the Top Shef) and a quarter-pounder (the Super Shef). They were the first to introduce a kid's meal (the Funmeal) and even offered a condiment bar where you dress your burger the way you wanted. In 1968, the Thomas brothers sold out to General Foods, which continued to expand aggressively across the U.S., peaking in the early '70s with more than 1,000 outlets. But General Foods could never catch up with Mickey D's or their other rival, Burger King, and in 1982, it sold the chain to the parent company of another burger chain, Hardee's. The new owners quickly began converting the remaining 600 or so Burger Chefs to Hardee's, leaving nothing but tasty memories, even making its way into Season 7 of "Mad Men."

Howard Johnson's
Howard Johnson's/facebook.com

Howard Johnson's

You can still find a HoJo's restaurant in the Adirondack Mountain resort town of Lake George, New York, the last survivor of what was one a nationwide chain of roadside restaurants and motels. Howard Johnson's made a name for its sterling service, consistent food quality, and of course, ice cream. At its peak in 1975, there were more than 1,000 orange-roofed HoJo restaurants across the country, many attached to Howard Johnson motels. In the mid-1980s, the company was sold to Marriott, which sold off the hotel chain quickly and began converting non-franchise HoJos into Big Boy restaurants (which Marriott also owned). Franchise owners banded together to preserve the remaining Howard Johnson's restaurants, but without support from their corporate parent it was a slow, steady decline. By 2014, only the Lake George restaurant remained.

The exterior of the Official All Star Cafe in Times Square, New York City in October, 1996.
The exterior of the Official All Star Cafe in Times Square, New York City in October, 1996. by RickDikeman (CC BY)

Official All-Star Cafe

Celebrity-owned restaurants are nothing new, but in the mid-1990s the Official All-Star Cafe took star-powered dining to a new level. Or at least tried to. Backed by Planet Hollywood and superstars including Shaquille O'Neal, Wayne Gretzky, and Joe Montana, the All-Star Cafe opened in late 1995 in New York City's Times Square. The 34,000-square-foot restaurant served sports bar-style food (sandwiches, burgers, pasta, and booze); decked out with sports memorabilia from famous athletes (Andre Agassi's ponytail, anyone?), and dozens of TVs screening live games and greatest-hits clips. Other outlets followed quickly in tourist meccas such as Las Vegas and Cancun, Mexico, as well as Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. But the All-Star Cafe's winning streak didn't last long. The chain filed for bankruptcy in 1999, and the last outpost at Walt Disney World was shuttered in 2007.

D'Lites Of America Founder And Interior Press Photo 1985
D'Lites Of America Founder And Interior Press Photo 1985 by Phillip Pessar (CC BY)

D'Lites

The fitness boom of the late 1970s and early '80s had fast-food companies scrambling to come up with options that would satisfy customers who demanded healthier fare. D'Lites promised burgers made with extra-lean ground beef, whole-grain sandwich buns, salads and other vegetarian options, and sparkling juices. In 1983, five years after the first restaurant opened in suburban Atlanta, the company began expanding. Within two years, there were 100 stores in 19 states with 1,000 more in the works. But those bold business plans fell apart almost immediately. As one Florida franchisee told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, "What we found was people really don't care that much about nutrition." The company filed for bankruptcy in 1986 and vanished quickly.

Bennigan's
Bennigan's (Vineland, NJ)/facebook.com

Bennigan's

Created in 1976 by Norman Brinker, the man behind the popular Steak & Ale chain (more on that later), Bennigan's faux-Irish pub vibe became a hit with diners who wanted a beer with their burger but didn't need all the trappings of a fancy sit-down restaurant. By the time Brinker left to buy and expand Chili's in 1983, at the time a small burger chain in Texas, there were more than 150 Bennigan's across the U.S. But some say the chain overexpanded without taking the time to develop signature dishes that would distinguish Bennigan's from upstart rivals such as Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's. A leveraged buyout in 1991 didn't help, and in 2008 Bennigan's corporate parent declared bankruptcy. But like other dead brands, Bennigan's has since risen from the ashes under new ownership; today, about a dozen restaurants operate across the Midwest, South, and East Coast.

The Phantom Chi-Chi's sign...
The Phantom Chi-Chi's sign... by Nicholas Eckhart (CC BY-NC)

Chi-Chi's

This chain of Mexican restaurants got its start in Minneapolis in 1975, sharing space with a bar owned by an ex-NFL player. It was such a success for founders Max McGee (a former Green Bay Packer) and Marno McDermott that they quickly brought on a third partner to expand the business. By the mid-'90s, Chi-Chi's had more than 200 outlets, mostly in the Midwest, but aggressive overexpansion and competition from more nimble (and less expensive) rivals such as Taco Bell left the company struggling to retain a loyal following. In 2002, Chi-Chi's parent company declared bankruptcy. Any hopes for a revival were dashed the following year, when a hepatitis A outbreak killed four people and sickened more than 650 people who had eaten at Pittsburgh-area Chi-Chi's restaurants. Two years later, the remaining restaurants closed. The brand name lives on, however. In the U.S., you can buy Chi-Chi's salsas, tortilla chips, and chili seasonings, or you can eat at a Chi-Chi's restaurant in Belgium or Luxembourg.

Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips
Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips/facebook.com

Arthur Treacher's Fish and Chips

Arthur Treacher was a British actor who made a name in the U.S. as talk show host Merv Griffin's sidekick in the mid- to late 1960s. Treacher cashed in on his fame by lending his name to this Ohio-based fast-food chain, which opened its first restaurant in Columbus in 1969. By the late 1970s, there were more than 800 locations nationwide. But success — like last week's fish — didn't last; by the next decade, the chain was already shrinking. As of 2018, there were just three Arthur Treacher's locations remaining, all in the Cleveland area, where they continue to have a small but dedicated clientele.

Bill Knapp's
Bill Knapp's/facebook.com

Bill Knapp's

If you grew up in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, or Ohio, and took a lot of road trips as a kid, you probably stopped to eat at a Bill Knapp's. The first restaurant opened in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1948, the brainchild of Clinton B. Knapp, a former traveling salesman. Knapp's goal was to provide traveling businessmen and families with tasty, inexpensive food that would be consistent no matter where they were going. Over the coming decades he succeeded in growing the chain to nearly 70 outlets, distinctive for their white brick colonial structures with green shutters and doors, as well as their desserts. But by the early 1990s, sit-down family restaurants serving chopped steak platters, baskets of fried shrimp, bowls of chicken noodle soup, and birthday cakes were no longer what most diners desired, and the chain filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Today, Bill Knapp's exists as a commercial bakery in Saline, Michigan, turning out cakes and doughnuts like the restaurants used to serve.

The Ground Round
Source: Ground Round

Ground Round

In 1969, Howard Johnson's decided to go into the burger business, giving Baby Boomers raised on fast food a more refined sit-down option that welcomed families but had a separate bar area for the grownups. Its signature dish was a half-pound burger called The Ground Rounder, but they also served Americanized versions of Italian, Mexican, and Chinese fare. Peanuts and popcorn were free for diners, and kids' meals were priced at times according to a novel "pay what they weigh" scheme: a penny per pound. By 1991, there were about 200 outlets throughout the eastern U.S. But years of corporate mismanagement and turnover had taken its toll, and the company went abruptly bankrupt in 2004. Franchisees banded together to save some locations, and today there are about 20 locations, mostly in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and New England.

A branch of Kenny Rogers Roasters in SM City Clark, Angeles City, Philippines.
A branch of Kenny Rogers Roasters in SM City Clark, Angeles City, Philippines. by FoxLad (CC BY)

Kenny Rogers Roasters

What do you get when you pair a country singer with a former governor and KFC executive? A sure-fire way to lose a lot of money. Kenny Rogers and former Kentucky Gov. John Brown Jr. teamed up to open this chain of wood-fired rotisserie chicken restaurants in Florida in 1991. At its peak in 1996, there were about 300 Kenny Rogers Roasters in the U.S. and Canada, as well as a handful in Malaysia. But stiff competition from Boston Market and other chains that offered similar menus of roast chicken, sandwiches, and veggie sides proved to be Kenny Rogers' undoing, and two years later the company went under. Today, an independent chain of Kenny Rogers Roasters thrives in Malaysia, the Philippines, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Minnie Pearl Chicken
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Minnie Pearl Chicken

Kenny Rogers wasn't the first country star to make an ill-fated entry into the restaurant business. Minnie Pearl, a regular at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry for decades and on TV's "Hee Haw," attached her name to this fried chicken franchise in 1966. It was founded by a fast-talking Tennessee politician and wannabe restaurateur named John Jay Hooker, who wanted to capitalize on the success of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Once he persuaded Pearl to be the public face of the operation, Hooker began selling franchises aggressively and took the company public. Investors drove the stock price as high as $56 in 1969, even though only about 50 restaurants had opened, and before long the Securities and Exchange Commission decided to take a look into the matter. By the time the company settled with the SEC in 1973, its finances were in shambles. Within a few years, the few hundred outlets in the mid-South were history. Minnie Pearl's legacy, however, remains untarnished.

Naugles Tacos & Hamburgers
Naugles Tacos/facebook.com

Naugles Tacos & Hamburgers

Dick Naugle had been a Del Taco franchisee in Southern California for several years when he decided he could build a better taco by striking out on his own. He opened the first Naugles Tacos & Hamburgers in 1970 in Riverside, adding two more outlets by the end of the decade. At that point, Naugle sold out to businessman Harold Butler, who founded Denny's in the 1950s. Butler began franchising Naugles restaurants throughout the U.S., building the chain to about 225 outlets by the mid-1980s. In 1988, an investor acquired Naugles and Del Taco, consolidating them under the Del Taco name (one of the last, in St. Louis, became an architectural landmark of sorts). Naugles itself has been revived, thanks to the efforts of Orange County food blogger Christian Ziebarth, who opened a new iteration of the beloved taco joint in 2015 in Fountain Valley, California.

Abandoned Steak and Ale restaurant, Westminster Mall, Colorado (2011)
Abandoned Steak and Ale restaurant, Westminster Mall, Colorado (2011) by Xnatedawgx (CC BY-SA)

Steak & Ale

The first Steak & Ale opened in Dallas in 1966, promising beef and booze at prices a family could afford. Known for its signature Tudor-style buildings and cozy interiors, this culinary creation by Norman Brinker was one of the pioneers of the sit-down casual restaurant industry that mushroomed across America in the coming decade. At its peak in the late 1980s, there were about 280 branches nationwide. But as with other chains, Steak & Ale couldn't keep up with the nation's changing tastes, and the brand's parent company — which also owned Bennigan's — went bankrupt in 2008. All but a handful of franchises closed, but the owners are still franchising.