Casual dining and fast-food chains once reigned supreme. But tastes change. Many restaurants whose logos once lit up American roadsides, malls, suburbs, and even major downtowns have gone the way of cable TV and department stores.
While dining preferences are increasingly shifting to local eateries, some chains will always hold a special place in our hearts. Here are 10 defunct restaurant chains that were once favorites of many Americans. How many do you remember?
For decades, the familiar orange roof of a Howard Johnson’s was a welcome sight to Americans. The popular sit-down restaurant served fried clams, grilled “frankforts,” 28 flavors of ice cream, and standard American fare. Lost Tables says HoJo’s was even one of the first eateries to offer a special menu for kids.
Before national fast-food joints like McDonald’s spread like wildfire, CNN says Howard Johnson’s was the largest restaurant chain in the country. The number of locations dwindled over the years until there was one lone Howard Johnson’s in Lake George, N.Y. Sadly, that last location closed for good in spring 2022.
Kenny Rogers Roasters
If you’re a Seinfeld fan, then you might remember the episode about Kramer’s love/hate relationship with Kenny Rogers Roasters. But younger viewers discovering the series now may not realize it was a real chain that once had hundreds of locations.
The rotisserie chicken chain was founded in 1991 by a former KFC executive and, of course, country singer Kenny Rogers. At its height, Eat This, Not That! says diners could visit more than 400 locations. There aren’t any left in North America, but several remain in Southeast Asia.
Theme restaurants ruled in the ’90s, and Planet Hollywood was one of the coolest. The star-studded restaurants acted as shrines to Hollywood with movie memorabilia prominently displayed. Unsurprisingly, these pop culture museums of sorts had huge celebrity backers like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
According to MoneyWise, there were nearly 90 Planet Hollywood restaurants at the height of the chain’s fame. Over the years, its star dimmed, and most locations closed their doors. Today, only six locations remain open. The brand is trying to reimagine itself as a luxury resort brand, so perhaps a comeback is in store.
Before McDonald’s had the Happy Meal, Burger Chef had the Fun Meal. That’s right, Mickey D’s wasn’t the first restaurant chain to include a toy in its kiddie meal. In fact, Mental Floss says Burger Chef even sued McDonald’s over the concept.
The burger joint only lives in our memories (and a memorable episode of Mad Men) these days, but it was on track to overtake its rival McDonald’s at one point. According to Mental Floss, it was nipping at McDonald’s heels with 1,200 locations in 1971.
Many a ’90s kid begged their parents to eat at Rainforest Cafe. The food was pretty typical for a family-friendly restaurant, but that was beside the point. Rainforest Cafe was an experience. Every meal was an adventure, complete with animatronic animals, tropical plants, and simulated thunderstorms.
If you were lucky, then your visit included a swing through the gift shop and the signature volcano brownie dessert. Now that the heyday of theme restaurants is in the past, only a handful of Rainforest Cafes are still open. That may be welcome news to current parents and grandparents the world over.
Burger Chef wasn’t the only chain giving McDonald’s a run for its money in the ’50s and ’60s. By the early ’60s, there were over 200 Henry’s Hamburgers across the country — more locations than McDonald’s had at the time, according to the brand’s site.
The chain’s slogan asked, “Aren’t you hungry for a Henry’s?” If your answer is “Yes,” then you can head to the only remaining location in Benton Harbor, MI. There they serve the burgers and shakes that made it a formidable opponent to the Golden Arches.
ShowBiz Pizza Place
While many younger millennials have fond memories of Chuck E. Cheese, older millennials are just as likely to have an attachment to ShowBiz Pizza Place. It also had arcade games, pizza, and an animatronic band. But a hillbilly bear named Billy Bob led the stage show instead of Chuck E. Cheese.
After Chuck E. Cheese filed for bankruptcy in 1984, Cracked says ShowBiz Pizza Place swooped in and merged the two rival companies. By the early ’90s, all locations used the name Chuck E. Cheese. So, in many ways, these kiddie casinos live on — even if the ShowBiz Pizza Place name is long gone.
WikiCommons by ShowBiz Pizza Time, Inc.
In its glory days, Sizzler was practically synonymous with a night out in the suburbs. It set out to provide a relatively fancy dining experience at prices closer to fast food than fine dining. When it opened in 1958, SFGATE says a New York strip steak, baked potato, and roll only set customers back $1.39.
The chain gave customers choices: steaks, seafood, and a salad bar. According to The Wall Street Journal, Sizzler’s popularity peaked in the late ’70s and early ’80s. However, the emergence of competitors like Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster was tough. Today, a fraction of the chain’s locations remain open.
Official All Star Café
During the golden years of theme restaurants, Official All Star Café was to sports what Planet Hollywood was to movies and Hard Rock Café was to music. While Hard Rock is still holding on with about 180 restaurants and Planet Hollywood has a few locations, Official All Star Café is completely kaput.
According to Mashed, Official All Star Café was owned by Planet Hollywood and backed by sports giants like Shaquille O’Neal and Wayne Gretzky. It displayed lots of sports memorabilia, put big-screen TVs everywhere, and served food like burgers and chicken wings. The last location closed in 2007.
If there’s a random barn-shaped restaurant where you live, then there’s a decent chance it was originally a Red Barn. The Mr. Sub pictured below, for example, was once a Red Barn. The chain had about 400 locations in the ’60s and ’70s, according to MoneyWise — that’s a lot of “barns” out there.
Red Barn was known for its Big Barney and Barnbuster burgers. Beyond burgers, it also offered fried chicken and a salad bar. As a matter of fact, Yahoo says Red Barn had “the first self-service salad bar in fast food.” While it’s been defunct since 1988, Red Barn’s legacy lives on through its still-standing buildings.