Ah, the 1990s. It was a time of Beanie Babies and Blockbuster, of Saved by the Bell and slap bracelets. It was a decade that embraced Nirvana and Hanson equally—and that is truly something special. But besides the toys, TV shows, movies, and music, there was the food. And we’re not just talking snacks like Dunkaroos and Fruit by the Foot. It’s time to look back at the failed restaurant chains where so many children of the ’90s spent their Saturday nights or special birthday celebrations.
Sadly, many of these 1990s chain restaurants have gone the way of the Discman and Tamagotchis—forgotten about and discarded. So, if Planet Hollywood, The Official All Star Cafe, or Kenny Rogers Roasters had a special place in your heart, it’s time to pour one out for your favorite failed restaurant chains of the 1990s.
In the 1990s, restaurants became a source of star-studded entertainment in and of themselves. Case in point? Planet Hollywood.
The first Planet Hollywood opened in New York City in 1991, backed by Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Soon, it found the support of Whoopi Goldberg, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Don Johnson, Melanie Griffith, Tom Arnold, Roseanne Barr, Wesley Snipes, and Danny Glover. Is there a more ’90s list of people than that?
Planet Hollywoods popped up everywhere. There were nearly 90 worldwide during the chain’s heyday in the mid-1990s, as The Telegraph reported. But now, only nine remain. “I am disappointed that the company did not continue with the success I had expected and hoped for,” Schwarzenegger said in 2001.
We feel ya, Terminator. After all, who doesn’t miss looking at the “famous” film props that adorned these restaurants and wondering, “What movie is that even from?”
Hard Rock Café
Before there was Planet Hollywood, there was the original memorabilia-filled restaurant chain: Hard Rock Café. Of course, this one was all about the music, as opposed to the movies. And in the ’90s, if you didn’t have a shirt from the Hard Rock Café you visited in Fort Lauderdale, your friends may have wondered if you even went to Florida.
Of the 61 locations Hard Rock boasted at its peak in the mid- to late-’90s, a third have closed their doors. As CBS News reported in 2010, “Negative comments about the menu and slow service are legion online. ‘Friends don’t let friends eat at Hard Rock!’” Ah, how the times have changed.
The Official All Star Cafe
Some of the biggest celebrity athletes of the ’90s were behind The Official All Star Cafe. Shaquille O’Neal, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana, Monica Seles, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Andre Agassi were just some of the high-profile investors. The chain, which was owned by Planet Hollywood, first popped up in New York in 1995.
But, as The New York Times reported in 1998, the novelty of themed restaurants took a sharp downward turn toward the end of the decade. The following year, Planet Hollywood filed for bankruptcy—and The Official All Star Cafe went down with it. Nowadays, if you want to overspend on hamburgers and chicken wings while watching your favorite team, you have to head to an actual sports arena.
Kenny Rogers Roasters
Kenny Rogers Roasters was another celebrity-backed chain restaurant, but this one was all about country music and homestyle chicken. The chain grew to over 400 restaurants worldwide by the mid-’90s, and it’s perhaps most famous for its appearance in a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, aptly titled “The Chicken Roaster.”
America’s most popular TV series featured Kramer waging war on Kenny Rogers Roasters for hanging a neon sign that keeps him up all night. But in the end, he abandons his cause after becoming hooked on the delicious rotisserie chicken. Basically, it was the best publicity Kenny Rogers Roasters could’ve asked for. Though the chain was popular enough to make it onto Seinfeld in the first place, ultimately, Kenny Rogers Roasters went bankrupt in 1998.
A Malaysian company bought the chain restaurant and keeps Kenny Rogers Roasters alive and well in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, and Thailand, but there are no more Kenny Rogers Roaster in North America. Sorry, Kramer.
Kids from the 1990s who grew up near a major city had the glory of experiencing ESPN Zone, yet another themed entertainment restaurant that cropped up in 1998. It was a bit like Dave & Buster’s with its concept—video games and food in one centralized location—but with the addition of a sports-bar-for-the-whole-family vibe. But it turns out, that concept wasn’t good enough to last.
All of ESPN Zone’s nine locations—in Atlanta, Disneyland, Baltimore, Denver, Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.—have closed now. “One of the things we talked about was when you’re in the zone it’s a special experience. Sometimes it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” the general manager of ESPN Zone told The Baltimore Sun in 1998. “It’s an experience you don’t want to leave because you may not get back there real soon.” So sad, yet so true.
Steak and Ale
This Texas steakhouse restaurant first opened in the 1960s, and it remained an independent chain throughout the Dallas area. Steak and Ale was a local hit, offering New York strip and herb-roasted prime rib for prices as low as the watts of the bulbs in its dimly-lit restaurants.
After Pillsbury bought Steak and Ale in the ’80s, the chain went national with 280 locations. And if you visited a Steak and Ale in the mid-’90s, you probably remember it for its special early evening menu, with even lower prices and a free drink and dessert. But competition grew fierce in the casual-dining chain arena. By 2008, we all said goodbye to “The Best Steakhouse in Town” as Steak and Ales nationwide closed down.
“The salad bar was the best thing ever,” said one faithful Michigan Steal and Ale customer. “The bread was honey wheat roll bread with sesame seeds on it with butter that tasted like ice cream. It was delicious. … Now I have to find another restaurant. What am I gonna do?” The struggle is real.
If you were lucky enough to adventure into a Rainforest Cafe, which first opened at the Mall of America in Minnesota in 1994, then you know all about its glory. From the massive aquarium entry to those “storms” that would interrupt your meal every 20 minutes, the Rainforest Cafe really was something to behold. And if your meal didn’t end with a sparkling chocolate volcano, you were doing something seriously wrong.
Like all the other themed restaurants you’ve read about here, Rainforest Cafe struggled to maintain its luster. Only about half of its U.S. locations still exist today.
After all, it’s expensive operating a rainforest. The San Francisco location’s former director of operations location told The Examiner that there is an entire control room that’s used to monitor all the animatronic animals. “It’s not like if a sink is backed up, you can just call a plumber,” he said. “If a gorilla’s arm stops working, we need someone right here who can fix it immediately.” Gorillas make running a restaurant pretty hard, it turns out.
You may recognize Casa Bonita from your ’90s youth if you’re from Oklahoma, Colorado, Arkansas, or Texas. If not, then you probably recall South Park’s legendary take on the Mexican-themed restaurant chain. But either way, Casa Bonita definitely brings back memories.
In the 2003 episode, Kyle excludes Cartman from his birthday dinner at the famed Mexican chain, and Cartman will stop at no lengths to get an invite. That storyline was relatable to a select group of ’90s kids—and the show’s co-creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, knew it. “That was your dream as a kid, to be able to go to Casa Bonita for your birthday,” Colorado native Parker said of the episode.
Sadly, all the Casa Bonitas closed by 2011, except for one. So if you’re lucky enough to live near Lakewood, Colorado, check out the last casa standing.
Little Tavern was a chain of charming, cottage-style restaurants that felt like a home away from home for many children of the ’90s in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area. Back in the day, as your grandparents probably told you, their claim to fame was their 5¢ burgers that you could buy “by the bagful.”
Six decades after its start in the 1920s, Little Tavern had grown to nearly 40 locations. After the regional chain was bought out in the 1980s, things took a turn. And by the mid-1990s, Little Tavern suffered financial issues and these local favorites started closing one by one.
The last one to cave shut down in 2008, but in 2003, its sliders were still only 85¢. With prices like that, what child of any era wouldn’t have loved Little Tavern?
Children of the ’90s probably remember Chi-Chi’s fondly for its chimichangas and fried ice cream. This Mexican restaurant chain first opened in Minnesota in the 1970s, but at its peak in the mid-1990s, it had 210 locations nationwide.
But that reign ended pretty abruptly. Kids from the ’90s may also remember they had to stop frequenting Chi’s-Chi’s because the place went down in flames in 2003. Its demise involved filing for bankruptcy, a series of lawsuits, and the largest Hepatitis A outbreak in the country (courtesy of some contaminated onions). The outbreak left four dead and affected over 650 others. That was the end of Chi-Chi’s—and rightfully so.
Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse
Courtesy of Charlie Brown's
Kids today probably don’t know the glory of a salad bar, many of which have been deemed unsanitary. But ’90s kids in the New Jersey area knew there was no salad bar as delicious as the one at Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse. Sure, the steak was great. But it was all about that salad bar.
Though business was booming throughout the ’90s—and Charlie Brown’s expanded to New York and Pennsylvania—the chain filed for bankruptcy and closed most of its locations by 2011. Today, 16 Charlie Brown’s still remain in New York and New Jersey. So if you’re in the area, bring younger millennials on over so they too can feel the joy of plastic tongs in their hands as they select crispy veggie toppings for their side salads.
Hot ‘n Now
Californians may have had In-N-Out, but if you grew up in Michigan, it was all about the Hot ‘n Now. The Midwestern drive-through chain that began in 1984 grew to over 150 locations at its peak in the mid-1990s. That’s in part because in 1990, Hot ‘n Now was acquired by Pepsi and expanded into 15 different states all over the country. Soon, everyone was able to experience the glory of olives as a burger topping.
But by the 2000s, Hot ‘n Now was forced to close two-thirds of its locations. Today, only one last restaurant remains in Sturgis, Michigan. As the Lansing State Journal reported, “There are no longer 39-cent menu items, but patrons can buy burgers, fries, and drinks for about $1.” And yes, that includes the olive burger.
Bob’s Big Boy
Sorry, Big Mac, but the original double-decker burger came from Bob’s Big Boy all the way back in 1937. At its peak in the ’60s, this California-based chain had 750 restaurants across the country.
The Beatles even hit up the Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank, which was the coolest to children of the ’60s. But for ’90s kids, Bob’s Big Boy had a very different significance. In the 1997 hit movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, the restaurant’s mascot—literally, a big boy—was famously launched into space.
Despite its iconic status, the beloved California burger chain went under in the 2000s. After being revamped in the late 2000s, Bob’s came back a little bit, and the chain now has more than 80 locations in California and the Midwest. So Bob and his big boy are still kickin’ it on this earth.
This dial-a-pizza restaurant chain from Seattle was one of the very first to make home deliveries, beginning in 1958. With 42 locations in California and the Pacific Northwest, the future was looking bright for Pizza Haven.
But as competition flared up from other chains, like Pizza Hut and Domino’s, Pizza Haven struggled to keep up. They ultimately filed for bankruptcy by the late 1990s.
On the Pizza Haven Facebook page, fans still wax poetic about the chain’s glory days. “I remember the great pizza deals the Mariners had on the back of their tickets,” one man wrote. “Used to order the extra large and not share it with my sisters.” Big brothers in the ’90s really were just like Buzz from Home Alone.
Starting in the 1980s, Mighty Casey’s began popping up in Atlanta, Georgia, serving your classic American comfort foods: burgers, hot dogs, cheese steaks, and chicken wings.
Though they did have a few locations, the restaurant chain’s life was short. Krystal bought them out in 1994, so the majority of Mighty Casey’s got turned into Krystals instead. Mighty Casey’s might’ve struck out, but Atlantans remember them fondly. “I remember them for their chili dogs,” one person wrote on a message board in 2007. “I miss Mighty Casey’s,” another concluded.
A former vice president of McDonald’s opened Geri’s Hamburgers in 1962, and he wasn’t shy about following the same model. After all, Geri’s mascot looked suspiciously like the original representative for McDonald’s, Mr. Speedee.
Despite the lack of originality, Geri’s grew in popularity in Illinois and Wisconsin—and had quite the cult following. But ultimately, these hamburgers just couldn’t compete, and the last location in Beloit, Wisconsin, closed in 1999. If you were a Geri’s fan, you can show your love with this T-shirt. Or reach out to the Yelp reviewer, who wrote: “Was the best of all time! We should start a campaign to bring back Geri’s.” You two could get that petition going.
If you were lucky enough to still have a Roy Rogers near you in the 1990s, chances are high you were a serious devotee. As one Baltimore reporter noted, “It was a favorite of mine as a kid—so much so that I had a birthday dinner there once.”
In 1990, Marriott sold the fried chicken chain, which was originally RoBee’s House of Beef when it first began in 1968 in Indiana, to Hardee’s. Their attempt to turn Roy Rogers into Hardee’s, as one blogger notes, “ended in a customer revolt so serious that they actually aborted the whole idea and returned the Roy Rogers brand to some stores initially converted.”
Of the nearly 650 Roy Rogers that once existed in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states in the 1970s and ’80s, only 140 still stood by the mid-’90s. So if you could get your hands on a biscuit, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes, you considered yourself lucky. And if you were a burger lover or a fan of the Gold Rush fried chicken sandwich, you absolutely loved hitting up the Fixin’s Bar for all your topping needs.
Ownership has changed hands a few more times in the past three decades, and now there are 55 Roy Rogers locations. Still a far cry from its peak, but good to know that those biscuits are out there. “When we open up again people are like, ‘Oh my God, Roy Rogers is back. I used to love that as a kid,’” Roy Rogers co-president Jim Plamondon told Eater. Indeed we did.
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