Back When Pizza Hut Was an Experience

Pizza Hut

I miss the “glory days” of Pizza Hut.  That magical time in the 80’s and early 90’s when it was a destination, and not just somewhere to eat.  I’ve found recently that those days of yore are long gone, and what is left is what seems like a company struggling to hang on.

Last week, we took our daughters to Pizza Hut for lunch, and as I sat there with them enjoying lunch, I looked around the place and just shook my head at how much it has changed through the years.  To me, it no longer feels special.  It just feels like another fast food joint with nothing to make it stand out.

As you’ve learned by now, my Father traveled quite a bit when I was growing up, and to kind of take the sting out being gone so much, when he would get back in town on the weekends, he would always take the family out to eat on Friday or Saturday night.  This usually meant a trip to Western Steer, Bonanza, or Wendy’s back when they had the Superbar.  But a couple of times a year, we would be treated to my favorite place to go in that time frame, Pizza Hut.  We only got to go a few times a year because, for the time, Pizza Hut was expensive.  But that was part of the appeal.  It was a step above other places to eat back then.  You weren’t just paying for the food, you were buying an experience.

From the moment you walked in the place, you knew it was something special.  You knew this was going to be something you’d remember, and it all started with the decor.  The interior didn’t look like a fast food joint with it’s huge, sprawling windows, and cheap looking walls, or tiled floors.  When you walked in, you were greeted by brick walls, with smaller windows, that had thick red fabric curtains pulled back, and a carpeted floor.  It just felt higher-class that walking into McDonalds or Burger King.

Pizza Hut Interior

The booths were high-backed, with thick padded vinyl seats and back rests.  The high backs was also different from your usual eating out experience.  These high backs gave you a sense of privacy, which was great for a date night.  Also great for a date night were the candles on the tables.  Those little red glass candles that were on every table, and were lit when you got to your seat.  It was a little thing, but when added to everything else, it was quite the contribution.  Your silverware was wrapped in a thick, cloth napkin that beat the heck out of the paper napkins everyone else was using at the time.  And you could always count on the table being covered by a nice, red and white, checkered table cloth.

The lighting at Pizza Hut back then was lower that what you were used to at other places.  This was due to the lower wattage bulbs they used, along with their gorgeous, Pizza Hut log emblazoned, stained glass light shades they used to have.  Seeing one of those things now instantly takes me back to another place in time!  They still look classy and bring old memories flooding back every time I see or think of one.  The private feeling booth, the low lighting, the candle on the table, and the brick wall beside you gave a unique feel to the table you were dining at.  It greatly enhanced the overall experience.

Pizza Hut Lights

As far as the food goes, it was really hard to beat Pizza Hut in the 80’s and early 90’s for taste and quality.  For one, they had the salad bar.  Even though Western Steer and Bonanza, and other places had salad bars, something about Pizza Hut’s felt different.  As a kid, I wouldn’t get a salad anywhere else, but when I was at Pizza Hut, I wanted one.  It just felt like it was what you were supposed to do somehow.  And later in the early-mid 90’s when I would take young ladies on dates there, you wanted to put forth an air of maturity, I had the salad before the pizza.  Their salad bar was well stocked too.  The vegetables always looked great, were presently neatly, and had a crisp to them that screamed “I’m fresh”, when other restaurants could not always claim the same thing.  You could always add a little more flavor to the dishes to, since they had the easily recognizable shakers on the table featuring red pepper flakes and grated Parmegan cheese.

The drinks were never ending back in those days, essentially because no matter what you ordered, you were brought a full pitcher of it along with your glass.  You like Mountain Dew?  Here you go, here’s a full pitcher of the light green goodness.  Enjoy!  Pizza Hut sold beer back in those days, and it was common place to see some guys hanging out with a pitcher of beer on their table, or a husband and wife out on the town enjoying a pitcher of Michelob.  I’ve never been much of a drinker, but the image of a pitcher of beer at Pizza Hut is iconic in my memories of the place.  It added to the atmosphere.

The pizza itself was the main piece of the whole puzzle though.  Back in the day, they treated their pan pizza pizza like royalty.  You got the feeling that if you wanted a thin crust, or hand tossed pizza, that was OK, but if you wanted to eat like royalty, then the pan pizza was the only way to go.  No matter what the crust you preferred, they were all served the same way.  A waitress would bring the piping hot pizza to your table.  She would lay down the cork mat to keep the pan from melting through the table cloth, and then sit your pizza down in front of you.  She would allow a moment for the steam to rise up in front of you to make your eyes grow wide with anticipation, and then the best part.  She would cut, and serve, the first slice to everyone at the table.  I don’t see this being done anymore, but it’s a small thing that could easily still be part of their service that would enhance their current experience significantly.  In my mind’s eye, there is no more iconic pizza than a Pizza Hut large pan pizza supreme with pepperoni, sausage, green pepper, onions, mushrooms, and black olives.

Pizza Hut Pan Pizza

Pizza Hut was always know as the king of bread sticks as well.  Again, to me, their bread sticks with cheese were an amazing part of the experience.  It goes back to how I said Pizza Hut just felt like a destination, and an experience.  Serving the cheese sticks separately added the feel of a high class restaurant serving multiple courses.  They’d seat you, take your drink order, and return with them before taking your order.  Then you’d get your salad and enjoy it, and just before you finished it, here come the cheese sticks.  You’d enjoy those while talking with your family or your date, and then here comes the pizza, and the serving experience I described earlier begins.

Pizza Hut Cheese Sticks

They also offered baked sandwiches back then too that were really good.  I don’t remember all the different ones they offered, because I always got the ham and cheese with lettuce and tomato.  I was really fortunate in that my old man would let me order a sandwich when he was already forking over quite a bit for the dinner itself.  I would have the salad to start, partake in the cheese sticks, slowly savor my ham sandwich, and also share in the joys of the pizza on the table.  It was a filling experience.

The baked sandwiches were on Italian bread, the ham was not thick, but not too thin either.  The mozzarella cheese melted down over it with such an amazing flavor, and little bits of it would back onto the bottom piece of bread, and those bites quickly became my favorite.  They also spread a sauce on them that I could not figure out what it was for years.  It gave the sandwiches an incredible taste.  It was tangy and creamy, and I could not wrap my mind around what it could be.  For years the taste of the sauce would pop into my mind and drive me nuts trying to figure out what it was.  Several years ago, I finally figured it out by accident.  It was Creamy Italian Dressing.  I had gotten some for a salad or something, and as soon as the first bite hit my mouth, memories of the Pizza Hut ham sandwiches came flooding back, and I screamed out, “that’s it!”, to which my eating partner wondered what the heck I was going through.  I bought a bottle of the dressing and mad a ham sandwich at home to confirm my hypothesis, and I was correct.  It was a glorious feeling to finally solve the mystery years after the fact.

Also adding to the ambience, were the jukebox and the arcade game.  In my opinion, every good joint needs a jukebox.  As far as this goes though, it was probably the songs that were on it back then and not really the jukebox itself.  Going there on Friday or Saturday nights in the 80’s, and again, even on dates in the 90’s, the music enhanced the whole experience.  To this day, whenever I hear “Heartache Tonight” bu the Eagles, or just about any Bob Seger song, I’m taken away back to that point of time because it seems like that’s what was playing most of the time while there.  Even in the 90’s when I would take a girl there, I would play those songs to bring back that nostalgic feeling, and to potentially stir some kind of emotion in my date….if you know what I mean.

The arcade game they featured at my local Pizza Hut, and I believe most of them is kind of iconic in it’s own way.  It was a machine that featured two games.  Mrs. Pac-Man and Galaga.  The unique feature was that it was a sit down cabinet, with a chair on each side in which you and a partner / opponent could both sit comfortably and play.  My old man would give my brother and I some quarters, and we’d go hit the machine between the salad and cheese stick courses, usually arriving back at the table finding that the cheese sticks had already arrived, and my parents were already enjoying them.

Once the meal was over, it was time to pay the bill and end the experience for that visit.  Now, the pricing back then was upscale as well.  That’s why it was a a place we visited much less frequently that we did others.  I can remember back in like 1987, my Dad would shell out around $30 for the meal.  Putting the figure in the inflation calculator, comes out to around $65 in today’s money, so it was not the cheapest eating out option back then.  And here is where I feel everything changed.  Once Little Caesars rolled out their $5 Hot and Ready promotion years ago, Pizza Hut felt it couldn’t compete.  In response, they started offering their $10 Any Pizza promotion.  The problem is, Pizza Hut didn’t need to cheapen their prices.  It wasn’t just the pizza you paid for at their restaurants, it was the experience, pizza and all.  They have cheapened themselves when there was really no call for it.  If you wanted a cheap meal, you could go to McDonalds or Little Caesars.  If you wanted a mid-priced dinner, then you go to Pizza Hut.

These days, when I visit a Pizza Hut, everything is different.  There are not more stained glass lights above the tables, just a cheap brass light fixture.  The candles and the checkered table cloths are gone.  The cloth napkins have been replaced by a roll of paper towels on the table.  The waitress doesn’t cut and serve your first slice.  The beer and pitchers of drinks are a thing of the past.  The jukebox is filled with modern tunes, and the sit down arcade console is gone.  Now, you just go and get a pizza, but not the experience.  The shakers of pepper flakes and Parmesan cheese are still there, but that is about all that is left of the experience.  Even the quality of the pizza has dropped off significantly from their heyday.   Even the classy carpet floor looks old and dingy these days from lack of upkeep.

I greatly miss the whole experience that I grew up with and came to love, and it breaks my heart a little that I can’t give the same experience to my daughters now for them to reflect on in the future like I am now.  Sometimes, you don’t need to cheapen your product to fit in with everybody else, because you’re Pizza Hut, which means you’re not like everyone else, you’re something special.  I wish they would realize that, and find that magic again.

Since I wrote this, I also took a look at Why Wendy’s Ain’t Like it Used to Be, so check that out too!

For more old Pizza Hut goodness, check out Hoku Koolander’s article on some of the cool Pizza Hut Promotions they used to run back in the day.

For more old food memories, check out some of the participants in this weeks Retro Revival Blog Challenge:

2 Minute Toy Break looks back when you could smoke in restaurants
Mr. Smith’s Plastic Hideaway looks back at some of his favorite local restaurants, and expounds on his Dad’s homemade breakfast.