WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HUT?
Pizza Hut in the 80s and 90s was an actual dining experience, one that, due to delivery and covid only lives on in our collective nostalgia
Pizza Hut was the shit, now the Hut is just shit. The staff at surviving restaurants are indifferent folks, the host (who also serves as waitstaff, server, bus person, cashier) at best, leads you to a table and flops a stack of menus in front of you. They may just point to a table where menus are already littering the table, “go sit somewhere.”
One recent-ish (pre-pandemic) Pizza Hut experience, my wife and I had our order interrupted by a honking horn. The staff-member bolted for the drive-thru window (?!). She came back huffing, “sorry about that, I forgot that man’s wings. What was it you were wanting on your pizzas?”
We have been led by GPS to Pizza Huts that are just strip-mall delivery locations, no places to sit, and eat. Two weeks ago, we were similarly led to a Pizza Hut, whose phone was still operational, and when we got there, it was shuttered entirely. Apparently, calls were being forwarded to some other close-ish location that we had to locate.
Pizza Hut is losing buildings to other companies setting up shop as Chinese restaurants, sandwich shops, hardware stores, liquor stores (seriously liquor stores) in the famous old Pizza Hut digs. The Strange pizza hut looks a bit more so with “LIQUOR” screaming across the hump in large weight font.
Worse, Huts are being forsaken to the wilderness. Emptying strip malls overrun with weeds and local fauna, devoid of human interruptions. Spiders, no doubt spinning webs over “please wait to be seated” signs. Shells of Pizza Huts fall into disrepair, dwindling into something borderline creepy, Chernobyl-like even.
In the 90s, the Hut was the toast of fast, excellent pizza. Even before the pandemic, I gave up on Pizza Hut. I renounce Pizza Hut, (while clinging to my love for Pizza Hut nostalgia).
Okay, so that may be a bridge too far – I still enjoy a Personal Pan Supreme and family order of breadsticks in a pinch. Pizza Hut’s marinara dipping sauce still has the magic.
THE HUT MAGIC
And it really was magic in the late-80s, early 90s. If you wanted pizza back then (and you didn’t live in a place where non-chain pizza was already fantastic), then Pizza Hut was your go-to. It had the perfect combination of entertainment and ambrosia-bordering slices.
Whereas places like Dominos had the charming Noid, brought pizza to your door… and that was pretty much it. You couldn’t have a birthday party in Dominos, they barely had enough space for traditional loitering.
Showbiz Pizza and Chuckie Cheese had skeeball and an arcade legit enough to give any God-fearing epileptic fits. But their pizza was shit. Which is probably why mom never wanted to take us there – scratch that, it was the animatronics. Mom had nightmares about the keyboard gorilla.
Occasionally my parents would show up on Friday nights wielding Godfather Pizza, which I liked just fine, but I had never seen an actual Godfather’s Pizza location, and still haven’t. As far as my young mind could piece together, my parents were just materializing a fictitious pizza out of necessity to fill our yaps with pizza to shut us the hell up.
PIZZA HUT HAD GAMES AND MUSIC
Pizza Hut had entertainment. There was a standup arcade sometimes even paired with sit down or cocktail arcades. These were really the only cocktail arcade setups I had ever seen in the wild.
The sit-down games were legends like Ms. Pac Man, Frogger, or Galaga.
I remember playing Rampage, Nintendo Playchoice 10, and Asteroids while waiting for a table. In the Columbia, SC Pizza Hut, it was Arch Rivals, and that game was my jam. Basketball, fistfights, glass shattering dunks. It was grand.
And there was that jukebox with the display rotating CDs in front of a mirror. It was hidden in the unused corner with the stacks of booster seats. And yet it was easy to find, just look for the flashing vibrant pink and yellow lights. It almost exclusively was either playing Rod Stewart or Phil Collins.
THE PIZZA HUT LAYOUT
The layout was magic, you cram this tiny-ass waiting room with a million other families standing before a wooden “Please Wait to Be Seated” sign. The sign esthetically could have just as easily fit in with “gramma’s” mudroom décor.
The room, cousin to the most astounding clown car, fit an absurd amount of people waiting for a table with enough room for carry-outers to jostle through with brown boxes of still steaming pan pizza.
Carry-outers always hunched around their boxes, protecting them like an inmate shields his fruit cup.
If you were fortunate, no one would be hogging the arcade, and you could spend the wait wasting aliens. At Pizza Hut, extra skill was required in working joysticks and blaster buttons oiled over with pepperoni grease.
THE CHOSEN ONES
Then like magic, you were chosen to come up on stage. Your name rings out from the Hut’s main hall as the smiling host leads you from the clown car into the big show. Leading you at her fingertips like a ringmaster seduces a cadre of large cats.
Pulling out a chair for mom or dad or whoever looks to have the wallet that will pay for tonight’s pizza repast. Menu’s flip open to the best page for guests and wind up in hands, eyes widening on pictures of magical menu items. “Holy shit, they got the stuffed-crust mom.”
I can only describe handling the menu as a notch just-below cracking open the newest Sears Wishbook in the lead up to Christmas. And it hits you – OMFG I’m about to get pizza-crunk.
Ahhh, time to taste that Pizza Hut nostalgia.
The pizza was magic. It always just showed up out of nowhere. Similarly to a watched pot never boiling, surveilling a kitchen never births your pizza order very quickly.
You would be buried in a conversation about BMX bikes, or Madonna, or Joe Montana, or Oliver North or whatever the hell else 80s thing, and bam it was there. Materializing at your table. If my parents allowed me to say “holy shit,” I would have said it every time, bam there it was “holy shit.”
The pizza arrives at your table in a black metal pan, easily pushing something like a million degrees. Transfixed, I would reach out for it, like a bug chasing the blue light of a bug zapper. Mesmerized by steaming magical cheese and salted, cured meats – slapped back before burning fingers by the waitress’ shouting, “Don’t touch the pan, it’s hot!”
Then she serves the first slice to everyone at the table, based on who has the wallet to least significant, I was forever last to get a slice.
THEY HAVE MORE THAN PIZZA, MOM
Oh, and I got ahead of myself, Pizza Hut also had a few guest stars for those who couldn’t wait to dig into something. The world’s smallest functioning salad bar and breadsticks (no chicken wings or whatever the hell else they added later in the aughts).
The breadsticks were awesome. In the 80s, they were still legit breadsticks and not just a giant square pizza sliced up into flimsy bread shaped sticks. I can let the chop-suey style breadsticks slide because they were tasty and really only served as a delivery method for Pizza Hut’s magical marinara sauce.
Hell, in the Hut, even the soda seemed fizzier, bouncing semi-transparent bubbles above the enormous glazed plastic cups. I imagined Sea Monkey’s holding fantastic parties on top of the ice cubes floating in Mountain Dew. To the Sea Monkey’s they must have been icebergs travailing the surface of some combustible yellow soft-drink.
Pizza Hut, auspiciously, was born on a college campus, Wichita State University, to be exact (shocker, right? Sorry couldn’t resist). What college kid doesn’t want to drink beer and eat pizza in their spare time, especially in the late 1950s when Dan and Frank Carney opened up shop?
The Hut is an excellent place for college kids to gorge on pizza and beer, as I can personally attest.
The beer served in enormous plastic pitchers, would drain quickly. I can remember eating bacon and green pepper pizza with my buddies in Montpelier, Vermont, while downing copious cheap, watery beers.
Then we would exit out into the parking lot looking to pick fights with people who hadn’t had their pitchers of beer, yet – “What’d you call my mother, you undrunk bastard?!” And someone would push me into a car telling me to shut the hell up, and this is the last time they take me anywhere – you wonder why you don’t have any real friends, Ray?! Because you pick fights in a Montpelier, scratch that Barre, VT Pizza Hut parking lot, on a Tuesday at 5:30pm…
GET TO THE ROOF, FINALLY
Where was I? Oh, yes, the roof.
There was something about the odd shape of the classic Pizza Hut building. As if it were created to look like a massive hatbox. Or the originators felt like maybe God would need a handle to gain access through the roof while descending from heaven.
Maybe heaven had a softball team. Surely they know better than anyone that nothing looks better at your table facing a giant pan pizza then a giant friggin’ trophy (take that Hell softball) reflecting the meat toppings in golden hues.
Turns out, one of the Carney brothers had a fraternity brother who was also an architect. The gigantic roof design apparently came about as “a fusion of common sense, the architectural taste of the 1950s, and a need for the design to be both remarkable and appealing in a variety of locations.”
You probably thought Pizza Hut buildings came out of the womb looking like that (I know I did). And you (like me) would be wrong. The original location looked more like an unburied home for Hobbits.
THE PIZZA HUT EXPERIENCE
It doesn’t take much to get me to muse over pizza, I love pizza. For this entry, my buddy’s copping to eating reheated pizza from Paisano’s was enough ($7 special last month, according to him). Then we were talking about the recent passing of Godfather’s Pizza former CEO, Herman Cain.
And then we were chatting about the slew of recent tweets proclaiming Pizza Hut as a legit dining experience in the 80s and 90s – and boy was it. Skateboards, swimming pools, the Silver Hawks, Jams shorts, Trapper Keepers, Back to the Future, Putt-Putt Golf, and Pizza Hut dominated my 90s necessities.
Say you won the softball game and wanted to clink cups bubbling over with Pepsi, you went to Pizza Hut, cheers! Lose the last swim meet of the summer, nothing wipes up tears better than the Hut breadsticks. Dad got that promotion at work (and mom could be talked into a Hut salad)? Pizza Hut!!
Even before the COVID, that type of dining had gone by the wayside. Millennials seemed to like their food delivered over eating out or making things at home.
I have never gotten the appeal; the food arrives when the delivery person decides it will arrive. The most magical of food drops its enchantment as the temperature approaches luke-warm. The word, congeal, comes to mind.
Because of the pandemic, that is the smart way to get restaurant food, so I guess our millennial friends were clairvoyant. Delivery pizza has found a sort’ve renaissance, where even Pizza Hut has also been surging.
And while that is excellent news for the companies that cater to the folks who only want their pizza to be heralded via doorbell, it is probably the curtain for the few of us that want to relive our Pizza Hut nostalgia. The pandemic will almost surely finish off Pizza Hut’s old, strangely roofed sit-down joints.
The magic of the Pizza Hut “experience” will likely be extinguished, leaving us only with our nostalgia.
The late 80s early 90s had a signature food, it was pizza. And not just any pizza, it was Hut pizza.
Or were you a Domino’s gal? Or a Godfather guy? Let’s undrunk fight it out in the comments.
PS AND THANK YOU
Before my newest job (and the pandemic), I spent many a lunch break sitting at the bar with my homie Francis eating 2Amys pizza (an excellent little spot on Macomb Street in DC). And hanging near the bar was the fantastic Pizza Hut blueprints, pictured above, that they so graciously shared with me for use in my blog. Thank you so much!
As I’ve mentioned, I love pizza, and while I am no professional pizza eater, 2Amys is on top of all my favorite pizza places to eat. One of their pizzas takes me all the way back to my 80s childhood and a pie my grandmother would order for us at a spot near the bottom of Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs.
They are open for take-out and I highly recommend checking them out if you’re hungry in the DC area.