Those long-lost fast food palaces of the seventies...
and where you can still taste their junk food awesomeness again.
Are there places you get that retro 1970's fast food taste experience today without programming the Time Tunnel? (A risky proposition considering the Tunnel exploded into a shower of sparks every time someone moved a dial.)
They are few and far between but it's possible, depending on where you live, to travel back in time gastronomically speaking.
Anyone remember Biff Burger? When I was a kid growing up in the seventies there were several around town, they were found all along the East Coast with a few lone outposts not much further west.
In the quality pecking order of burger chains in the 1960s-'70s there was McDonald's at the top, Burger King just below, with Hardees, Burger Chef, and Biff Burger taking up the rear.
The Biff Burger itself was different from the rest, with their own tangy sauce that the meat patty was dipped in after cooking on a special rotating broiler.
In the days of 20 cent hamburgers at McDonald's and Burger King, Biff Burger (which stood for "Best in Fast Food") was a penny less, only 19 cents. I would eat there in high school, if that penny made a difference in my getting a burger for lunch or not. Being less expensive than the other chains led to the impression (in my mind, anyway) that the burgers weren't as good - indeed, they had a slightly gamey taste.
The chain was founded in the 1950s but went under in the mid-1970s with a few profitable independent franchises holding on. Biff Burger disappeared almost completely by the mid-1980s but two stores still survive using the same burger recipes, with the same basic decor. One is in St. Petersburg, Florida - the other Biff Burger was renamed Beef Burger (the owner changed the name in the 1980s in case the franchise was revived and he should get hit with back franchise fees).
Beef Burger remains a 50 year institution in Greensboro, NC with the 1970's chairs and tables intact (yellow and attached as one unit, naturally) and 1980's arcade games. They still use the classic "Biff" character, one of the most poorly designed and executed mascots in history. That's what makes him so cool.
The menu is not limited to the original, you'll find probably the widest variety of food in any fast food diner, from zucchini sticks to fried shrimp and a dozen or more flavors of soda. They also have milkshakes made from an old 1970's machine, now that's authentic!
And the food is greasy-liscious, I say that as a compliment. Besides the delicious original Biff Burger itself, they have the best Ribeye steak sandwich I've had in a long while, I'm hooked. The Super Burger is tasty too, a nice combo of today (with fresh vegetables) and yesterday.
UNC-G students flock to chow down on cheap but good quality eats that really soak up the alcohol - although the front door sports a sign on the door that says, "If you're drunk eat somewhere else." Regulars for decades have come for miles around to enjoy the retro taste of Beef Burger.
By all means, if you're in Greensboro on business, stop by Beef Burger at 1040 West Lee Street. Sadly, expansion plans by the university has put the restaurant in danger of being plowed under. You can read the entire history of Biff Burger at this wonderful site.
The St. Petersburg, Florida Biff Burger:
Another forgotten burger chain selling down-market burgers that I confess I liked just fine. This 1970 commercial was attempting to tap into the teen market with groovy hippy music, tender but offbeat family images, and a lame catch-phrase, "Incrediburgable!" This chain was known for the vaguely Googie design of the franchises, note the extreme slanted roof and top ornament, you can still recognize that architecture in places that have been repurposed - like Mexican restaurants, Chinese buffets, even a Wienerschnitzel in Antioch, California.
Burger Chef started disappearing in the mid-eighties after the big two - McDonald's and Burger King - pretty much locked up the nationwide fast food hamburger market with regionals like Jack In The Box, Carl's Jr, and Hardees continuing to thrive around the fringes. At one time Burger Chef was second only to McDonald's in the number of locations nationwide. If I recall, they had a great dry but tasty Roast Beef sandwich that Hardees continued to sell well into the late-1980s.
Another death blow to Burger Chef... Wendy's went nationwide in the early-seventies, moving the goalposts with their innovative drive-thru window, salad bar and fresh not frozen meat. That was a real game changer, Burger Chef and Biff Burger seemed dated in comparison... old-fashioned but not in a good way.
Hardees took over the Burger Chef franchise in the mid-eighties and began slowly assimilating them until the last one closed in 1996. Want to taste it again? Schroeder's Drive-In in Danville, Illinois, in business for more than a quarter century, still serves up the original Burger Chef menu items.
Here's an amazing thing - take a look at this ad. You could actually get a full lunch for 99 cents in 1975!
A rib eye lunch for $1.29? Talk about inflation... and as I recall, the food was pretty good at the Ponderosa.
BONUS: Krystal Burger
Speaking of regional fast food chains, it was more than 10 years ago when the Krystal Burger joints were upgraded, reviving the slumbering fast food chain that began back in 1932. Those mini-burgers (they'd be called sliders today) were pretty tasty, as I remember.
Krystal Burgers were found down South whereas White Castle (the oldest hamburger chain in the United States) was more of a Northern, Midwest and West Coast thing. The Krystal burger was a straight up ripoff of White Castle's product, if you liked one you'd probably enjoy the other. Now the chain is limited to one location in Georgia with about a dozen stores in Tennessee and some in Florida.
Did you see the scenes in the Borat movie shot at Krystals?
Kenny Rogers Roasters
Bob Huggins adds: Kenny Rogers Roasters is another celebrity restaurant that is pretty much gone from the U.S. landscape but is apparently doing well in the Philippines. Go figure. My recollection of the restaurant was that it was trying to compete along the lines of a Boston Market. It came and went pretty quickly in my area.
I ate at the Kenny Rogers in Hollywood before it closed, it was no big deal. After the fuss they made on Seinfeld I was expecting more. It was better than most fast food.
In this same vein you should head over to Groceteria, the online museum of former grocery stores from the early days.
More Classic TV fun at TVparty!