It’s a once-beloved franchise that used to have nearly 350 locations in the U.S. These days, the empire has shrunk to under 50 shops, almost entirely based in Southern California. I only lived in California for a few years as a young child, but I still recall Shakey’s from my annual visits to family in L.A. — it was the kid-pleasing changeup after so much of the Korean food my parents and relatives defaulted to.
The concept of Shakey’s, comprising a melange of all-you-can-eat pizza, fried sides, a crappy salad bar and an unceasing stream of soda from the fountain, remains as alluring to me today as it did then. The point isn’t an excellent meal — it’s a comforting one. And I suppose I craved comfort most of all as I planned my departure from the only place I’ve bonded to, other than Hawaii, where I was raised.
We all know the plot twist that comes next: COVID-19 exploded in the spring, and my nostalgic bucket list of favorite farewell foods went up in smoke. It’s unclear whether buffets in general can really survive the economic stresses of the pandemic, or if it’s even ethical to force underpaid workers to hustle back to serving a cattle line of hangry, undisciplined diners. Some might not care about cheap buffets at all, given the bad rap some lay on run-of-the-mill spots like Hometown Buffet or Golden Corral. I’d argue, however, that the pizza buffet is the best of the budget ilk — fresh, reliable and still better than 99 percent of pizzas you can cook at home. Whether it’s Shakey’s or CiCi’s or Round Table Pizza, I haven’t really met a pizza buffet I’ve disliked.
Now, though, they’re basically all in purgatory. An altar for post-soccer meals, kids’ birthdays, stoner feasts and discomforting eating challenges is dead. Long live the pizza buffet.
Nothing captures my own longing quite like the collective mourning of the all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut on Twitter. Even before COVID, it was an increasingly endangered species, with countless suburban dine-in Pizza Huts getting downsized into carryout/delivery hubs in the last decade. The pandemic has clarified exactly what we miss, and why: The simple joy of being a kid excited over a cheap meal, sure, but also the insane architecture, the vintage-looking lamps, those iconic plastic red tumblers for drinks and the endless pizza.
I know this particular buffet best — Pizza Hut was my favorite pizza spot in Texas, then Hawaii. My parents knew it could soothe my wounds about moving around the country so much. Meanwhile, I knew that no matter where I was, a Pizza Hut buffet would have a few of my favorite things: Molten-hot pies floating out of the kitchen in those cool black pans, lots of Sprite refills, a salad bar with ranch dressing (we never had it in the house) and arcade games. It was the perfect Friday night meal, capped off by a stop at a nearby Blockbuster Video.
I wish I had a chance to relive some of that memory, even if it’s been literal years since I ordered Pizza Hut. Nostalgia is a funny thing — would the greasy pan pizza even live up to my expectations and palate? Did I even actually eat under those iconic lamps, or is that just the Mandela effect on a yearning, impressionable millennial mind?
The truth doesn’t really matter, of course. Falling in love with a pizza buffet is about so many more facets than just the food and decor; I somehow miss the sight of that faintly musty, stained old carpet and walking past the warmth blasting out of the kitchen during peak hours. I still grin remembering how the young staff was always game to make a fresh, custom pie for the buffet at my dad’s request (we returned the favor with big tips). The feeling of generosity is what makes the pizza buffet a beacon for the everyman and the working family, popular around the world now exactly because of how approachable it is.
And I love this anecdote from a redditor who got by on a pizza buffet during hard times: “In college, I’d go to the Pizza Hut all you can eat buffet and wear a winter jacket that had holes in the pockets. I’d stuff pizza and breadsticks into the lining of my jacket and have food for the next few meals.”
I don’t know that my parents share the same nostalgia. We’ve eaten a lot of incredible pizza since those early days, when I was little and they were broke after moving to Hawaii to start a sushi restaurant. Yeah, the whispers about the salad bar being gross probably have some merit; teen workers aren’t always judicious about checking how old the cucumbers are. (We all got salad anyway, and turned out fine.) But amazingly, my dad does remember taking me to that dine-in Pizza Hut all those years ago.
“It’s just Pizza Hut, you know,” he chuckles on the phone now. “But it felt good. Like, simple. I guess the word is ‘content.’ The three of us were always content there. I miss that as much as you.”
I have no earthly idea how buffets can transition and be safe as COVID comes surging back across the country. I’m not convinced removing tongs and changing up packaging can address the threat of an elusive, frightening virus. I hope I’m wrong about the death of the pizza buffet, and my incredulity at anyone who would choose to dine at one today. But no matter your stance on social distancing, we’re very clearly facing a new dawn for buffets and restaurants as a whole. Losing my shot to stand in the buffet line at Shakey’s in 2020 reminded me that nothing really captures the innocence and satisfaction of those trips to Pizza Hut in the 1990s.
As a voracious eater, I’ll miss every kind of buffet — conveyor-belt sushi, Brazilian churrasco served tableside, even the hot bar at Sizzler (!!). But these days, I can’t shake my craving for the banal, suburban pleasure of walking into a franchise pizza restaurant, grabbing a plate and loading it up with two slices, a few breadsticks and a pile of iceberg lettuce with ranch.