Ah, our memories from childhood! Oh, you youngsters don’t remember the days before microwave ovens, or before Domino’s Pizza and Pizza Hut had expanded out and dominated the entire country.
In those old days, there were one or two Pizza Huts in town – the old kind, with no delivery and a table-top video game in every store. We rarely went there when we were home, they were the poorest of the bunch, but we frequented them when we’d travel across the western United States. There was always one in most any town of any size. Just one, mind you. They hadn’t yet expanded to gargantuan proportions.
There was Pizza Inn, which I don’t remember well, but their motto was, “For pizza out, there’s Pizza Inn.”
There was Village Inn Pizza, with their distinctive A-Frame buildings. Completely incongruous in the Arizona desert, but several of the buildings still survive and are immediately recognizable to those of us who remember them.
Finally, there was Shakey’s Pizza Parlour. Of all the places, Shakey’s was my favorite, with their dark restaurants, long dark communal wooden tables, stained glass windows and those ridiculous red-striped shirts and straw hats that the employees had to wear. It was not the best pizza to be had, but it was consistent, good and, at lunch time, there was a great all-you-could-eat buffet with pizza, fried chicken and spaghetti. The only downside was that, back in those days, no one had ever heard of “free refills” on drinks, so you had to purchase a pitcher of soda to last through the meal – which could, if you were a growing boy like me, last 2 hours.
I don’t know when the last Shakey’s Pizza closed in Tucson, but I think it was about 1982. I used to go there for lunch during high school, but they were gone after I returned home from college for the summer. I’ve not had a Shakey’s pizza for at least 27 years.
I had thought them dead and gone until 2001 when I was planning a trip to Japan. I was looking through a Lonely Planet guidebook and, there, to my utter astonishment, on one of their maps of Tokyo was Shakey’s Pizza. I checked more maps and found more. I used the Internet and learned that Shakey’s wasn’t gone, just withdrawn back to their original areas back east and, strangely, some overseas markets.
I thought, “how excellent! When I’m in Tokyo, I can find one and try it!”
I made a slight tactical error. Just before leaving, a new edition of Lonely Planet Japan was released. Wanting the most up-to-date information possible, I bought it and packed the new edition without ever looking in it, leaving my old edition behind. The authors had chosen to remove Shakey’s Pizza from the maps, and, in the grindingly convoluted streets of Tokyo, and only going by what I could remember, I was never able to find Shakey’s.
Fast forward to 2009. I knew that as I passed through Yuma, the last Round Table Pizza in Arizona awaited me. (Round Table came in just a few years before Shakey’s disappeared.) I also knew that, at one time, there was still even a Village Inn Pizza in Yuma. That got me thinking perhaps Shakey’s still existed in Yuma or California, and with iPhone 3GS in hand, I was quickly rewarded with the information I sought: The do exist in California. (The bastards! Still, I can’t blame them, Phoenix is the city where restaurants come to die and Tucson isn’t much better.) Further, one is not far from LegoLand.
We arrived to grumblings from the kids, “Why are we having pizza again?”
I’d be lying if I said they were impressed with my explanation of the importance of childhood memories, but fortunately, I don’t need their agreement to set the agenda.
Inside Shakey’s was nothing like I remember. Long dark tables had been replaced with booths and ordinary single family tables. The lighting was good, and there were big screen TVs broadcasting sports all around the place. The employees now wore black with baseball caps rather than the old-time straw hat regalia.
Not everything was dissimilar, you still ordered at the counter, but even that had been updated. They had the most overly complicated table number system I’ve ever seen. Patrons were handed a number, much as you might just put on your table so the server knows where to bring the food, but this number has a complex series of punched holes in it, much like a hollerith card (there’s a term I never thought I’d get to use again in conversation!) At each table was an electronic beer signaling device – that’s the best way I can describe it.
The number was slid into the main orifice on the beer signaler, which caused the beer service light to momentarily light up – clearly priming the device and transmitting a coded signal back to the front desk telling them where each patron in.,
The card doesn’t remain in the main orifice, but has to be pulled out and then placed in one of the side orifices. Beer can later be requested by pressing the button on the device.
Beer is the obvious example, since that is what they use to describe the operation with. Presumably anything could be requested in this way, but since Shakey’s is an order-and-pay-first restaurant, one wonders what the practicality of this system is. It’s not as if I decided to order a second pizza I’d hesitate to get up and order at the front counter.
But what about the pizza?
Ah, I’m glad you asked.
It’s funny how first products can influence our tastes for our entire lives, isn’t it? Certainly, Shakey’s isn’t a pizza that will be in the running for best in the world, but I was very fond of it as a kid.
We know from years of research that, if there are different styles of something, people tend to like their first. For me, my grandmothers fried chicken will always be the benchmark that other fried chicken is compared to. For others it might be Kentucky Fried Chicken. It often depends on what you had first.
I had completely forgotten what Shakey’s Pizza tasted like, and I barely expected it to taste the same after all these years. Who knows how many iterations of “new and improved” it has gone through?
None, I think.
My first bite was an amazing experience. The flavors of my childhood flooded back with such strength I was taken aback. I think, had this been a blind taste test, I could have told you it was Shakey’s. I didn’t remember it until I tasted it and then it tasted exactly as I remembered it. (I’ll concede that there’s plenty of room for error in that equation.)
It’s an oddly bitter cheese, with a slightly too sweet sauce. It had a bubbly, almost-but-not-quite flakey crust. It was a joy. I couldn’t dream of reviewing it because my memories would betray me.