Sonic, Chick-fil-A, and the Chain Cultists
Sonic is in talks to open a Chicago location in Uptown. Samantha Abernethy writes in Chicagoist:
Sonic attracts a cult-like following similar to that of Chick-fil-A, so if this goes through, expect folks to be lining up outside on opening day.
When the downtown Chick-fil-A opened to tremendous attention, I got a bit annoyed. Coming from Chainrestaurantville, one reason I looked forward to living in a city was having options beyond Chick-fil-A, as good—by which I mean better than McDonald's—as their chicken sandwiches are. The celebration seemed like reverse provincialism.
But then memories of Sonic, not good ones but memories nonetheless, came back, and I softened my snobbery*, as I charted my life by chain restaurants. We come here from smaller places, and that's part of the culture we bring with us to the city. You don't get to choose your madeleline.
* Red Lobster (5201 S. Pulaski): My mom worked there as a kid, though my memories of it are limited mostly to the collectable glass we had at home, which was one of my favorites.
* Tastee-Freez (2815 W. Armitage): The only ongoing restaurant concern in Blue Ridge, VA, besides a pizza place that has stayed in the same location for a good two decades while changing its name every couple years. After
Little League Dixie Youth Baseball practice, I'd have a milkshake and read real-estate flyers, because they had pictures, in which I learned the phrase "cream puff." Now under new management, with a tremendously disappointing sign, as "Burgers Shakes & Fries."
* Golden Corral (Bolingbrook): Equidistant from where I grew up and where the rest of my extended family lived, and the site of many family gatherings. I ate lots of "chicken teriyaki," aka chicken breast in brown corn-syrupy sauce because it was that or steak, but the self-serve soft-serve was a treat, as was building condiment towers.
* Libby Hill (nearest location: Danville, VA): Where I learned how much I lived inside my head: one day I asked my mom to order for me because I couldn't read the menu behind the counter. It didn't occur to me I needed glasses. Good hush puppies.
* K&W Cafeteria (nearest location: Bluefield, WV): The only place in Roanoke my grandparents would eat when they came down from Lynchburg. Recently I took my wife to dinner for her birthday, at a restaurant I'd been pining to go to. She looked around and said "there are a lot of old people here, I can see why you've been wanting to come." I learned to like old-people restaurants at K&W, not least because it was quiet.
* Chick-fil-A (State and Lake): There were locations at both Roanoke malls, so it says Christmas to me as high tea at a nice hotel does for other people. That and Sbarro.
* Shoney's (Jasper, IN): Where I found out my parents were getting divorced. People are always talking about what restaurant to note major life events at—restaurants to date at, propose, celebrate anniversaries, and so forth. Shoney's is a good divorce restaurant, a blank slate, and a place to be disappointed.
* Denny's (multiple locations): When I was traveling to and from college, I'd save money by skipping a hotel (it's somewhat difficult to find one in Las Vegas if you're under 21), going to the movie that got out the latest in the MGM Grand (it's even more difficult to find something to do there if you're under 21 and broke), staying at the Denny's until I wore out my welcome, and then walking around the casinos until it was time for the 8 AM bus to school.
* Waffle House (Pendleton, IN): Many late nights with friends. I have a theory about Waffle House: if you live somewhere that doesn't have any bars, or at least ones you wouldn't want to be after midnight, or you live in a place where the lack of public transportation makes late-night drinking an even worse life-choice than usual, Waffle House serves that role. I definitely didn't go there for the food.
* Sonic (Uptown?): I'll always associate Sonic with my one unhelpful experience in therapy. I I'd talk for awhile, and my therapist would say I think what I'm hearing is..., and I'd think right, that's why I told that story, that's why people tell stories. I've always been better with stories than people. But I'd treat myself to the Sonic down the street as a reward for making it through the session, along with a stop at the used book store on the way home, because that really did help.
This is why I could never run a restaurant; put in charge of Next's childhood menu, it would center around fast food, real estate listings, illegible menus, and melancholy.
*Plus they got T.J. Jagodowski and Peter Grosz paid, so there's that, too.
Photograph: KB35 (CC by 2.0)