12 iconic restaurant chains that no longer exist in America

From America's first food-service automat to a burger joint named after a comic book character, some of America's most iconic chain restaurants are now defunct.

caption
From America’s first food-service automat to a burger joint named after a comic book character, some of America’s most iconic chain restaurants are now defunct.
source
Andreas Feininger / Getty Images

  • No restaurant chain can live forever, no matter how popular or unique it is.
  • From America’s first food-service automat to a castle-themed buffet to country comedian chicken joints, many classic restaurant chains have come and gone.
  • Here are 12 iconic restaurant chains that no longer exist in the US.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Corporations, like people, are not immortal.

This is especially true of chain restaurants, many of which have closed as times and tastes have changed.

A hamburger chain can reach over 1,200 locations, then be sold 10 years later to a hungry competitor who wants to scrap it for parts.

There was Horn & Hardart, America’s first automated restaurants, which accompanied the country through the Gilded Era, the Great Depression, two world wars, the moon landing, and the first season of “Twin Peaks.”

Soon after H&H’s last automat shut its doors forever, Kenny Rogers founded a chicken chain that Kramer became obsessed with in an episode of “Seinfeld.”

Read more: 14 retro electronics stores that no longer exist

There was a steakhouse with animatronic mascots, an Oklahoman Mexican-style eatertainment chain with grottos and roaming mariachi bands, and a vaguely medieval-themed SoCal cult-favorite buffet.

The success of these chains at their peak ranged from mild to wild, but they were all at some point a part of America’s cultural consciousness.

Here are some of the most iconic American restaurant chains that have fallen from grace.


BURGER CHEF — Once the second largest chain in America, Burger Chef pioneered the fast-food meal combo: burger, fries, and a drink. In 1982, Burger Chef was absorbed into Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.

source
John Margolies / Library of Congress

Source: WTHR, TIME


HOWARD JOHNSON’S — Hospitality mogul Howard Johnson’s small-town soda fountain became a nationwide restaurant chain, and then he founded an iconic motel chain. Though at its peak in the 1970s Howard Johnson’s had over 1,000 restaurants, there is now only one left, in Lake George, New York.

source
Charles Phelps Cushing / ClassickStock / Getty Images

Source: The Economist, Kiplinger, ABC News 10


CHI-CHI’S — Founded in Minneapolis in 1975 by Marno McDermit and former football star Max McGee, Chi-Chi’s was synonymous with Tex-Mex cuisine, fried ice cream, and chimichangas for nearly three decades. Then in 2003, four people died and over 600 became ill after eating some bad green onions. Chi-Chi’s filed for bankruptcy soon after and closed its last US location in 2004.

source
Nostaljack / Wikimedia Commons

Oddly enough, you can still find Chi-Chi’s restaurants in Belgium, Luxembourg, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.

Source: The Journal Times, Kiplinger


DOGGIE DINER — A staple in the Bay Area, the Doggie Diner, founded in 1948, was more local than most of the chains on this list, but no less iconic due to its giant cartoon doggie heads. The chain closed in 1986, but Napa resident Kip Atchley recently acquired the rights to the trademark and plans to bring the chain back.

source
Tony A / Yelp

Source: Atlas Obscura, San Francisco Chronicle


HORN & HARDART — Over a century before fully automated restaurant Eatsa came and went, there was Horn & Hardart. Starting in 1902, coin-operated vending machines spat out hot, fresh, and affordable cafeteria food. The last automat closed in New York in 1991, but the brand was revived in 2017.

source
Eugene Gordon / The New York Historical Society / Getty images

Source: Horn & Hardart, Daily Coffee News


WIMPY — This burger chain inspired by “Popeye” character J. Wellington Wimpy had a brief and feeble existence in the US, reaching 26 US locations before dying with its founder in 1977. But even though Wimpy never truly found its place in America, it traveled around the globe, opening in India, Israel, and Europe. Now, it’s headquartered in South Africa, where there are more than 500 locations.

source
Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Source: VICE, PBS WWTW


MINNIE PEARL’S CHICKEN — Two Nashville attorneys seeking to ride KFC’s success convinced Nashville musical comedian Minnie Pearl to lend her name to a chicken franchise. But, Minnie Pearl’s Chicken would go down in the 1970s in one of the biggest flops in franchising history.

source
Daily Mirror / Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Source: Franchise Times


RED BARN — A small-town burger chain founded in Ohio in 1961, Red Barn at its peak had hundreds of restaurants across the US, Canada, and Australia. A former Red Barn location in Racine, Wisconsin, still operates with a similar theme and menu under the name “The Farm.”

source
Red Barn / Yelp

Source: The Journal Times, The Democrat and Chronicle


WHITE TOWER HAMBURGER — This Milwaukee burger chain born in 1926 imitated White Castle’s fortress-like architecture and signature tiny burgers until the latter sued the former on claims of copyright infringement. Tower changed the look of its restaurants to space-age art deco, but after peaking in the 1950s, the chain suffered a gradual decline. One location remains open in Toledo, Ohio.

source
John Margolies / Library of Congress

Source: Gothamist, Queens Chronicle


CASA BONITA — Casa Bonita was a mid-20th-century Midwesterner’s idea of an authentic Mexican restaurant. It featured a pirate cave, artificial waterfalls, and roaming mariachi bands, if not authentic Mexican food. One location, a local landmark, remains operational in Lakewood, Colorado.

source
Hyoung / Chang The Denver Post / Getty Images

Source: The Oklahoman, Tulsa World, The Denver Post


BUGABOO CREEK — This Canadian-themed steakhouse chain filed for bankruptcy in 2010, and most locations closed soon after. There are several possible reasons why Bugaboo Creek’s eventual extinction was less than surprising, perhaps including its creepy talking animatronic animals and the not-so-appetizing name of “Bugaboo.”

source
Bugaboo Creek / Yelp

Source: The Patriot Ledger, Nation’s Restaurant News


KENNY ROGERS ROASTERS — Founded in 1991 by country singer and songwriter Kenny Rogers, this chain had a few good years before going bankrupt in 1998. But even though Kenny Rogers Roasters no longer exists in the US, it’s wildly popular in Malaysia, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

source
Mohd Kamarul Hafiz / Shutterstock

Source: TIME