Unless you’re a chain restaurant with a big marketing budget, odds are you’re not going to be doing too much in the way of television advertising these days. Commercials for non-chain restaurants, for one reason or another, always come across as dated and a bit tacky, because — honestly — how many ways can you say, "Come eat at my restaurant, it looks nice and the steak is good!"? From red sauce joints all the way up to high-end steakhouses, modern restaurant commercials tend to be a staid, low-res affair, with upbeat jazz, a voice-over, maybe some smiling patrons, close-ups of the food, and a snappy motto.
But once upon a time — in the 1980s, to be exact — restaurant commercials were an art form. Back in those halcyon, pre-Internet days, when airtime was cheap and people actually tuned into public access channels, the airwaves were flooded with restaurants strutting their stuff, trying to attract as many customers as possible in any way possible. And in the flashy 1980s, nothing succeeded quite like a big, flashy commercial (or a big, flashy anything, for that matter).
While independent restaurants are certainly guilty of going a bit over the top (for example, a commercial for Brooklyn’s Roll-N-Roaster is so outrageous that it’s entered into the New York pop culture lexicon and is still airing more than 30 years later), chains weren’t exempt from getting in on the ridiculousness either. There’s one from Bob’s Big Boy that hits all the essential notes of the '80s: close-ups of questionably appealing-looking food, children smiling perhaps a bit too broadly, and a vaguely creepy mascot. But one from A&W takes things in a slightly more unintentionally menacing direction, with a giant bear conducting an invisible band, someone tearing a whole head of lettuce in half, and nonexistent adjectives like "LOTSY," "NUMMY," and "TREATY" flashing across the screen, all against a black background. The bear makes a brief reappearance at the end of the commercial, playing a tuba.
It's safe to say a lot of weird and awkward things happened during the 1980s, these commercials included.
"I’m Beefsteak Charlie and you’re going to get spoiled with free shrimp," the mustachioed spokesman for this now-defunct (sensing a trend here?) New York chain tells the audience in a moderately condescending tone. Crazy-eyed cooks and servers then sing at the camera while awkwardly dangling a steak and carrying a comically large bowl of shrimp. Charlie then gets a little too close for comfort to a kid eating some free shrimp. How low in quality does shrimp have to be for a restaurant to give it away for free?
"We’re bringing down the high price of bringing up your kid," this commercial claimed as it advertised an awkwardly composed $0.25 "Samburger Jr." that appears way too tall for a kid to eat. Although we will admit that the kid saying "Dad, haven’t you heard of inflation?" after being given a quarter is pretty funny.
While the chain had no connection to the book The Story of Little Black Sambo, many people drew an obvious connotation and the company was met with a handful of protests and lawsuits. Even though there were more than 1,000 outposts in 47 states in 1981, only one remains today, in Santa Barbara, Calif.
3Hot n’ Now
This Michigan-based chain of drive-thrus reportedly had 150 locations at its peak, but now it’s just down to two remaining outposts. It was moderately popular in the 1980s, and they advertised their $0.39 burgers and fries via this awkwardly edited ad, which featured a frazzled dad trying to place an order with a bunch of kids in the car. He appears to say "We want it hot," but his mouth doesn’t actually move. And once again, the food itself doesn’t look very appealing.
4Bob’s Big Boy
A catchy, if a bit too specific, jingle (that may or may not be sung by Debby Boone) follows a group of kids and their teenage chaperone into a Big Boy, where they check out the new kids' menu. In an odd bit of editing, the little girl is given a milkshake twice, but the first time it’s just an empty glass. "Bob loves kids and kids love Bob, just ask anyone!" the jingle concludes. We’ll take their word for it.
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