Pittsburghers Love to Wax Nostalgic About Bygone Chain Restaurants
Fortunately, there are some you can still visit with a bit of a drive.
There’s a popular episode of the “Pittsburgh Dad” webseries in which the titular father loads up the family for a road trip. After hours of driving, he arrives at their destination: the nearest remaining Rax Roast Beef location. “All I ask is for one little thing — for yinz to drive six hours round trip to go to Rax,” he says. “Do yinz know how rare this is? Finding a Rax is like finding Narnia.”
“Pittsburghers love nothing more than something that’s gone,” says Chris Preksta, the director and co-creator of “Pittsburgh Dad.” Perhaps there’s a particular pain created by “something that’s taken away from you when you’re young” that lingers, he says.
For many Pittsburghers, there’s a heartfelt affinity for chain restaurants that were once local staples but have since receded from the landscape. Fast-food and casual-dining joints ubiquitous in the ’80s and ’90s, when now-middle-aged Pittsburghers were in high school, seem to occupy a cherished place in our memory, even after years or decades of separation.
Preksta and star Curt Wootton are no exceptions to that rule — in fact, he says, the journey to Rax wasn’t even originally planned as a “Pittsburgh Dad” episode. “We just wanted to go eat Rax.”
Undoubtedly, there is more import in the closure of a true Pittsburgh icon; losing the likes of Poli, Gullifty’s or the Tin Angel is, in some sense, more of a story than the gradual decline of Rax. Yet casual restaurants are where Pittsburghers spend a lot of time; these aren’t special-occasion places, these are where we go week in and week out.
Plus, Preksta points out, there was something local — or at least regional — about the chains, too.
“It used to be that you would go on road trips, you would see a restaurant [chain] that you didn’t know or some type of store that you didn’t know. Now, if you fly or drive anywhere in the country, you’re getting Target, Applebee’s, Red Lobster. Whereas Rax and Hills … because it [wasn’t] national, it felt like ours.”
Many such chains are gone for good. News broke in June that the last remaining Howard Johnson’s Restaurant had closed; no North American locations remain for the Chi-Chi’s chain, which saturated the Pittsburgh market through the ’90s. In the case of a few former stalwarts, however, the food is still available — albeit sometimes with a bit of a drive.
Should you plan a whole trip around a fast-food sandwich, the way that Pittsburgh Dad did? That’s up to you. But if you happen to be traveling in the vicinity of these bygone staples, you should add a slice of nostalgia (and, in most cases, a very filling meal) to your journey.
Rax Roast Beef
Nearest Location: Lancaster, Ohio (approx. 3 hours)
Undoubtedly, the franchise southeast of Columbus is the Rax you’ll remember.
The decor and layout of the restaurant may as well have been preserved in amber since the late 1980s. The counter, almost like a cafeteria, is still separated by an interior wall from the main dining room; the solarium-style front of the building, an innovation Wendy’s copied from Rax, still lets in the sun (although on my two visits, it was cordoned off). If the familiar tabletops have ever been replaced, they show no sign of it.
While this location has endured, however, nearly all of its sister establishments have disappeared.
The Rax chain once boasted more than 500 locations across the country — and even internationally, with a late-’80s expansion to Guatemala. Today, there are fewer than 10; the Rax website lists eight, but only five appear to still be operational (a pair near Columbus, a flagship in southern Ohio and lone outposts in Kentucky and Indiana). Run-of-the-mill poor business decisions led to a series of bankruptcies and sales throughout the ’90s, and most locations either morphed into Hardee’s or Tim Horton’s franchises or closed outright.
In Lancaster, Ohio, however, the food still satisfies. Most of the menu is similar to that at rival Arby’s, though Rax’s roast beef tastes a bit more fresh and light than that at the more successful chain. (The curly fries are indistinguishable.) While some of the more experimental aspects of the menu’s heyday are no more — sorry, no salad bar here — you can get baked potatoes with a variety of toppings and a few soups. If you’ve got a family in tow, you can order off of Uncle Alligator’s Kids Menu, with surprisingly low prices. Nothing at Rax is too expensive, in fact; fast food is cheap everywhere, but particularly affordable here.
Travelers should know that the atmosphere in the Lancaster location can be a bit gloomy; on our visits, the restaurant was mostly deserted and the fixtures clearly showed their age. For some reason, there was no music to be heard, either — further amplifying the lost-in-time status of the restaurant.
While a descent from 500 locations to five doesn’t bode well for the future of this tasty, familiar chain, perhaps a local entrepreneur could launch a comeback bid. A link on the chain’s website does offer the possibility of opening a new Rax franchise; could some nostalgic Pittsburgh Dad bring Rax back to the ’Burgh?
If you’ve got some cash to spare, Pittsburgh demands Rax — with solariums. (And bring back the salad bar.)
Nearest Location: BUTLER (approx. 1 hour)
There’s an old expression I like — “tougher than a $2 steak.”
At Ponderosa, I bought a steak for $2. (Technically less; it came with a baked potato.) Fortunately, the idiom was inaccurate; the steak was pretty good.
OK — technically, you cannot spend two bucks and get a steak and potato a la carte. That was the price to add a steak to the purchase of Ponderosa’s dinner buffet, the spotlight feature of the ailing chain; the steak may be in the name, but families visiting bygone Ponderosas were going for the buffet.
In 2022, that buffet is still a smorgasbord of casino-like variety: pizza, soup and salad, fried chicken, sides, pierogies, full tacos and who knows what else awaits the voracious appetite at Ponderosa. At this point, the steak becomes a side.
It’ll also be the best part of the meal. A steak at Ponderosa, while nothing you would mistake for a cut from a fancy joint, is satisfying and tasty. So too are the wide variety of desserts. Much of the buffet fare was less remarkable, but let’s be honest: This is definitely a quantity-over-quality situation.
While most of us in the Pittsburgh region are no more than an hour away from an operating Ponderosa — the Butler location is seated in the shadow of the Clearview Mall — there used to be many more local outposts of the budget-steakhouse chain, including the well-remembered spot just outside of Kennywood and a longstanding restaurant on McKnight Road.
At the time I visited, it was tough to determine how many franchises remained … because the company website had vanished. While that doesn’t exactly speak to a healthy organization, it has since returned to life. In any case, Google Maps shows a trio of operating Ponderosas in Ohio and four more in Michigan; there’s also a pair in Indiana and one apiece in Wisconsin and Kentucky. The Butler restaurant seems to be the only remaining in Pennsylvania — though the chain’s sister restaurant, Bonanza Steakhouse, has two locations in the middle of the state.
Both Ponderosa and Bonanza are named for the western television show “Bonanza,” though they were once rivals; Bonanza was founded by one of the show’s stars, Dan Blocker (better known as Hoss). Ponderosa was a competing steakhouse with similar offerings; as chains were sold, liquidated and combined in the ’80s, Ponderosa’s parent company bought the Bonanza brand, but the two chains kept separate names.
If the recently errant website is any indication, the sun may be setting for Ponderosa. While it’s not the best meal I’ve ever had (with Cracker Barrel in the world, the need for Ponderosa drops to nil), I appreciate its no-frills attitude, absurd buffet and country charm.
And it’s probably the only place I can get a $2 steak.
Nearest Location: Perrysburg, Ohio (approx. 3½ hours)
Those making the long journey to the nearest Ground Round restaurant won’t find quite the same place they remember from the chain’s heyday.
The location in Perrysburg, Ohio — just south of Toledo — sits in the Holiday Inn & Suites Toledo Southwest. It’s a very modular, generic restaurant and bar, more hotel lobby than family restaurant. There are no peanut shells on the floor, no silent cartoons on boxy televisions, no scale to weigh youngsters as part of the famous pay-what-you-weigh promotion.
The food, though, still does its job — and fills you up.
Once a suburban staple, the chain has endured a slow decline, including a 2004 bankruptcy proceeding and further setbacks due to pandemic closures. Nine remaining restaurants are listed on the chain’s website, down from 15 before the pandemic; once a staple in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, no restaurants remain in this part of the country. In fact, there are more remaining Ground Rounds in sparsely populated North Dakota — three — than there are east of Lake Erie (two, both in Maine).
In Perrysburg, the Ground Round brand is present, but it could swiftly be rebranded as an Applebee’s or a TGI Friday’s overnight. If the history of the franchise is any indication, that’s a very real possibility; for now, though, it remains a place to get a great deal of rich food without paying much. On my visit, I opted for the clubhouse sandwich, a gargantuan and flavorful variation on the club, served with a heaping portion of mashed potatoes in the middle. The most memorable part of the meal, however, was the appetizer — a mountain of fried cheese curds served with ranch.
Is it indulgent? Yes. Will you devour it? Absolutely.
The tab for these satisfying calorie bombs barely topped $20, and the restaurant does offer a number of family-friendly specials. In the ’80s and ’90s, the pay-what-you-weigh promotion offered families the chance to measure their children’s mass on a giant scale, then pay a penny per pound; fondly remembered though it may be, it’s probably for the best that this promotion has been replaced with a simple offer for free kids’ meals on Sundays.
The restaurant also offers a variety of margaritas — free on Mondays if you buy fajitas! — and signature cocktails, along with a decent beer list. In a surprising update, a gluten-sensitive menu is offered.
Other restaurants on this list will more accurately feel like their bygone Pittsburgh locations, to be sure; no matter how many cheese curds you dunk in ranch, you won’t forget you’re in a hotel lobby. Endangered though the chain may be, however, the Ground Round still offers the core of its appeal: A lot of affordable food at a casual family restaurant.
MAX & ERMA’S
Nearest Location: Monroeville & Mars (approx. ½ hour)
Don’t let the missing burger statue Downtown fool you: Max & Erma’s is doing just fine.
There may not be as many locations of the burger-focused chain as there once were; the 2012 departure of the Downtown Max & Erma’s, recognized by the gargantuan sandwich mounted above the entrance on Stanwix Street, may have convinced some locals that the chain is no more. Unlike every other chain I visited, however, there are two Max & Erma’s locations left in the area — one in Monroeville and one in Mars.
There are more, too, including a location in Erie, a handful in Ohio and even airport Max & Erma’s in Cincinnati, Dayton and Detroit. In fact, my early-August visit was marked by celebration: It was the 50th anniversary of the chain’s founding, in the summer of 1972 (even if the original location in Columbus is no more).
I visited the Monroeville location, where there’s only the barest indication that the year is 2022. Hanging lamps illuminate tables; cozy booths line the walls. There’s a lot of wood trim. Endless Pittsburgh kitsch on the walls is much more 20th century in character: A massive mural of a steelworker asking how you’d like your burger, faux buttons bearing old Bob Prince catchphrases.
While I haven’t been to a Max & Erma’s in quite a while — I remember getting takeout from a bygone location about six years ago but probably hadn’t visited for a decade before that — I knew that the burgers are the thing. So I ordered the appropriately titled Bodacious Bacon Burger, a riot of a sandwich featuring both smoked bacon marmalade and strips of bacon along with lettuce and a roasted garlic-cheese spread.
It was messy, massive and delicious. Like all of Max & Erma’s burgers, it came with unlimited seasoned fries; you won’t need an additional helping, as the serving given is plenty filling.
Eventually, my server came around and asked if I wanted more. I didn’t. I said yes anyway.
What — like I’m going to turn down free fries?
While I’d welcome a local resurgence from any of the restaurants on this list, I’m glad that Max & Erma’s is the chain still a short drive away for most Pittsburghers. Aside from its yinzer bona fides — I don’t mind telling you that I saw a few Pittsburgh Magazine covers on the walls — it’s a friendly, inviting, familiar place. Its charm is retro, but its appeal is timeless: Good food, kind service and hometown spirit.
OK, one bit of bad news: The bathtub sundae bar is a thing of the past. But they’ll gladly whip you up a mean bowl of ice cream and toppings on request. That’s that great service I was talking about.
Nearest Location: Cumberland, Maryland (approx. 2 hours)
Technically, you can find a Roy Rogers closer to home. As anyone who frequently leaves town headed east knows, the cowboy-themed fast food restaurant maintains several locations inside Pennsylvania Turnpike rest stops.
I was searching for a proper Roy Rogers, though — a freestanding joint with posters of the mid-century western movie star on the walls. For that, you’ll have to cross the Mason-Dixon line and wind up in downtown Cumberland, Maryland, not far from the cabin where George Washington strategized during the French & Indian War.
This spot is no throwback, however; this is a recently updated, downright commodious Roy Rogers. I’m not going to tell you that any fast-food restaurant is worth a two-plus hour drive on its own — but I will say that you should reroute trips near Cumberland to include a Roy Rogers stop.
The chain was the victim of an ill-fated sale to the Hardee’s parent company in 1990; many Roy Rogers locations were converted to Hardee’s, but loyal Roy customers rejected the change.
Franchise numbers dwindled from there, though there are many more Roy Rogers around than any other entry on this list — about 40 across six states.
There’s a surprising variety of (very fresh) food at this Roy Rogers, which positions burgers, fried chicken and roast-beef sandwiches as equal fixtures on the menu; it’s like the core products from Arby’s, KFC and Wendy’s are all hanging out with the sides from Popeye’s (you can replace your fries with mashed potatoes, baked beans, coleslaw and more).
Here, all of that food is fresh; you’ll watch each item prepared, and it’ll come out tasting like it was just made. The staff pays attention to detail, frequently cleaning and replacing the array of sauces (the staples, plus a Boom Boom sauce and “Roy’s BBQ”) and switching out the toppings on the Fixin’s Bar, where you’ll top your sandwich with the expected lettuce, tomato, onions and more — fresh jalapeños and Old Bay seasoning await.
You can even add a second course; there’s a lengthy “treat” menu of desserts. Pair a sweet with the mild Trailblazer Coffee. You’ll love it — and this is a good hang-out joint, with TVs in the corners and a generally pleasant atmosphere for a fast-food place.
It’s something of an oasis, really. Tucked against a switching yard, you’ll see Wendy’s and Taco Bell locations in sight of the front door — but why would you choose those? They’re everywhere. Roy Rogers is a special treat, and one you should take advantage of.
There’s even patio seating. And it’s lovely.