Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A "Royal" Portion of My Childhood...At Kings

I don't do the Chipotle's of the world. Not that there is anything wrong with those types of establishments, I was just raised differently. My parents liked to eat out. They didn't go to movies, bowl, or have card games. Going out to restaurants was their enjoyment, and when I came along it was something that they shared with me. They weren't big on fast food, but rather being served in a clean and pleasant atmosphere. Family restaurants were big then, and while Pittsburgh had its share of local, regional, and national chains, our standby was always Kings.

Kings has been back in the Pittsburgh news as of late, as founder Hartley King has finally found a buyer for the chain following a long search. A California firm is slated to take over the thirty-odd restaurants in the near future. The "Frownie Brownie" (a dessert designed to oppose rival chain Eat 'n Park's "Smiley Cookie") is said to be the first casualty following the takeover, with some menu changes and in-store remodeling to follow. Fortunately, my memories of Kings are from before the "Frownie" era of the restaurant chain.

When I was a toddler, my mother would walk us down to our local Kings Family Restaurant on nice afternoons. It wasn't very far from our townhouse, and at the time we were a one-car family. The staff all got to know me, and for the better part of fifteen years, I grew up in that building. As I aged, the waitresses would always comment that they recalled when I was being carried into the place. I was a well-behaved kid, though I do remember throwing a fit the evening that, shortly after recovering from some sort of childhood ailment, my mom would not let me order what I was craving. I also remember the night that the restaurant received a shipment of moldy hamburger buns. Screams and panic ensued as the management went to check on each table. The buns were slowly discovered and, aside from my own mother ingesting a portion of one, it became almost like a sitcom plot. I think that our meal was free that night. And for you wrestling fans, it was an early 1993 evening in that restaurant when my dad informed me that both Kerry Von Erich and Dino Bravo had recently passed away.

If anything, most Pittsburgers probably remember the old menus. Instead of a folding paper/plastic menu, all of your options were on the placemat in front of you. Kids received a separate placemat featuring all of the kiddie choices. Admittedly, I got to know the grown-up meals a lot earlier than most kids. I was a growing boy!

But if the food wasn't good, I wouldn't have many memories to begin with. Fried clams, a breakfast sandwich known as the "Eggel Bagel," chicken burgers, and of course their legendary soups were some of my favorites. Even my grandmother, a recluse by the time that I was born, once commented to me how good the soups were at Kings. How did she know?

By the mid-'90s, we had noticed that the quality of the chain had dipped. We weren't the only ones. Our favorite staff members started to depart, and my family began going to a local family-owned restaurant over the formerly dependable chain. Although my parents continued to go for breakfast, I could probably count on one hand how many times I went back from roughly 1998-2008.

Once again living very close to that location that I "grew up in," I still stop in for a bite. It's nothing fancy, but that's never what I've looked for in a restaurant. I was raised to appreciate good service and quality. In the past year or so, some menu additions for the chain have struck me as odd. "Artisan" sandwiches have been a main feature, with the famous aforementioned "Eggel Bagel" being wiped off the menu. It's my hope that the new ownership realizes what the clientele, families and senior citizens by-and-large, want what they are familiar with. Solid, traditional, homestyle foods. Comfort food. Not..."just exactly what is this?" food.

My family enjoyed other establishments such as Pappan's and Eat 'n Park, as well as national names like Denny's and Bob Evans, but we always came back to Kings. Apple pie and cinnamon ice cream? A Kings staple and an occasional treat for me, but I'd rather have another bowl of beef vegetable soup...