The earliest memory I have of the incomparable Italian culinary mainstay known as pizza is as inauspiciously typical as one might expect-a frozen Tombstone prepared by my parents when I was barely an elementary school youngster. Like most children of that age, I knew I enjoyed it immediately-as the years passed, the meal began to dominate my week, to the point where a ritualistic pizza run every Friday was essential and a large carryout order usually dominated many a sleepover I attended in those days. It wasn’t long before I joined the masses and numerous frozen varieties quickly became consistent occupants of my freezer as well-chances are, I’m probably eating some as you’re reading this.
It was during this halcyon era that a restaurant known as Shakey’s entered my existence, an establishment that would come to define a large part of my childhood and eventually come to perch firmly at the top of my personal Best Of list. Though it may be difficult to fully articulate my feelings about this place during the course of an online editorial, I’ll do my best.
Your typical Shakey’s features a fairly standard layout-whereas newer locations give off a more modern feel, the older model had the outward appearance of a wooden shack and a comfortable, split-level interior wherein a buffet, salad bar and soft-serve ice cream station all sat ready for the hungry consumer to grace them with their presence. Some variants even included a fireplace for an added level of rustic comfort. Additionally, it wasn’t long into my teenage years for a game room known as the Fun Zone to find its way inside-essentially a miniature Chuck E. Cheese, this welcome addition featured games of chance & skill mixed with several arcade cabinets and a ticket redemption area where any number of spider rings, disappearing ink or Airheads, arguably history’s greatest candy, could be obtained.
The pizza itself was a major selling point-I always favored a thin crust concoction with their signature tangy sauce and pepperoni, something of which I could never get enough during the duration of an average Shakey’s jaunt. It was customary to grab a slice as I was leaving, a feeble attempt at keeping the experience going for as long as possible, though it was never long before my hands were again empty and I began to feel the anticipation one only feels as they look forward to their next taste of that lovely pie.
As time went by, I was fortunate to dine at a number of Shakey’s branches throughout the upper Midwest-a trip out to South Dakota included a pizza buffet meal stop, a yearly vacation to northern Wisconsin always took us by a Shakey’s adjacent to the freeway, and my hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin housed a Shakey’s a few blocks from where I attended middle school. Growing up, I can still remember several Cub Scout Christmas parties having been held there, and you’d better believe the Snickers bar I received as a treat during one such get-together sat in my jacket pocket for months after, really for no reason whatsoever. There was also a location in West Allis that, following the closure of Waukesha sometime in the ‘90s, became my go-to dinner destination whenever my family and I checked out nearby Candy Cane Lane around the holidays, or whenever my girlfriend (now wife) needed our Shakey’s fix. I can also recall a particularly memorable lunch at a long-defunct Fond du Lac branch, one which contained a much larger game room than others, while en route to my grandparents’ house in nearby Ripon. At the time, Shakey’s ran a program wherein students could bring in their report card and be rewarded with game tokens for every A, B or C they achieved-as it just so happened, my own report card sat in our Pontiac Transport just a few steps from the front door, as it had been a rather good quarter at school and Oma & Gramps would no doubt enjoy seeing the academic fruits of my labor. Some might call it a coincidence, I call it an overflowing cup of free tokens and a Michael Jordan glossy I earned after far too many rounds of Skee-Ball.
Unfortunately, time being what it is, Shakey’s began shuttering the doors of many a restaurant throughout the United States as the 1990s crept into the new millennium-in fact, every location I came to know, love and consider a large part of my dining experiences as a whole eventually saw their Open signs dim, with West Allis being the final branch, and effectively final nail in the coffin I considered to be my active involvement with Shakey’s. Even a freestanding Shakey’s at the Wisconsin State Fair was quick to convert to Mojo’s Pizza, which itself didn’t last more than another year or two following the chain’s Midwestern disappearance.
Though Shakey’s remains a thriving chain to this day, there isn’t a single restaurant to be found outside of (primarily) California, several other faraway states or the Philippines. Indeed, the likelihood I would ever set foot inside one, let alone anytime soon, had now become a dream that might never come true.
In 2010, I was working a side job doing sales for a percussion manufacturer based out of California, a job which took me out to the annual NAMM convention in Anaheim for several days of music industry geekdom, the likes of which I’d never seen before or since. As it just so happened, a quick search indicated a Shakey’s existed within walking distance of the convention center where NAMM was being held-why on Earth would I consider passing up an opportunity to visit my beloved restaurant again?
Accompanied by my wife, who had made the journey to California with me, we embarked on the walk to dinner one night following a day of NAMM festivities, which though lengthier than expected, did in fact deposit my wife and I at the steps of the hallowed restaurant, where my disbelief at seeing a Shakey’s again almost immediately transitioned to pure, unbridled joy.
I was back.
Unfortunately, the buffet was closed for the evening, but it didn’t matter-to experience that pizza once more was all I needed. A conversation with the waitress and a short while later, heaven arrived at our table in the form of this.
I couldn’t help but savor every last bite, as if I was again a child, snatching a few pieces for the road.
I haven’t been back to a Shakey’s, as well as California since, and at this time it remains unclear when or if I’ll return. It saddens me to fathom this-to be separated from your favorite food by half a country is a heartbreaking feeling, but the memories I maintain of my history with Shakey’s remain as clear as the day I first set foot inside one. Recipes for imitation Shakey’s pizza do in fact exist online, and while I will presumably attempt to make my own at some point, nothing will compare with the sensation of helping yourself to plate after plate with the promise of ice cream, video games and a satisfied hunger palate immediately after. It was a part of my youth, and a large one at that. Nothing more needs to be said to Shakey’s than a sincere thank you-every time I bite into a pepperoni-laden slice of deliciousness, I’ll forever remember what I was like to be there, and await the day I’ll go back again.