Tuesday, July 15, 2008

May We Take Your Order?

Harry Duncan, the founder of Little Tavern Hamburgers, posing with a model of his restaurant.

I had a job once where I catered for rock bands on tour. I crisscrossed the United States and Canada several times over, living on a bus for months at a time. I saw plenty of the American landscape, though most of it edged major U.S. highways. The architecture of the off-ramp is a depressing thing. Asphalt flanked with all those iconic symbols of expediency: The Golden Arches, the pitched red roof of Pizza Hut, the 70's-esque glass terrarium of Wendy's capped by that pig-tailed redhead (I liked it better when she didn't talk).

Trapped in a brand of their own making, some fast food chains have tried to update their structural and graphic identity, like the minor makeover to McDonald's a few years back by Gensler's Studio 585. There is often resistance to such change by industry insiders. It's cost prohibitive to update or replace so many structures. And, some would argue, the building itself elicits a kind of Pavlovian response. You see the Arches, you crave a Big Mac. I get it. In Baltimore there was a chain known as Little Tavern and they were famous for these tiny hamburgers that you could buy by the bag. On special occasions my parents would bring them home— always loaded with onions and yellow mustard— and the smell permeated the kitchen. Those little burgers were intoxicating. The chain is now closed. Many of the buildings have been demolished, but some still stand. Every time I pass one, without fail, my mouth waters.

So what happens to such recognizable forms when the original tenant leaves? Sometimes another business is shoe-horned into the space. I've seen a former 7-11 turned into a 6-12, open 24 hours, just to add to the confusion. I've seen a medical center in a former Dairy Queen (I sure hope they sterilized the softserve machines).

On rare occasion they are reinvented, as in the case of San Francisco's Spork restaurant. The owners took over a former KFC in the Mission District, co-opted the name of the famous plasticware, and reinvented the dining experience. It opened last year to a flurry of press, partly for its ingenious reworking of the architecture, partly for its social commentary on fast food. As they explain on their Web site: "Why not see if a multinational chain that served low quality, mass-produced food could be reborn into something small, local, and fresh while keeping its connection to American cuisine and history?"

Yeah, why not?

Spork's logo (above) and a shot of the interior (below) from their Web site.