Since it opened fifty years ago this month, the Magic Time Machine has beckoned from its modest spot off Loop 410 in San Antonio, a windowless, dark-green building topped by giant domes. The eatery was initially billed as a “restaurant, bar, and discotheque” featuring costumed waitstaff, themed seating areas, a salad bar ensconced in a vintage Roadster, and something called the Roman Orgy, a roast-beef feast that arrived “with blaring trumpets and a chorus of shouting waiters and waitresses. It’s . . . well . . . a stimulating experience,” Texas Monthly reported in 1974.

As a child in the seventies, I desperately wanted to go, but our visits to family in San Antonio were always so brief it never worked out. Over the years I’d pass it on the highway and think about what might have been. And now, as the restaurant approaches half a century, I decided it was time to realize my dream. I made plans to drive down from Austin on a Sunday night and meet up with my cousin Liz, who had been there many times—she even had her birthday party there when she turned ten. I’m still jealous.

When I arrive, the parking lot is full but riddled with potholes. The wooden exterior looks weathered, and my enthusiasm dims a bit. Is my inner ten-year-old going to be disappointed? Maybe I’ve waited too long.

I meet Liz in the lobby, and our host, an alien in a purple spandex frock, guides us past several of the famous seating areas—Route 66, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, and Beach. We finally arrive at our table: Christmas, decorated with a giant wreath, stockings, and ornaments adorning the red velvet walls. An auburn-wigged, bright orange–kerchiefed server (whose sweater doesn’t fully cover a tattooed arm) greets us with hands on hips and an enthusiastic, “Well, jinkies! I’m Velma! I’m from Scooby Doo, and I’ll be looking at both of you!”

The Roman Orgy is only for parties of four or more, alas, so we each order the prime rib and mashed potatoes. The menu of hearty fare—mozzarella sticks, fried calamari, chicken alfredo, half racks of ribs—seems overpriced for the quality but fair for the portions. Liz tells me these steep prices were one reason it was regarded as a big deal to get invited to a birthday party here.

The salad bar at Magic Time Machine is housed in a vintage Roadster.
The salad bar at Magic Time Machine is housed in a vintage Roadster. Robin Jerstad
Two locations of Magic Time Machine remain, San Antonio (pictured) and Dallas.
Two locations of Magic Time Machine remain, San Antonio (pictured) and Addison. Robin Jerstad

After we’re done ordering, Velma waves for us to get up from our table and follow her. “We’re going on a trip!” We pass the SpongeBob SquarePants hut and the cow hut with its fake Holstein hide–covered booths and roof. “This place is exactly the same,” says Liz. I don’t need her to tell me this. “I think it’s even the same carpet.” I look at the faded floor covering and think she might be right. The Magic Time Machine really is a time machine—one that transports customers back to 1973, when founder Jim Hasslocher opened this location. He later expanded to Addison, Austin, and Dallas, but only the San Antonio and Addison locations remain.

Our “trip” delivers us to the bright-red MG TD Roadster holding a salad bar. I’m a little hesitant to consume food prepared in what I now fear is also the original kitchen, but the lettuce looks crisp, so I fill my plate. While Liz puts her salad together, I backtrack to our table. She gets lost on her return and has to be guided back by Winnie Sanderson from Hocus Pocus.

Velma returns with “spooky smoke”—dry ice dropped in a cup of water—and briefly vanishes behind a cloak of fog. (Holly Collins, who plays Velma, later tells me her fingers have developed callouses after decades of playing the guitar and twelve years of handling dry ice and burning-hot plates.) Velma has regulars, who she seems as happy to see as they are to see her. At the host stand, guests are asked if they’re celebrating anything, and if they are, the event gets written on their order card. Tonight, at one of Velma’s other tables, sits a woman who just broke up with her boyfriend. “Revenge!!!” is underlined three times on her order card. The smoking cocktails are flowing over there.

I expected to see families with children—and I do, especially in the face-painting and balloon-animal areas—but I’m surprised by the number of adults unencumbered by young ones, and wonder how many of them have been coming here since they were children. Spread out over three tables are men playing what looks to be Dungeons & Dragons. The dance floor was long ago covered up by more seating, but karaoke will start in a couple of hours. The basement, accessed via dark stairs lined with medieval banners, is set up for stand-up comedy.

I had hoped to travel back in time with this visit, but my adult self couldn’t help pulling back the curtain. The experience was not what my inner ten-year-old expected—it was, if anything, better, because it was real. Beyond the dry-ice smoke and mirrors, it was a place where people had made decades of memories. And that’s magic enough, isn’t it?