Pizza Hut nostalgia is a powerful force. Depending on how old you are and where you come from, the role the iconic Plano-based chain played in your childhood could well be outsized. For me, it’s forever tied to high school theater; after opening night of any production, the tech crew would celebrate by going to Pizza Hut. As a sit-down restaurant with servers and real plates and silverware, it made us feel grown-up; as an affordable, comfortable space where you could play Ms. Pac-Man, it was also perfect for a bunch of teenagers. Decades later, I still can’t pass a hat-shaped building with a shingled roof and trapezoid windows (even if it’s currently a martial arts academy or a funeral home) without thinking about the lighting crew’s typical thin-crust, pork-topped pizza.

In its heyday, Pizza Hut mattered in a way other chain restaurants didn’t, according to Adam Chandler, a fast food historian and the author of Drive-Thru Dreams. “Pizza Hut stands alone in being a community meeting place,” he told me. “That wasn’t in the business model for other chains, because they were built around the car—there’s a quote, ‘One goes to McDonald’s to eat, not to dine,’ that I think is really poignant. And Pizza Hut stood against that, historically, with a legacy of being a place where you sit down and have a meal surrounded by your community. That’s more important than we probably give it credit for.” 

Vintage lamps in the Hempstead Pizza Hut.
Vintage lamps in the Hempstead Pizza Hut Classic.Dan Solomon

The tradition is making a comeback, in the form of a remodel of small-town locations into “Pizza Hut Classic” restaurants, where the tablecloths are red and checkered, the pizza is served on real plates, and stained glass Tiffany-style lamps emblazoned with “Pizza Hut” hang above the tables. There are at least nine such locations in Texas, exclusively in towns with fewer than 20,000 residents—a reminder that in small towns, Pizza Hut might be one of the only places to sit down for a meal to celebrate a birthday or a football-game win.

Pizza Hut helped democratize pizza in the United States. Even though a 2014 study found that one in eight Americans eats pizza on any given day, the first pizzeria in the U.S. didn’t open until 1905. The dish didn’t really grow in popularity outside certain stretches of the East Coast until GIs returning from Europe after World War II developed an appetite for it. Pizza Hut was the first of the big national chains to open, when its founders—a pair of brothers from Wichita, Kansas—borrowed $600 from their mother to start slinging pies in their hometown in 1958, franchising the concept the following year. (Little Caesars and Dominos would join them in 1959 and 1960, respectively.) What followed was an aggressive expansion, with the iconic red roof being introduced in 1969, the signature pan pizza in 1980, and the beloved Book It! program, offering personal pan pizzas to schoolchildren who completed reading assignments, in 1984. The chain dominated the era, and it maintained success in the years that followed by continuing to innovate. In 1994, it became the first to introduce online ordering, and it blew consumers’ minds by serving up stuffed-crust pies in 1995, the same year it moved its corporate headquarters from Kansas to North Texas (first to Addison, then, about fifteen years later, to Plano). 

By the early aughts though, Americans’ relationship with pizza chains began to change. Carryout and delivery, always part of the experience, grew in popularity along with the emergence of the internet. Pizza Hut itself launched “PizzaNet” in 1994; internet historians believe a Pizza Hut pizza was probably the first item sold via e-commerce. (In those days, customers had to pay for the pizza in cash when it arrived.) As pizza grew to be an ever more convenient offering, prices dropped. The dine-in Pizza Hut continued to exist, but the writing was on the red brick wall as rival Little Caesars popularized the “Hot-N-Ready” concept of a large one-topping pizza to go for five bucks—half of what the Hut charged for a stuffed-crust pie back in 1998. The move proved transformative; by 2010, Dominos was selling two medium pizzas for $12, an offer it would maintain for well over a decade (in 2022 it raised the price to $14), while Papa Johns offered customers who bought a large pizza the chance to order a second for just thirty cents in 2014. Pizza Hut, meanwhile, cut the price of a medium one-topping pizza to five dollars, if the customer paid another five bucks for a second pizza or an order of chicken wings. It made the concept of walking into a chain pizza restaurant, being seated by a host, and ordering from a server seem downright antiquated. In 2019, when Pizza Hut announced that it would be closing hundreds of its full-service locations, many had already been serving pizza to dine-in customers in cardboard boxes, with plastic silverware and bottled drinks, ordered from the counter. It felt like a mercy killing. 

Still, it was a sad day for those who grew up in small towns where Pizza Hut was maybe one of the only dine-in restaurants in town and a hub for the community. Where do the theater kids go after opening night now? 

The answer, at least in certain small towns, might once more be Pizza Hut. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to recede, the chain launched a new campaign with Austin ad agency GSD&M. Dubbed “Newstalgia,” it began with a 2021 Super Bowl commercial in which actor Craig Robinson (you know him as Darryl from The Office or the Pontiac Bandit on Brooklyn Nine-Nine) hyped the pizza from a set that had all the touchstones of the vintage Pizza Hut experience: brick walls; Tiffany-style lamps with Pizza Hut logos; the logo itself in the chunky, serif font used from 1967 to 1999; a table that was also a Pac-Man arcade game. Along with the ad campaign, the company began the Pizza Hut Classic rebrand. I wanted to know: Does visiting a Pizza Hut Classic actually feel like the classic Pizza Hut experience? 

The first location I visited was in Hempstead, on the far outskirts of Houston. I stopped by at lunchtime on a weekday, and there was—unbelievably—a brief wait for a table. I was seated after a few minutes at a two-top with a red-and-white-checked tablecloth, and a server brought me a Dr Pepper in a red plastic cup. The draw to this location was the lunch buffet—itself a throwback to the past, and a relative rarity even among the Pizza Hut Classic locations—which drew families, police officers, and athletics coaches from Prairie View A&M. Between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., they could eat all the pizza, breadsticks, and pasta (alas, no salad bar) they wanted for $9.99. On the walls, the restaurant displayed photos of Pizza Huts of yore, along with local high school football jerseys and TVs showing ESPN. It was nice to be inside a bustling Pizza Hut, the pan pizza flavored with oregano and a rush of nostalgia. 

I asked Chandler about the brand’s attempt to kindle that nostalgia. He noted that it has revived certain old gimmicks and referenced the brand’s imagery in new ones—mini basketballs timed to the NCAA tournament, a bucket hat designed to look like the classic lamp—to tap into that as well. “They want to remind people that there was a time when you went to Pizza Hut and got these fun little tchotchkes, and that was part of being a kid. They’re trying to recapture that sentimental sense of wonder that’s long since sailed as we’ve learned more about what chain restaurants do and don’t do.”

That sentimental sense of wonder isn’t distributed evenly among the Pizza Hut Classic locations. When I went to the store in Gonzales, a town of seven thousand about seventy miles east of San Antonio on Interstate 10, for dinner on a Friday night, the conversion to a “classic” experience was incomplete. A family was there celebrating a birthday party, but outside of the lampshades and a handful of arcade games in a room to the side, the experience had more in common with the Pizza Hut of 2018—the pizza was served in a cardboard box, the drinks in plastic bottles. 

That matters when you’re trying to conjure a sense of nostalgia. I went to the location in Bastrop, thirty miles outside Austin, and spoke with Heather King, the restaurant manager, about the process of transforming a store that had been geared toward takeout and delivery into a sort of community hub. The changeover at her location began two years ago, but it’s still a work in progress. She identified the key elements of what makes a Pizza Hut feel like a pizza home: proper plates and silverware, fountain drinks, arcade games, and authentic local decorations. She’s waiting on some pieces from the corporate office—she’s frustrated that she still has to serve drinks in plastic bottles, and she thinks the games will be a real draw—but she told me the locals are starting to recognize that Pizza Hut is coming back. “We’re busy Friday night, and all day Saturday and Sunday,” she said. Weekday lunch is still slow—a buffet would help with that, but the company is reserving them for a small handful of locations. Still, she’s got ideas for how to further weave the restaurant into the fabric of the community. She’s eager to introduce a bingo night for seniors and a game night for kids. While she awaits more decorations, she’s got a football jersey from Bastrop High School on the wall, and the front of the store features a wooden “little free library”—with a red, two-tiered roof, naturally—to promote the Book It! program. 

Andrew Teagle, chief strategist at GSDM, has been working with the brand on the “Newstalgia” campaign since its inception. He says the Pizza Hut Classic initiative dovetails nicely with the goals of the campaign—tapping into both the nostalgia of adults who have fond memories of going to Pizza Hut when they were kids and the “fauxstalgia” (advertising people love neologisms) of today’s young people, who think of the dine-in Pizza Hut era as a time they missed out on. “It taps into something they imagine to be a better, simpler, maybe easier time,” he told me. “We love things that feel like they came from a time before.” 

Pizza Hut’s corporate office declined to make a representative available for an interview, so it’s unclear what the next steps are for Pizza Hut Classic. The company doesn’t identify “Classic” locations on its website, but New York journalist Rolando Pujol keeps a tally of locations nationwide on his newsletter the Retrologist, which currently lists 78 locations in 21 states, with more in Texas than anywhere else. The largest city to host a Pizza Hut Classic is Fort Wayne, Indiana, with a population of around 265,000—roughly the size of Laredo or Lubbock—which suggests that it’s possible the remodel could come to more parts of Texas, too. It might be a wise move. 

“You’re always looking to differentiate yourself by doing something that other people aren’t doing, and the dine-in experience was something that Pizza Hut really had going for it,” Chandler said. “It’s meaningful to have some kind of legacy that you can look back on and remind people that there was a time when you didn’t get everything delivered—when you would sit down in a dining room that was bustling with your community. Those are really important, meaningful things for people who are looking for something that feels personal in a time when not many things are.”