Dispatches from the Death Spot
Thirty-plus years of unfortunate culinary history in one location
I’m not sure if there’s a widely-accepted term for the kind of place I want to talk about today, but it’s a real thing.
It exists in your town and mine and everyone else’s, and even if we haven’t come to a consensus on how we refer to it, it’s real and—as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about obscenity—I know it when I see it.
I’m talking about The Death Spot.
At least, that’s what my family called it.
The Death Spot was a specific restaurant near where I grew up that turned over constantly. Seemingly every time you drove by it, there was either a new restaurant opening or an almost-new restaurant closing. Nothing would stick, and in time we began to believe that the location itself was somehow cursed. How could everything fail?
It’s not black magic at work, though.
No, the existence of a Death Spot can be explained in purely rational terms. There’s a key confluence of factors that go into making such a place.
Generally speaking, a Death Spot is in a prominent location—visible, well-trafficked, often on a major thoroughfare—but a location with problems, problems that aren’t immediately evident to the untrained viewer or the upstart restaurateur. Perhaps it’s a tricky access scenario—a difficult left turn against traffic, or an entrance that isn’t directly from the main road. It might be a constrained lot that limits parking and forestalls installation of a drive-thru. The building itself might be slightly too big or slightly too small for most restaurant concepts, or configured in a sub-optimal way.
Whatever the specifics are, these are the sort of flaws that would prevent a widely-successful chain restaurant from moving in, and at the same time make the otherwise seemingly-desirable location accessible to upstarts.
Of course, the restaurant business is extraordinarily difficult to break in to for an upstart—most new restaurants fail—and the same subtle drawbacks that made the location available will eventually help speed the new restaurant’s certain demise.
Our particular death spot—pictured here in a Google Street View screencap—lay at the intersection of two major roads, on a highly-visible lot just across the street from the shopping mall. The roads intersect at an acute angle, and the access point is hidden behind the restaurant, so the spot is more visible than it was actually useful. A cursory review of Street View’s historical images show it’s been a frozen custard place and three different pizza concept just in the scant decade-plus that Google’s been driving their cameras by.
I’m sure you’ve got places like this in your own hometowns, and I’d love to hear about them.
I’d also like to talk about another Death Spot. This one’s in a small town you may or may not have heard of: Cookbook Falls. There are successful, beloved, long-running restaurants in Cookbook Falls—everyone loves AC’S Bar and Grill, and the salad at The Alley Cafe & Bistro on Main is delicious—but this isn’t one of them.
No, for the last thirty years it’s been a location in search of a soul, churning through restaurant concepts—some good yet flawed, some ahead of their time, some outright bad.
I’d like to revisit some of them with you.
Won’t you join me on this walk down culinary memory lane?
36 Years of Tenants in the Cookbook Falls Death Spot
1987: The Great American Baked Potato Foundry
An early adopted of the industrial-chic restaurant aesthetic later popularized by chains like Chipotle. May have suffered due to a menu that only served baked potatoes.
1988: Holy F***, It’s Yogurt!
It’s possible this may have been too aggressive a brand for the era, even at the height of frozen yogurt’s cultural capital.
1989: Caw-Caw Vinny’s
A failed attempt to make traditional French cuisine fast-food family-friendly; the attempt to make non-alcoholic coq au vin using Welch’s grape juice was a misfire.
1990: Eastern Airlines Presents The First Class Cabin
“Eat like you’re on an airplane” might not be an enticing concept today, but at the time, air travel still retained a sheen of glamor, and the idea of eating in a replica first-class airplane cabin was embraced by families who wouldn’t otherwise travel by plane. Ultimately a victim of poor timing, as it opened three months prior to Eastern Airlines’ dissolution.
Inspired by a short-lived trend in cook-it-yourself restaurant concepts, this restaurant offered fans of Benihana-style theatrics a chance to step behind the teppanyaki grill themselves. Closed after numerous reports of customer injuries.
So many burns.
1992: O.F.I. Monday’s
This lasagna-centric family restaurant garnered positive reviews for both its atmosphere and the quality of its food, but ceased operations after trademark-infringement lawsuits from both TGI Friday’s and Garfield creator Jim Davis.
1993 It’s A Wonderful Knife
Restaurant-goers love a souvenir, and the gimmick at this fast-casual steak joint seemed like a winner: patrons got a free steak knife with each meal! The restaurant hemorrhaged money on the promotion, but didn’t close down until a local news station’s I-Team ran a report conclusively tying their giveaways to a marked increase in stabbings around town.
1994: Cool Runnings: The Restaurant
“Feel The Rhythm, Feel The Rhyme, Get On Up, It’s Dinner Time!” said the commercials for this lightly Jamaican-themed restaurant modeled after the 1993 sports comedy Cool Runnings. Patrons could eat jerk chicken and oxtail stew while sitting inside a bobsled, which is not as easy as it sounds.
1995: Boston Market
1996: Big Baby's Bagels
“Big Baby’s Bagels, Bagels As Big As A Baby”, they promised, but the quality of the bagels ultimately fell victim to the Square-Cube Law.
1997 Daddy O's
In retrospect, attempting to coattail a restaurant off the short-lived swing-music revival of the mid-late ‘90s was a misfire, but damned if it didn’t seem like a winner at the time, daddy-o.
1998: Snowshovel Steve's Flavalanche
“Portions so big, we gotta serve ‘em in a snowshovel!”, Snowshovel Steve, a character purported to be the restaurant’s proprietor, declared in a series of well-liked local television ads. The ads were quickly taken off the air when, during a quarrel over gambling debts, the actor who portrayed Snowshovel Steve killed his brother-in-law with a snowshovel.
1999: The Rainforest Café: Express
“People don’t come to the Rainforest Café just for the novelty, they come for the food!”, the company’s CEO boasted in rolling out this pared-down grab-and-go version of the restaurant, shortly before disappearing under mysterious circumstances.
2000: The LANding
You might say that a restaurant where video-game aficionados could play group games while ordering pizza rolls and Hot Pockets on demand sounds like a bad idea, and you’d be right. It was a bad idea.
2001: Emeril: The TV Show: The Restaurant
At the dawn of the 21st century, there was arguably no food personality more prominent than celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, and while he created a number of successful restaurants over the years, including his eponymous New Orleans flagship, this short-lived lunch concept was an explicit tie-in to his 2001 sitcom Emeril, which was cancelled after only seven of the ten episodes filmed could air.
Short-lived Australian-Cajun fusion joint. The restaurant’s signature dish, Koalambalaya, drew controversy when it was revealed to contain 22% actual koala, a number that was both too high and too low, honestly. No one was happy.
2003: Martini's / Das Boot
This ahead-of-its-time restaurant foreshadowed gimmicky wedding cuisine of the next decade by serving all its meals in martini glasses. The glasses were too prone to breaking under the weight of loaded mashed potatoes, and the owners briefly pivoted to German food served inside those glass boot steins. Those also broke.
2004: Under The Tuscan Bun
Diane Lane rejected offers to become a paid spokesperson for this sandwich chain, which their business plan had really hinged almost entirely on her accepting.
2005: The Olympic Village
Part of a quixotic local bid to host the 2012 Olympics, the restaurant could’ve survived with a more focused version of its Epcot-like international menu even after London was announced as the host city, but trying to have a dish for each of the 204 participating nations was simply too ambitious.
2006: Benjamin Bennigan's Black Label
Ill-fated attempt by the popular Irish pub-themed casual dining chain to branch into white-tablecloth fine dining. The $62 Monte Cristo was delicious, though.
2007: Spaghetti Western
Did you know that, starting in 2007, the Disney Channel show iCarly popularized “spaghetti tacos” as a food favorite among tween viewers? Well, this restaurant attempted to capitalize on that Italian-Mexican fusion idea. It did not take.
2008: The Green Mountain Inn
One of the most physically-ambitious rebrands, this maple syrup-heavy restaurant concept saw the exterior of the building re-clad so as to resemble a Vermont log cabin, and a mature maple tree was transplanted to the center of the restaurant, rising through an opening in the roof.
The tree quickly died, and then destroyed most of the building when it collapsed in a windstorm.
2009: [vacant during construction]
Billed as a modern take on school cafeteria foods, it was eventually revealed to simply be actual school cafeteria foods, and the local superintendent was sentenced to 18 months of house arrest for misappropriation of district resources.
2011: The Midway Café
State fair food, year-round. Honestly I’m mad this one didn’t take.
2012: Meal Team Six
“Eat MREs while watching footage of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound” did not appeal to diners as much as hoped. Later rebranded as Mission BBQ.
2013: Sliders on a Stick
Exactly what it sounds like. They just didn’t stay on the stick very well.
2014: We'll Fry Anything Once!
A BYO-concept where diners were invited to bring in their own ingredients, which the restaurant’s cooks would then batter and deep-fry. Violated numerous health department regulations, and had multiple serious fires.
2015: Push It!
Salads, burritos and rice bowls, all served in a custom-designed meal-size Push-Pop-like container, intended to be easily consumed while driving.
Litigation over associated car accidents is still pending as of 2022.
2016: Flyin' Saucers
This restaurant served two things: fried chicken tenders and French fries. What distinguished them was the wall of taps, featuring 120 self-serve sauces. You might say there aren’t 120 sauces in existence, and once again you would be right. Some of them were repeats.
This attempt to capitalize on the trend of hip “speakeasy”-inspired cocktail bars was arguably undermined by its highly-visible signage, large windows, and failure to obtain a liquor license.
Casual family dining geared toward the mixed martial arts enthusiast, this concept featured an octagon-shaped bar and served only plain chicken breast, steamed broccoli, and protein shakes.
Do you remember the “artisanal toast” fad of a few years ago? This restaurant presumed that some people don’t like their bread toasted, and that was an incorrect assumption. People like their bread toasted.
2020: Milk Bar (The Other One)
Locals were excited when word got out that chef Christina Tosi’s Momofuku-affiliated pastry shop Milk Bar was coming to town, and were greatly disappointed when it turned out to be this unaffiliated restaurant that served 32 varieties of milk.
2021: Magic Mitch's Midnight Snack
A modern re-thinking of the automat craze of the early-to-mid 20th century, this dimly-lit restaurant offered patrons access to a wall of self-service refrigerators, each loaded with cold leftovers in Tupperware. Closed due to supply-chain issues with replacement refrigerator parts.
2022: Cryptin' Dots
The ice cream of the future meets the currency of the future, this restaurant opened to great fanfare in late April 2020, backed by a $50,000,000 venture capital investment made entirely in TerraLuna stablecoins (current value: $96.20).
Wow, what a history. Now, I’d like to hear from you! Specifically:
Do you have a name for this concept?
Tell me about the Death Spot (or whatever you call it) near you.
Pitch a new restaurant concept for the Cookbook Falls Death Spot. It’s up for lease again.