31 Victoria St Ballarat East, VIC 3350
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If the words Pizza Hut don't instantly conjure memories of a carpark-based panic attack following a heavy session on the self-serve ice-cream machine, can you truly say you were alive in the '90s? Survey says, no.
My own memories of the fast food giant are vivid. Terrifying. Ecstatic. I was a whole-grain country kid whose peanut butter sandwiches came with added sprouts. One notably disappointing Easter, I was given a pot plant in a porcelain duck.
Imagine, then, the impact of the few rogue trips to our local Pizza Hut for what was then known as "The Works". To those unfamiliar, it was an all-access-pass to a pizza, pasta and dessert bar bonanza that allowed you to live like the wasteful wealthy for a fistful of coins.
The first Pizza Hut opened in Sydney's Belfield in April 1970, beating McDonald's by a year. There are currently 313 stores, but you wouldn't know it. Like Sizzler's and the late, great Smorgy's, most tiled dine-in stores were phased out in the mid-1990s (though never forgotten, praise be, thanks to Pizza Hunt, a book documenting the Huts' hilariously bad transformations into Korean restaurants and bottle-os).
Pizza Hut hit my innocent 11-year-old system with the kind of dopamine rush I imagine makes people hard drug users. And the nostalgic vision has lived on because Pizza Hut disappeared and couldn't contradict it. I've learnt most friends feel the same. I had unprecedented numbers volunteering when I suggested reviewing one of the 15 remaining old-school stores in Australia – and this job lets me eat at Attica.
When news hit that PH-HQ was getting back in the dine-in game with "concept stores", where the chocolate mousse has been ousted for frozen custard and "tapas-style entrees" and pizza slices are offered around as if you're attending a budget cocktail party, there was outrage.
I felt the same, but I wasn't sure why. And so, to Ballarat, where along with Bendigo, Shepparton and Windsor in Sydney, the dream of the '90s lives on.
There's panic in the car park. The roof, while pitched, isn't tiled but corrugated iron. No faux-trattoria decor inside either. I remember red booths and bad lighting. Ballarat is best described as: wipeable.
But, the price is still right: $17.95 for the lot. And the clientele is as I recall. We pick a laminate table next to a massive soccer team hilariously sponsored by Dominos.
Prowling the buffet, we also tick off most of the hits. There's the Hawaiian pizza, in all its sugary tinned pineapple, spammy ham and puffy-based glory that I'm convinced has the salty-sweet allure a salted caramel fan could get behind. Ditto the trashy sausage-studded Meat Lover's, and the thin crust peperoni pizzas. Sure, you'd never compare them to a Neapolitan pie, but much like powdered parmesan, you could classify them in their own food group – one that doesn't strictly suck.
In sad news, roaming the starchy salad bar, slapping globs of indistinct sweet mayo-slathered potato onto the plate along with lettuce and cubed beets, I notice the famously salty bacon bits gone. "We haven't served them for a decade," says a teenage employee almost salty enough to compensate, yet not old enough to understand the gravity of her words.
There again, who ate the salad? Vitally, all elements for dessert construction are present and correct: chocolate mousse the consistency of shaving foam; the pump packs of sickly sweet caramel and chocolate toppings; jelly cubes and tiny marshmallows and sprinkles for confetti. I work the unlimited soft-serve machine, framing or basing my desserts, waiting to see if I'll be stopped. I'm not.
As my sugar panic attack sets in, clarity does too. Nobody's missed Pizza Hut's food. We've missed the freedom to embrace our bad choices. A friend who has mystery-shopped the concept store reports a system where you keep a green light on for waiters to keep coming. But who wants supervised slice-taking and shame? Give me congealed, truly unlimited, bain-marie Meat Lover's any day. Give me that sweet taste of freedom.
Est. April 1970
Addresses: (VIC) Ballarat, Bendigo, Shepparton. (NSW) Windsor, Waterloo, Orange, Lake Haven.
Signature dishes: Hawaiian pizza, chocolate mousse, DIY soft-serve forever.
Go-to Dish: The Works: a pizza, pasta, salad and soft-serve bonanza for just $17.95.