When Herman Horton Kooser came to San Jose 160 years ago, he did not know his future street would help define the second Chuck E. Cheese and the last Burger Pit.
What’s left of Kooser Road today is a street most people wouldn’t think of traversing on foot, so I had to do it last week, beginning at Camden. After the sun went down and darkness had washed over the neighborhood, it was deathly quiet as I strolled past mid-century tract houses, fading churches, rusty work trucks, picket fences, unnecessary stucco and a few stray shopping carts.
Upon arriving at Princeton Plaza, my teenage years came spiraling back. Across the street, right there in the black of night, in the eerie solitude of the pandemic-era suburbs, I discovered the crumbling anchor of this entire neighborhood, a former bastion of Silicon Valley history, the defunct Chuck E. Cheese. Across an empty parking lot, the building was a faded beige corpse, abandoned, empty, kaput. Label scars remained where signage used to be. Weeds grew from the roof gutters. The sign at the street was painted over in solid black.
The history of Chuck E. Cheese’s role in the growth of Silicon Valley is covered in more detail in this week’s cover story, beginning on page 8. Original valley impresario and Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell started Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre in 1977, essentially inventing the family entertainment restaurant concept of the modern era, although he hasn’t been part of the enterprise in nearly 40 years. The very first one was in Town & Country Village, where Santana Row now sits. Kooser was the second one. The concept eventually exploded nationwide, although not without high-profile phases of bankruptcy, lawsuits, mergers, reboots and repeat periods of growth and decline.
In more recent times, the Kooser business had gone straight downhill for years, devolving into a total dump, so I can’t imagine anyone having a crisis over this, but standing in front of the empty building revived portions of my youth that I proactively squandered all over this neighborhood 35 years earlier. Every suburban wasteland kid in San Jose, and parent, has memories from Chuck E. Cheese—if not from Kooser, then from any of the other locations.
In 2013, when Bushnell came back through San Jose for an event downtown, a handful of us joined him afterwards at the Silicon Valley Capital Club. At a table by the front, I told Bushnell of my misguided teenage youth, sneaking booze into the Kooser Chuck E. Cheese, drinking inside with friends, then jumping into the Ball Crawl, drunk, until we were caught.
Without missing a beat, he replied, “People were caught in the Ball Crawl doing all sorts of things.”
Yet outside the abandoned complex, I did not get depressed. I would not let the dark skies define me, so I walked over to Blossom Hill where I discovered the second reason for making this journey: the last remaining Burger Pit.
In 1953, Al Berger started the original joint, Burger Bar, which still stands at First & Keyes. A few years later, he took it up a notch and launched the Burger Pit chain, expanding all over the South Bay.
Alas, time marched on and family steak eateries didn’t. These days, the Burger Pit at Kooser and Blossom Hill, which first opened in 1964, is the only one left. If Jerry Lee Lewis is the “Last Man Standing,” then this place is the Last Pit Standing.
When I entered, Burger Pit looked the same as always. People continued to file in as I devoured a fantastic mushroom burger on a toasted bun. On the wall I noticed vintage Burger Pit newspaper ads from decades ago, plus a poster-size photo of the old San Jose City Hall, back when it was located in what’s now Plaza de Cesar Chavez. I wasn’t even alive to see that building, but Burger Pit reminded me of its glory.
Back out on Blossom Hill, I could barely walk after the hearty sandwich and I was no longer concerned about the darkness. Instead, I felt the closing irony of it all: Chuck E. Cheese had come and gone, yet Burger Pit still carried on. Old Herman Horton Kooser would be proud.