As you approach McDonald’s Restaurant #10266, it looks like any other, anywhere in America. It has a busy double drive-thru, a full-color banner advertising a Filet-O-Fish special and that signature scent of French fries and despair. But as you drive closer, you see it: a yellow sign protectively shaded by a red awning that matches the red letters of the word P-I-Z-Z-A.
The McDonald’s in Spencer, W.Va. is one of only two in the United States that still serves pizza and, thanks to the efforts of three twentysomething Canadians, this otherwise unassuming restaurant has become an unlikely tourist destination. Last month, Mitchell Boughner and two friends drove from London, Ontario to central W.Va. after discovering that McPizza was still A Thing at this McDonald’s, a round-trip drive of more than 1,000 miles. “Before we even left I said this was a stupid idea — but that was the whole point, right?” Boughner told me, in an interview I did for Vice.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, my sister and I had the same stupid idea, spending $12 in tolls on Interstate 77 all so we could eat $6 worth of skating rink-quality pizza. We white-knuckled our way through the last 25 miles of the trip, enduring the curves on a logic-defying two-lane that seemed to have been sketched out by MC Escher.
“It’s going to have to be pretty s***ty for me to hate it,” my sister said, tightening her grip on the door handle. “It’s still pizza.”
The road straightened out when we reached Spencer (Pop. 2,248) and we ignored the Wendy’s, the Subway Pizza — which has nothing to do with Subway-Subway — and the signs staked in the grass promoting next month’s Truck Pull. By the time we turned into the gravel parking lot, my heart was racing like I was about to buy a package of pregnancy tests, not have an unremarkable lunch. (Coincidentally, seeing me eat seems to be an ultra-effective form of contraception.)
We were both starving by the time I’d put the car in park, and nothing could kill our pizza cravings, not even seeing someone who’d stripped naked in the bathroom, a pile of clothing visible under the stall door beside her bare ankles. Confused but undeterred, we walked to the registers.
The McDonald’s has received a recent upgrade, with a sleek, digital menu that anachronistically stares down the dining area that looks like a log cabin — albeit one that you can wipe down with a damp rag. To the left was the pizza menu, which seemed like it was installed about the time Steve Urkel spent every Friday night tugging his suspenders on your TV screen.
That would make sense, since pizza was on the menu at about 40 percent of McDonald’s locations at the same time, in the mid-1990s. And, much like Urkel, the pizza had also disappeared into the McEther by the end of the decade. It was a rare misstep for McDonald’s and, although the company has never provided an official explanation for its failure, it had a number of factors working against it, from the cost (a comparatively steep $5.99), the average time it took to prepare each pie, and the fact that the pizza boxes wouldn’t fit through many restaurants’ existing drive-thru windows.
But pizza lives on in Spencer, and in Pomeroy, Ohio, which are both owned by the same franchisee, Greg Mills. My sister and I ordered two personal pizzas — a bargain at $3 each — a basket of fries, and a hot fudge sundae, because it was go big or go home and we weren’t ready to buckle ourselves back in the car.
The restaurant seemed crowded for a Saturday afternoon, and more than half of the customers were eating from red-and-white checkered pizza boxes. A teenager with fluorescent-yellow ear gauges carried a tower of cardboard to his friends sitting in a corner booth. Three boys, with identical blonde curls and identical mud-caked Air Jordans, walked out with pizza boxes. A man in a faded Metallica shirt with a facial tattoo and spiderwebs inked on both elbows ordered… actually, I have no idea what he ordered, because he caught me staring at him and I immediately started examining my cuticles.
When our pizza was finally ready, we chewed silently, examining it from every possible sensory angle.
“I wish it had more cheese,” my sister finally said.
I nodded, my mouth full of crust.
“I wish we’d ordered a third pizza,” I added, halfway through my first piece.
More pizza-seekers came in, waiting impatiently beside a sheet of pink posterboard that said “McDonald’s has pizza!!! Where are you from?” A woman in a denim jacket picked up the Sharpie and added her own details. She wore a giant pin that said, “I’d Rather Be Anywhere Than Here,” an odd sentiment for someone who’d driven from Fort Spring, W.Va. — 150 miles away — to eat at this specific McDonald’s.
The other cities listed weren’t any more exotic than the one we were sitting in. Carrollton, Ky.,Lenore, W.Va. Cleveland.
“We have had people from out of the country,” a longtime Spencer McDonald’s employee named Stanley later told me, although he wouldn’t elaborate. “I’m not allowed to discuss that,” he said, which is the same answer he gave when I asked what kind of increase in pizza sales the restaurant had seen.
I watched another couple write their own details on the sign, adding a different southeastern West Virginian location to the list. I don’t know why any of us were there, whether it was from Canada, Kentucky or that vague “out of the country” return address. Maybe it was just to have a slice of rare but attainable nostalgia. McDonald’s Pizza has become a strangely exclusive item, although it’s available to anyone who is willing to drive to central West Virginia or southeastern Ohio. (The World’s Largest McDonald’s in Orlando, Florida also serves pizza, but it’s through a separate restaurant within the facility, so it’s not canon.) It takes time and Google Maps, but doesn’t require the luck or bank balance for, say, getting a table at Le Bernardin, scoring Hamilton tickets or finding flattering swimwear. It’s an everyman kind of quest, one that can have an easily realized beginning, middle and end.
We ordered a family-sized pepperoni (or peproni, according to the receipt) pizza to go, waiting another 10 minutes before they called our number.
“We needed one for the road,” I told a doe-eyed worker named Virginia, a comment which doubled as a cry for help. “Mmmhmm,” she said, her eyes widening. She quickly turned back to the kitchen.
There were pizzas to make.