July 2005 Issue
Ohio on a Bun
Sit back and chow down on some of the best burgers around.
The customers are lining up at The Spot to Eat in downtown Sidney, a bustling diner known for its nostalgic feel and sought-after cheeseburgers. It's 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon -- not exactly prime time for any burger joint -- yet the place is packed. Overflowing to the outside sidewalk, in fact. It's not all locals, either. Patrons have driven in from Cincinnati, Dayton, Springfield and points north for a prized burger and a chocolate malt, another house specialty.
There's not much about The Spot to attract such devout attention, but attention it surely gets (even President George W. Bush stopped by once, as photos on the wall attest). Why the popularity? Certainly, there are no waitresses to serve you, and you have to wait in lines -- long lines -- for your burgers. The place is cramped, and many are forced to eat outside on rudimentary tables and folding chairs set up on the street corner.
Yet there are no complaints. Conver-sations at the various tables and Formica lunch counter lean toward just one topic: Where in Ohio do you find the best burgers? Everyone chimes in an opinion, and no one entirely agrees. Surely, The Spot -- which traces it origins to 1907, when Spot Miller drove his chuck wagon into town, took off the wheels and stayed -- is one such vintage stop on the burger trail.
What is this obsession with finding the perfect burger? Perhaps it's because the hamburger is the only true All-American culinary creation -- invented, as it happens, in Ohio, or so the story goes. While three different factions in three different states lay claim to ownership, the official histories of the major fast-food burger chains agree on this version:
Frank and Charles Menches, two brothers from Akron, introduced the hamburger sandwich at their food stall at the Summit County Fair in 1892, when they ran out of bulk pork sausage for their sandwiches and substituted beef. (Some histories vary slightly, moving the historic event to Hamburg, New York, in 1885, where the Menches were working a county fair. In his film "Hamburger America," filmmaker George Motz claims the Menches nicknamed their creation "the hamburger" in honor of that town.)
Let's not quibble over details. All agree that the brothers ground up the beef, mixed it with some brown sugar, coffee and spices and served it between two slices of bread. In Frank's 1951 obituary in the Los Angeles Times, he is duly acknowledged as the "inventor" of the hamburger.
Ohio, for its part, would go on to dominate the modern-day history of the hamburger. In 1934, the White Castle System of Eating Houses set up its headquarters in Columbus. In 1939, in what would become the beginning of the famed Frisch's Big Boy restaurant chain, the Mainliner opened in Fairfax, a small town near Cincinnati. It was Cincinnati's first drive-in restaurant, serving up double-deckers with tartar sauce. The legendary Kewpee's burger chain in Lima opened about this time, as well.
In 1969, Dave Thomas founded the Wendy's chain in Columbus with his first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant, named after his daughter Wendy. By 1972, the first Max & Erma's had thrown open its doors in Columbus. And in 1973, the first McDonald's located on a college campus appeared at the University of Cincinnati.
Ohio, clearly, has a storied burger legacy.
"I've traveled extensively, and I would say Ohio is a great hamburger state," observes Peter Laffoon, co-owner of Hamburger Mary's in downtown Cincinnati. Asked about his favorite burger ever, Laffoon, naturally, points to his own restaurant's Big Kahuna, a burger topped with pineapple, bacon and teriyaki dressing. But wherever you travel in the state, Laffoon stresses you'll discover wonderful finds. "Burgers are just very popular here."
Indeed, according to the book Genealogy of the American Hamburger, the first menu reference to "hamburger beef steak" (with no bun) appeared on the Lookout House Restaurant's menu in Cincinnati in the mid-1870s. We've been in a burger state of mind from the beginning.
Jump forward more than a century, and the hamburger has become an American icon around the globe. "The hamburger has become the symbol of our American ethnicity," says David Hogan, a history professor and food historian at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, who suggests burgers beat out blue jeans and jazz as the item foreigners most identify as a uniquely American innovation.
Indeed, the very concept of the burger joint or greasy spoon is vintage Americana, prompting imagery of car hops and roadside diners, flashing neon and Formica lunch counters -- places where the waitresses call you "hon."
Take the classic diner in Lima, the world headquarters of Kewpee's. Or the Steel Trolley Diner in Lisbon, a 1956 diner where the clock overhead stipulates "Time to Eat Good Food." At the Steel Trolley, the coffee's strong, the neon is a vibrant pink, and the jukebox jams 1950s rock 'n' roll.
Wilson's Sandwich Shop in Findlay, operating since 1936, features a no-frills square hamburger patty (order it "special" to get the tomato, lettuce and mayo added). It may be no-frills, but former President George H.W. Bush is among those who've stopped by for a bite.
Likewise, Heggy's Nut Shop in Canton -- a family business that serves up nuts, candies and ice cream in addition to burgers -- has been around for more than half a century. Try the Double Cheeseburger with Vidalia onion, pickle and homemade mayonnaise.
A perennial winner of Cleveland Magazine's "Best Hamburger" for its char-grilled sirloin patty with Swiss cheese, grilled onions and mushrooms, and a dollop of sour cream, the original Yours Truly Restaurant in Beachwood (now part of a seven-restaurant northeast Ohio chain), is a popular stop on the Ohio cattle drive.
Some sandwich aficionados swear by Crabill's in Urbana (open since 1927), where miniature bite-size "sliders" -- cooked to crunchy perfection in hot oil -- arrive with your choice of onions, mustard or relish. The sliders are accompanied by miniature Cokes or chocolate milk. If you're in the competitive spirit, you can attempt to out-slide the current record-holder, Dave Catchpole, who ate 26 doubles on January 15, 2005.
Looking for something new and cutting edge? How about the 11,500-square-foot McDonald's at Easton Town Center in Columbus, one of the largest in the country. The restaurant sells Mickey D apparel and merchandise, and even sports a "tweens" area with karaoke station where bored youngsters can record their own music. For toddlers, the McDonald's Playhouse includes a drive-through window just for kids.
Akron, home to burger inventors Frank and Charles Menches, will certainly become a hamburger hotspot in 2006, when the National Hamburger Festival will be "sandwiched" between spring and summer over Memorial Day weekend.
"You've reached the story right here -- you need go no further," comments John Menches, great-grandson of the burger-meisters, at Menches Brothers Restaurant in Akron, where the family still serves up hamburgers laced with coffee and brown sugar, just like the original that started it all. "If you truly want it the way they originally served it, have it with tomato, ketchup and onion," adds great-granddaughter Judy Menches-Kusmits.
The hamburger: It's universally loved, but can get no respect. When State Senator Kevin Coughlin of Cuyahoga Falls recently introduced a bill in the Statehouse to designate the hamburger the official state food, he couldn't get a hearing on the matter.
Somebody needs to remedy that -- in short order.