Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
In my third or fourth year of life I ate my first restaurant meal, at the Steak 'n Shake on Green Street near the University of Illinois campus. I dined on a Steakburger, french fries, and a Coke. I felt extremely important. The eyes of the world were on this capable little man, sitting on a stool at the counter, grasping a Steakburger in his hands and opening up to take the first bite. My dad passed me the ketchup bottle and I felt authority flow into my hands as I smacked it on the bottom. "Aim it on your plate next to the fries," he advised. I did. "Good job, boy."
If I were on Death Row, my last meal would be from Steak 'n Shake. If I were to take President Obama and his family to dinner and the choice were up to me, it would be Steak 'n Shake--and they would be delighted. If the Pope were to ask where he could get a good plate of spaghetti in America, I would reply, "Your Holiness, have you tried the Chili Mac or the Chili 3-Ways?"
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A downstate Illinois boy loves the Steak 'n Shake as a Puerto Rican loves rice and beans, an Egyptian loves falafel, a Brit loves banger and mash, an Indian loves tikki ki chaat, a Swede loves herring, a Finn loves reindeer jerky, and a Canadian loves bran muffins. These matters do not involve taste. They involve a deep-seated conviction that a food is absolutely right, and always has been, and always will be. These convictions are fixed at an early age. I do not expect to convert you.
The Steak n Shake on Green Street, 1975 (Gale Chicago)
Yes, Steak 'n Shake is a "fast food" chain--just about the first, I think, except probably for White Castle. Certainly it is the best. How many hamburger chains bring you a glass of water and silverware, and serve you on china? Friends in Los Angeles took me to In-n-Out Burger, and I consumed a drippy, mushy mess on a soft bun, and shook my head sadly. If you are from one of the 19 Stake 'n Shake states you will know what I mean. At this point I could tell a smutty joke about how the very names of the two chains describe the difference in styles of sexual intercourse between California and the Heartland, but I refrain.
The motto of Steak 'n Shake is "In Sight It Must be Right." No comma. This achieves the perfection of a haiku. There is no skullduggery going on in the back room. Take a seat at the counter, and everything is happening before your very eyes. Acolytes in ecclesiastical black and white, bow ties and little paper soldier caps, perform at altars of the griddle, the condiments, the "sides."
The griddle man spears ground beef in the shape of a big marshmallow, positions it on the griddle, mashes it with his spatula. Two, four, six, eight patties, consulting the green and white guest checks lined up before him. He positions the buns face-down on the grill, and places a thin wooden plank over them. He turns over each patty and mashes it again. He lifts the plank and puts it on the stainless steel shelf before him. He places the buns on the plank. He blesses a few chosen patties with a slice of cheese. He lifts up the patties and distributes them on the buns. He slides the plank along toward the sous chef in charge of condiments.
Plus, three more Ways to Enjoy
The resulting Steakburger is a symphony of taste and texture. Steak 'n Shake has always boasted "we grind all the select cuts--sirloin, porterhouse, ribs, filet." This they do in "Our Own Government-Inspected Commissary," located in, of course, Normal, Illinois. It is essential that the sandwich is Served On a Toasted Bun. If you order onion, it will be a perfect thin slice of sweet Bermuda. If you order pickles, you will get two thin slices, side by side. Mustard, relish, tomato, lettuce can also be added, but tomatoes are a distraction. When you bite into the Steakburger, you want it to be gloriously al dente all the way through: toasted bun, crispy patty, onion, pickle, crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch. I know through personal experience that the Steakburger has remained absolutely unchanged since 1945.
They do not add ketchup in advance, because it lends itself to soggy buns. You find a bottle of Heinz 57 at your table. Also a little bottle of Steak 'n Shake Hot Sauce, which is nothing more or less than whole hot peppers floating in water. My father said it was not for the likes of me. He liked a dash on his Chili 3-Ways. I would watch in awe as he sprinkled it on, and took his first taste. There were none of the masochistic cries of pain associated with hot sauce daredevils. He would simply glance at me sideways and elevate his eyebrows a fraction. You see why as a film critic I am so alert to the subtle nuances of acting.
A midnight gathering during Ebertfest (David Poland)
These days at Steak 'n Shake you can order such items as soups, taco salads, chef salads, Philly cheesesteak, god knows what. There is a three-page fold-out glossy menu, including even breakfast. I have never ordered an item that was not on the original menu. It is a rule with me. From earliest days, my order was unchanging, and often included a Tru-Flavor Shake. In Sight It Must Be Right, and you can see the soda jerk combining real ice cream and real milk in a stainless container, blending them in a mixer, and pouring it all into a big tall glass. Many of today's children think milk shakes are extruded from a spigot.
My Steak 'n Shake fetish is not unique. On an early visit to the Letterman Show, during a commercial break, I said to David:
"I hear you're from Indianapolis, home of the head office of Steak 'n Shake."
"In Sight, It Must be Right," he said. Our eyes locked in unspoken communion.
"Four Ways to Enjoy," I said.
"Car, table, counter, or TakHomaSak," he replied.
"Specializing in Selected Foods..."
"...with a Desire to Please the Most Discriminating."
"Thanks for Your Liberal Patronage..."
David didn't blink an eye or miss a beat. We had both obviously memorized the original menu. "...signed, A. H. (Gus) Belt, founder," he said, and we shared a nod of great satisfaction. Augustus H. Belt founded Steak 'n Shake in 1934, and after three changes in ownership over the years, it still preserves the original logos, mottoes, typography, design, approach, philosophy and, most crucially, recipes. The founder built well.
My wife Chaz, having been raised in Chicago, knew nothing of Steak 'n Shake, but she heard plenty. For reasons obscure to me, Steak 'n Shake surrounded the city but never entered it. In 2000, driving downstate to Urbana for my high school reunion, we were passing Kankakee when she said, "Look! There's a sign for your restaurant."
Chili 3-Ways: A sideways glance and elevated eyebrows
"They've built one in Kankakee!" I said, smoothly cutting off a semi and taking the interstate exit. It looked much as all Steak 'n Shakes always have, although at some point in the 1970s they added red to the basic color scheme of black and white. We took a booth. "Permit me to order for you," I said, as if Cary Grant were taking Audrey Hepburn to The Ritz. Reader, Chaz enjoyed her meal. "I see what you mean," said the darling girl. I quoted the motto on every Steak ' Shake sign: It's A Meal.
That night the Urbana High class of 1960 met at the Crystal Lake Park pavilion for wine, fruit and cheese.
"Let's blow this popsicle stand," said Chris Hastings, after a few hours. "Steak 'n Shake!" said John Kratz. "You weren't kidding," Chaz said, for I had told her I was far from being the only devotee in Urbana.
Our cars formed a parade to the Steak 'n Shake on University Avenue, and I was reminded of an automotive drive-in ritual from time immemorial: Find a place in the back row, wait until the cars in front of you move ahead, pull up a space, usually racing our engines, jerking ahead in a ferocious cloud of burnt rubber, and braking precariously inches from the car in front. We ordered from car hops, and I was reminded of a mystery that haunted all of our high school days: We never ever recognized a single car hop. What were they, from Stepford?
A moment in time: a wonderful photo by H. S. Wall (click)
In more modern times, alas, curb service has been replaced by drive-thru windows. Customers shout their orders into a squawk box, and, if they don't plan to TakHomaSak, they find a parking space with no cars on either side, sit behind their tinted glass and eat almost meditatively. In the curb service days before air conditioning, the car windows were all rolled down. You could look straight through other cars to the end of the line, while currents of rivalry, gossip and lust flowed back and forth. If your friend had his parents' convertible, you could sit on the back shelf with your feet on the seat and get the big picture. "Top o' the world, Ma!"
That was on Friday night. On Saturday we all toured dear old Urbana High School, and at lunchtime it was unanimously decided we should inspect the new Steak 'n Shake up on Route 45. "Your classmates are crazy," Chaz said. That evening, we held our banquet at the Urbana Country Club. The club has an excellent chef, but our meal had been catered, the dinner committee having agreed on Steak 'n Shake. On Sunday morning, as we got into our car at the Lincoln Lodge Motor Inn, Chaz took my hand, looked deeply into my eyes, and with a tone usually reserved for family emergencies, said, "Let's not stop at Kankakee."
The laws of physics at Steak ' Shake.
Singing waitress at Steak 'n Shake: