An ambitious, challenging piece of work that people will be dissecting for years. Don’t miss it.
See also this entry from Roger Ebert's Journal:
My first restaurant meal, when I was about 3 years old, was at a Steak ‘n’ Shake -- the one on Green Street near the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana. What did I have? A Steak burger, no doubt. It was the first of hundreds, maybe thousands.
I would remain an enthusiastic Steak ‘n’ Shake fan for the next two decades, until a move to Chicago, alas, meant a 260-mile round trip for the consolations of Steakburgers, Super Steakburgers, Triple Steakburgers, Chili Mac, Chili-Three-Ways, french fries and Tru-Flavor Shakes. In the areas of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Florida that had been colonized by Steak ‘n’ Shake, there was no other hamburger chain to be taken seriously. McDonald's? Forget it.
Steak ‘n’ Shake, with home offices in Bloomington, has since become the dominant quality hamburger chain in St. Louis, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati. (There are 140 outlets in 10 states.) But they didn't enter the Chicago market until a year ago, and they still haven't entered the city limits. There are six Steak ‘n’ Shakes in the suburbs - in Countryside, Palatine, Roll¬ing Meadows, Schaumburg, Westmont and at the location I recently led an expedition to, 844 E. Roosevelt Road in Lombard.
One of the things about Steak ‘n’ Shakes is they're all exactly alike. They aren't franchises. They're controlled from Bloomington, and one of the reassuring things about them is that the mottos, trademarks and white-black-and-red motifs never change. The cover of the menu still says, “Thanks for your liberal patronage since 1934 - A. H. (Gus) Belt, Founder.” The motto is still “In Sight ¬It Must Be Right.” The other motto is still “It's a Meal!” The mottos are still true.
The five in my party (including a 5-year-¬old named Milo) ate our way through the menu like Steak burger junkies. I had the Super Steak burger, Chili-Mac and a chocolate Tru-Flavor malt. My companions sampled various combinations of Chili-Three-Ways, a Super Cheeseburger, onion rings, french fries, baked beans, a root-beer float, a lemon freeze, a hot-fudge nut sundae and cheesecake with strawberry topping. Milo finished one grilled cheese sandwich and demanded another. Nobody had the ham sandwich, which was all right, since I have never known anyone to have the ham sandwich at Steak ‘n’ Shake.
With the exception of the onion rings, about which more later, the food was superb. The Steak ‘n’ Shake formula is a simple one: high quality products, prepared, as the menu assures us several times, “in the old-fashioned way.” In the case of shakes and malts, that means that ice cream, milk and flavorings are combined by hand in a mixing can and stirred on a milk shake machine. (There are no automatic ice product dispensers with their endless plastic vanilla ribbons at Steak ‘n’ Shake.)
Each Steakburger is grilled to order by a human being, from fresh meat ground in Steak ‘n’ Shake's own commissary and including all the choice cuts of the animal, even the tenderloin, T-bone, porterhouse and sirloin (hence the justification for “Steakburger”). The condiments are outstanding: slices of bermuda onion at just the right thickness, real pickle slices, relish and so on. One of the delights of a Steakburger is its texture; you crunch through the onions, pickles and crisp patties and the sandwich isn't all the same mushy consistency (as a Big Mac is).
The Chili-Mac is spaghetti with a spicy meat sauce, a catsup-based tomato sauce and Romano cheese. Chili-Three-Ways alludes to the addition of beans. The french fries are shoestrings, crisp and fresh. But the onion rings, alas, are undistinguished and have a gooey batter.
A Super Steakburger platter, with lettuce-tomato salad and your choice of baked beans or fries, is $2.16. Cheese is 12 cents more. Soft drinks are 25 or 35 cents. A milk shake is 65 cents and worth more. There is a carry-home service called “Takhomasak,” which is a registered trademark and not an Indian tribe. I confidently expect the folks in Bloomington to get up their courage and open a Steak ‘n’ Shake in Chicago itself any day now. In Sight, It Must Be Right.
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