Sometime around the summer of 1960, Steak ‘n Shake opened a restaurant on Highway 17-92 in Orlando, Florida. My mom, something of a clean freak (and probably perpetually exhausted as the mother of four), was excited when she heard the news, and came to love it because, as she said, “You can see them actually preparing and cooking the food.” Indeed, in those simpler times, all the burgers were ground, formed and smashed (yes, smashed) on the grill right behind the counter, where I watched, with childlike amazement — leaning forward on the stool to get a better look. She also loved it because, unlike McDonald’s and the few other fast food chains around then, there was actually table service with real flatware and china. “If I’m going out to dinner, even a hamburger dinner, I want to be waited on properly,” she would always say.
My father, something of a noodle freak (nobody called it pasta back then), loved it because of the Chili Mac. This tangle of thick, white spaghetti, topped with what I would learn 20 years later was a close approximation of Cincinnati chili, could be inhaled by him in what seemed like three bites. “Slow down, honey,” was her constant admonition. “It’s not going anywhere.” Yours truly, probably in third or fourth grade at the time, remembers his first chomp of the thin, caramelized steakburger, always topped with two long, thin dill pickles, and how it was love at first bite. We had a waitress named Kathy — hardly a youngster — who grabbed our table every time, and came to be known to us as part of our extended family — at least when we came for dinner — usually about once a week.
Our favorite time to go would be after we had spent the day at New Smyrna Beach (back then, Central Florida locals always went to New Smyrna, Daytona was for tourists), and the six of us would troop in, around dusk, tired, sunburned and full of sand. As soon as the familiar bright white and gleaming chrome building came into to sight, the whole family would perk up, and all of us would start chattering about what we were going to order. Even though we knew what was in store, it never kept me from perusing the menu. In fact, Steak ‘n Shake was the first menu I ever poured over, fascinated by a guy named Gus Belt who lived in a strange state named Indiana, who touted the wholesomeness of his food (“We Protect Your Health”), all the way down in Florida. To an 8-year old, it seemed like the most exciting meal in the world, and for five or so years of my childhood, Steak ‘n Shake felt like my own, personal restaurant.
Once teenage-hood was upon me, hangin’ out with mom and dad ceased to be filled with as much wonder, but they could always get me (and my siblings) together for a Steak ‘n Shake run…and the excitement at going always brought us together with palpable joy. Dad always…and I mean always…ordered a bowl of chili and a Chili Mac, and Mom would always chastise him for eating so much. Just like the old man, all of us would get our usual, and I always…and I mean always….got a cheeseburger with pickle and a vanilla shake.
As puberty set in, a driver’s license was gained, girls were discovered, and other fast food joints seduced me with their exotic, tasty carbo-loads. Arby’s (back when the sandwiches were made with real, shaved beef) was the site of my first date, and the A&W Teenburger (loaded with onions, cheese and bacon) turned my head a few dozen times. But when it was a quality burger I was after, I always remember my mother and dad espousing the merits of a real steakburger, and remembering how those cylindrical hockey pucks of raw beef were smashed down on that open grill to bring forth all that thin, crispy, beef goodness.
How many times did I eat in a Steak ‘n Shake in that ten year span? 100? 200? Probably, something in that neighborhood. Memories of those meals, those good times, and those flavors, are seared into my brain like the proteins on that grill, and, to this day, the mere mention of this franchise brings a sparkle to my eye and a tingle to my heart.