Les Burgers d’Antan

There’s been a lot of Burger Talk around the Inside Columbia offices these past few weeks. It’s set me to thinking, “How many burgers have I eaten in my life?” and “Ubi sunt les burgers d’antan?” 

People point to the Booches Burger as the ne plus ultra, but most don’t remember this was not always the case. When I started “lunching” there in 1975, “Clean Gene” was behind the bar serving (then hard to find) 5 percent beer — no hard booze — and barely memorable burgers of questionable provenance (or so it was rumored). It was only after the neo-traditionalist triumvirate of Mick Jabbour, Bob Rappold and Jerry Dethrow took over that the famous Booches Burger debuted.

Back then there were fewer choices for burgers, though there was a Jack-in-the-Box at Ninth and Elm, and just a few have endured and merit mention.

Ernie’s Cafe & Steakhouse and upstairs Pyramid lounge will be around forever, offering the “Anderson Special” or the “Twin Chopped Cow.” I haven’t been to Ernie’s in years, but like a lot of people I have created a little Ernie’s in my mind that I visit regularly. God bless Ernie’s and its habitués.

Back in the day, when it was next door to Booches, Columbia Billiards threw a decent burger at you. They also had the first video game in town (Pong) that I know of. Their burgers were big and flat and served with lettuce and tomato (whereas Booches served tomatoes only when Jabbour’s garden came in and, to this day, asking about lettuce — or the American League — can still get you thrown out). Fortunately, the Columbia Billiards grill has survived in a new location as Billiards on Broadway, where they serve a decent approximation of the Columbia Billiards burger (though I miss the all-ages seediness of the original with its chain-smoking day-drinkers eyeing pool-playing high school girls.)

But it is The Shack that lingers longest in mind, burger-wise. By the late 1970s, this campus institution was literally a shack across from Jesse Hall on Conley Road. The Shack’s famous “green door” is said to have inspired musician and Mizzou grad Jim Lowe to write “Behind the Green Door” — a hit that topped the Billboard charts in 1956. Back then, I was a T.A. in English Composition just across a dusty, gravel parking lot in Arts & Science Hall. I spent many an afternoon “grading papers” in that crooked (as in misaligned) bar, watching cable TV (then a rarity) and eating Shack Burgers — which were smallish and thin, but quite tasty, dressed only in Shack Sauce and a few raw onions. The Shack burned down in 1988 — a convenient “act of God” that helped along the urban renewal that made way for the new Alumni Center.

Then, a few years ago, MU resurrected The Shack in its new Student Center on Rollins Road. Tables that had miraculously survived the “devastating, accidental fire” popped up in the new location and The Shack Burger took pride of place on the menu. Having had a few of the “new” version over the last few weeks, I can offer this evaluation: while there were no Proustian moments at first bite, they get pretty damned close to the originals I remember — especially that Shack Sauce I thought they’d have trouble duplicating. Sure, the burgers are a little bigger, and garnishes like lettuce and tomato are now de rigueur, but these are actually improvements on an otherwise note-perfect update of this campus and Columbia classic.

Just like Lowe wrote, “All I want to do is join the happy crowd/Behind the green door.”