Inside St. Louis
An original watercolor of Eat-Rite by local artist Marilynne Bradley.
Eat-Rite or Don't Eat At All….that’s the slogan Lewis Powers the head man of the Eat-Rite Diners created and you can put it up against any of the slogans that high falutin’ advertising agencies and big operators have come up with for hamburger havens over the years. White Castle which has been serving Slyders since 1921 has long used “Buy’em By The Sack” which has been superseded by “What You Crave.” McDonald’s has a raft of catch phrases like the recent “I’m Lovin’ It!” Steak & Shake’s “Takhomasak” and “In Sight It Must Be Right” have served the chain well for decades. Burger Chef and Jeff claimed “Food Good Enough To Leave Home For”. Burger King invites you to “Have It Your Way”. “We Don’t Make It Until You Order It” is from Jack In the Box. A couple of the Hardee’s lines are: “Where The Food’s The Star” and “Come On Home.” “Where’s The Beef?” was a famous phrase from Wendy’s. There are countless more from then and now and from here and everywhere across America, ‘cause even though the hamburger was an immigrant to the USA from Hamburg, Germany, where it had been a food staple since the 18th century, we made it one of our own.
The sandwich which Wimpy did his share to popularize in the funny papers was first noted on an American menu at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City in 1826, then in 1904 it was a wildly successful item at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition’s Tyrolean Alps exhibition restaurant. Some hamburger scholars contend that the always friendly Genghis Kahn and his Golden Horde created a hamburger type meat that was tenderized by putting it under their horses saddles as they rode to the next of their seemingly endless battles. That’d make the meat product we call hamburger about 900 years old.
In this edition of “Inside St. Louis” we pay tribute to the Eat-Rite at the southeast corner of 7th and Chouteau Streets which is just the other side of the Mill Creek Terminal Railroad tracks from Busch Stadium III. Matter of fact the Eat-Rite downtown skyline view, punctuated by the gleaming stainless steel Gateway Arch, is ‘bout as good as that from the roof top dining area of the uppity, but nice, Vin de Set just 13 blocks out Chouteau. The exterior of the Eat-Rite is of white painted brick and block topped with a three sided once electrified porcelain Eat-Rite sign, which in turn is partially capped by Coca-Cola signs. A peek through the front windows quickly gives you the lay of the land that this is a no frills eatery offering counter service only at a curved corrugated stainless steel counter with a very well-worn Formica top that clearly indicates thousands have sampled the Eat-Rite fare before you. As you situate your posterior on a black leatherette topped stainless steel stool you’ll note that the menu board above the back-bar is pretty darn extensive for such a tiny place.
As you consider your edible options take a gander ‘round and note that the white Eat-Rite outside is matched by an equally white inside of tile walls and metal ceiling with a tile floor. It’s an easy upkeep kind of place. There’s an ATM, a Rowe AMI CD jukebox with a most eclectic selection of songs, a Lord Of The Rings pinball (I scored 1,536,330 points, which isn’t as good as it sounds) and a much older Can-Can pinball, by Williams circa 1955, which offers Magic Screen points. Don’t lollygag too long as the place fills up fast with two obvious types of people; those that seem to have all day (or night) and others who seem pretty antsy as they must have business to attend to elsewhere. But there’s a warmth and camaraderie that comes over all those that enter Eat-Rite and everyone seems at peace with their fellow man…or woman. And if they aren’t at peace there’s the watchful eye of surveillance cameras plus you need to be buzzed in after dark and before dawn, though the diner’s usually so packed, that the comings and goings of customers makes the buzzer of little use. Incidentally the Eat-Rite parking lot is a good place to consider when taking in a Cards game as the stadium is an easy walk.
To assist you in planning your dining decisions here are some choices to consider: Cheeseburger $1.90, the Frank’s a dime less, grilled cheese is a dime more than the cheeseburger, ham sandwich goes for $2.90, pork sausage $2.80, egg sandwich runs a buck forty…10 cents more if you want it on toast. You can add lettuce or tomato to anything for an extra 40 cents. But the best seller as of this jotting is the 6-pack of small cheeseburgers for $5.10. The burgers are a bit bigger than those at the Castle and they don’t have holes in ‘em.
Not to muddle your mind, but you could go for the Chile which is a good deal at $2.40. The Eat-Rite cook starts off with a frozen log of good ‘ol Edmond’s made-in-St. Louis Chile, then adds beans and some secret stuff. In case you missed it, Edmond’s is really O. T. Hodge chile. Now this gets confusing; if you see Hodge’s in the store, it’s really not the same O. T. Hodge concoction that’s been served at their chain of chile parlors for over a century. The Hodge’s chile is OK, but it’s just not quite the same as Edmond’s which it really the original O. T. Hodge’s - it all has something to do with the ownership of the name.
But wait, don’t order yet, you still have some items to ponder such as the Slinger which is a hit all day and all night. It’s the #1 selling item at the S. Lindbergh Eat-Rite. The Slinger’ll set you back a hefty $6.95 but you get your money’s worth. It’s concocted from either bacon, sausage or ham with eggs and potatoes that are smothered with chile, cheese, onion and hot sauce. Good thing the Tums company is just a few blocks away on 4th Street. There’s also a chopped sirloin similar to what the Toddle House served that’s accompanied by French fries and slaw for $5.95. Ala carte items include hash browns or fries at $1.50, slaw for $1.20 plus donuts or rolls and 10 cent cookies. A slice of pie goes for $2.10 or make it ala mode for 70 cents more. Last time I was in they offered cherry or blackberry. To wash it all down, Manhattan coffee runs 60 cents (75 to go), hot chocolate’s 80 cents and malts are $2.90 and there’s hot or iced tea, milk, juice, lemonade and Coke products. All items on the menu can be packed to go but note the posted warning that reads: “If you order anything to go, you must take it to go, no more ordering to go then eating it here.”
Omigosh, maybe you wanted breakfast! Well there are hot cakes at $3.90, two bucks more with meat; cereal at $1.30, toast for a dollar, two egg cheese omelet $3.90 with meat $5.20, two eggs and toast $2.35, bacon, two eggs and toast $3.70; sausage, egg and cheese sandwich $3.40 and there are still a few more items. No matter what you want from the menu it’s all available 24/7 proclaims Eileen, a 35 year Eat-Rite maiden. Wow, I almost forgot! Dee who’s on duty from 5:30 am. To 2:30 p.m. intimated that she thinks the best darned thing at Eat-Rite is the golden fried chicken. You get 4 pieces of chicken with fries and slaw for $6.50. And Dee should know as she’s been working at Eat-Rite for 38 years (that’s not a misprint). That means Dee started her Eat-Rite career when some of the hot TV shows were Marcus Welby M.D., Gunsmoke and Hawaii Five-O, the top movie of the year was The Godfather, you could buy a new Cadillac Coupe DeVille for just under $6 grand and Don McLean’s “American Pie” was one of the top hit songs. In that year I was programming radio stations KADI and KXLW. What were you doing? I wonder how many burgers Dee’s peddled since ’72? It’d have to be in the hundreds of thousands. The late Jim “The Big Bumper” White of KMOX, who will long be remembered for popularizing the slogan “You Can’t Fix Stupid”, was one of Dee’s regulars.
Today you’d need a most vivid imagination to conjure a mental image of what the Eat-Rite and surrounding area must have been like in the late 1760s and 70s when it was a very thinly settled countryside that gently sloped up from the banks of the yet to be dammed Petite Riviere which would later be called Mill Creek. Mill Creek and it’s valley and Auguste Chouteau’s 100 acre mill pond were created as part of the complex of the flour mill he purchased in 1779 . In those early days of St. Louis when the site was part of the old French Commons these were bucolic fields for little more than some grazing animals. In 1836 the 30 acre Lafayette Park was created and it became the city’s first developed park. One of the first orders of development was to fence in the park proper so grazing cattle wouldn’t damage the park’s early landscaping. Lafayette Square would soon become a suburban conclave of some of our town’s wealthiest citizens who desired refuge from the hubbub of activity and the increasing manufacturing in burgeoning downtown.
The well-to-do citizenry of the Square would overcome the Panic of 1837 but some succumbed to the Cholera epidemic of 1849 caused in no small part by the heavily polluted Chouteau’s Pond just down the hill from their residential aerie. Many of the well-heeled residents would soon pull up stakes for the security of places such as the then distant Vandeventer Place and environs so to remove themselves from the smells and pollution of the city. It wouldn’t take long for “commercial progress” to catch up with those who took flight. We could go on about the life and times of the Eat-Rite’s predecessors in Lafayette Square, Soulard, Mill Creek, Bohemian Hill, downtown and La Salle Park; the designation for the district in which Eat-Rite East is located, but we need to tell you more of the hamburger heritage of Eat-Rite’s guiding light, and Frank Sinatra fan, Lewis Powers who along with his wife Dorcas, son David and daughter Tina keep a hands-on approach to the business. David and Tina have been working at Eat-Rite since there were each 17. Lewis started when he was 13 and went into the business full-time after dropping out of school at 15. That’s when his mom and dad had the Superior Sandwich Shop at 601 S. Vandeventer across from Bill Binig’s place that was noted for its turtle soup. As a kid, Lewis lived at 4035 Pennsylvania Avenue and later, fittingly, above a diner on S. Broadway.
While holding forth in the small storage area above an equally little basement that had doubled the size of the original building, Lewis, decked out in a white Eat-Rite polo shirt related that he and his Mrs. are annual vacationers in Hawaii. I wonder if someday after a trip to our 50th state where Spam is the top food item, Lewis will come back with a recipe for Spamburgers. Hmm, might be a tasty treat. A lot of folks think the place at 622 Chouteau was the first Eat-Rite but Eat-Rite #1 was on Manchester in Rock Hill (where even though Officer Ziegler has retired, you still should resist the temptation to drive faster than 30). Next on the long list was a spot they called The Chile House at Brentwood and Manchester in Brentwood, then came Manchester and Sutton (now Tiffany’s) in Maplewood, followed by a diner behind Johnny’s Market on Gravois. Next came a location in Murphy Flats out Gravois west of the old Biltmore Country Club in Fenton, and a spot in High Ridge with a city location to follow at Tower Grove and McRee with yet another on the east side of Kingshighway at Highway 40 - plus there was one in Overland on Woodson Rd. which is now The Diner. Lewis bought The 7th and Chouteau location in 1970. It was named Serv-Rite at the time and before that it was a Regal then a Royal hamburger stand. Then Lewis expanded to the place on S. Lindbergh. And even though the Eat-Rite on Chouteau is the smaller of all the preceding locations it does a brisker business than the others did or do.
The extended Power’s family hamburger history is rich with places such as Gateway Sandwich Shops, operated by a relative, Leon Harris; Courtesy, which at one time had 15 locations and was owned by another relative, Leon Burrow. The Courtesy at 18th and Olive Streets had a significant “role” as the White Palace in the made-in-St. Louis movie of the same name. Lewis who’d graduated from Meramec grade school and attended Cleveland High, got his first job at the Courtesy at Grand and Shenandoah in the Strassberger Conservatory building which was in the same block as the Shenandoah theatre, Homer McCracken’s drug store and Willis’ basement pool hall. That Courtesy was in the block south of Pelican’s restaurant, another noted turtle soup purveyor. The landmark Pelican sign is now in the careful care of the Antique Warehouse and soon to be refurbished to it’s original glory by the Greg Rhomberg team of restorationists.
Our city Eat-Rite is just around the corner from yesteryear’s White Way theatre and the John Weisert Tobacco Company, maker of Rod & Gun and Seven Seas pipe tobacco and Arco cigars. And it’s not much more than stone’s throw from the old auto entrance for the Municipal (Free) MacArthur Bridge which is at the east end of the sprawling (Ralston) Purina campus of Checkerboard Square. A sign placed on the Eat-Rite building by the Hampton Hotels Save-A-Landmark program states that this establishment is proclaimed a site worth seeing as it recognizes the Eat-Rite as one of the few nostalgic Route 66 diners with great burgers and a friendly atmosphere and that it’s an official Route 66 roadside attraction. Which is also an honor extended by my Route 66 show on KMOX.
The grazing fields are
gone, Chouteau’s Pond is no more, the noted Cracker Castle mansion
up the street has long vanished, the devastation of the cyclone of
1896 is forgotten, the Czechoslovakian, German, Hungarian, Syrian
and Lebanese families have moved away, but churches such as Our Lady
of Victories, St. John Nepomuk, St. Vincent de Paul and St.
Raymond’s Maronite (which was at 931 La Salle Street) remain as
reminders of the rich past of this venerable section of St. Louis.
This is a relatively little traveled area that deserves your
attention as it’s steeped in our past and yet is well connected to
our future…plus you can enjoy a repast of a Slinger or a 6 pack of
mini-cheeseburgers at the classic Eat-Rite! Tell ‘em Johnny Rabbitt
Click here for an image gallery of Eat Rite Strictly
diner food served by friendly folks to a wide cross-section Special needs access
a bit iffy on Chouteau, The Eat-Rites are
“central casting” classics for traditional mid-20th
century hamburger stands. There are no pretensions at Eat-Rite where
they stand staunchly by their registered trademark:
Eat-Rite or Don’t Eat At All!
diner food served by friendly folks to a wide cross-section
Special needs access
a bit iffy on Chouteau,
The Eat-Rites are “central casting” classics for traditional mid-20th century hamburger stands. There are no pretensions at Eat-Rite where they stand staunchly by their registered trademark:
Eat-Rite or Don’t Eat At All!