The Eagle Drive-In Serves some of the best burgers in Joplin.
By Kelly Moffitt
St. Louisans have a love affair with 1904. The 1904 World’s Fair, that is. While indulging in yearly viewings of Meet Me In St. Louis, it is not uncommon to hear things like “Did you know the ice cream cone was invented at the World’s Fair?” or “We wouldn’t have the X-ray if it had not been so well-received at the Fair.”
While there are kernels of truth in each of the inventions typically listed, from the baby incubator, to the telegraph, to the dishwasher and to the coffee maker, there are some that could be considered a little more of a stretch. The submarine? The airplane? Iced tea? Although each had some relation to the World’s Fair, it is proven that none of these was actually invented during it.
And so we come to the hamburger—the most contentious “invention” of all at the 1904 World’s Fair. The hamburger’s origin story rivals those of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries, much like the Bermuda Triangle or Deflategate.
Facts about the hamburger’s rise are most often attributed to a 1904 report from the New York Tribune, which called a new hamburger sandwich “the innovation of a food vendor on the pike,” otherwise known as the World’s Fair Midway.
The late Frank X. Tolbert, noted columnist The Dallas Morning News, probably has the most trusted account of the World’s Fair hamburger origin story, which can be found in his humorous 1983 tome, Tolbert’s Texas.
In it, Tolbert describes a man, Fletcher Davis, who was known to most in the town of Athens, Texas, as “Old Dave.” Davis had come to Texas from Webster Groves to work as a potter. Later, in the 1880s, he would open up a corner lunch counter that served hamburgers, except they were served between two slices of bread.
The legend goes that the town raised money for him to take his creation back to his home state and peddle it at the 1904 World’s Fair. There, for two weeks, he sold hamburgers across from an exhibit about the history of great Native Americans. There’s a photo that verifies this hamburger stand truly did exist under the name “Old Dave’s Hamburger Stand.” Likewise, the young nephew recalled being interviewed by the New York Tribune reporter.
Tolbert’s interview with James A. Cockrell, an editor of the now-defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat, also backed up this version of the hamburger’s origin story—though he credits St. Louisans for naming the culinary creation.
“There are many people of German descent in St. Louis,” Cockrell said. “I think these St. Louis Germans, or maybe only one of them, can be blamed for misnaming the magnificent Texas culinary creation. In St. Louis, I’ve heard from a person, whose parents or grandparents came from the southern regions of Germany, say that northern Germans in the city of Hamburg were much given to eating ground meat, even in the distant past. Other Germans disapproved of the Hamburg ground-meat freaks, especially the Hamburg types who liked raw ground meat. So the St. Louis Germans may have named the sandwich hamburger as a derisive gesture toward the barbaric, ground-meat gobblers in the city of Hamburg.”
Doesn’t that story sound nice? A nice, hardworking St. Louisan returns to his hometown and makes it big during the World’s Fair with a beloved creation from his little lunch counter.
Not so fast. Although this story has been claimed by McDonald’s own esteemed research center and Hamburger University, others have discounted it.
For one, the folks in Seymour, Wisconsin advocate that “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen was the inventor of the hamburger, having sold meatball sandwiches at the Outagamie County Fair in 1885. That claim is backed up by a resolution from the none-too-impartial Wisconsin state legislature.
The village of Hamburg, New York, also stakes a claim on the hamburger origin story, stating that two brothers from Ohio ran out of pork sausage patties at the Erie County Fair in 1885 and temporarily substituted the pork with beef, making a hamburger.
In 1974, The New York Times ran a story claiming that Louis Lassen had invented the hamburger in a small café in New Haven, Connecticut. It appears, however, that this sandwich was actually a steak cut in thin slices.
In 2007, however, prolific food writer Josh Ozersky wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times, claiming he had scoured the archives of the New York Tribune and come up with nothing about a hamburger at the World’s Fair. He also was unable to find the name Fletcher Davis on the fair’s concessions list.
A 2009 article in Texas Monthly also found holes in the Davis origin story. When a writer went to visit the remaining relatives, they said that Tolbert had dates, professions, and backstories wrong for many people in his hamburger tale. They asserted, however, that Davis had still invented the hamburger and showed the writer Davis’s World’s Fair entry stubs. Those stubs, however, claimed he came as a pottery vendor and had no mention of hamburgers.
Yet, the legend lives on in Athens, Texas.
Andy Smith, a food writer and author of Hamburger: A Global History, published in 2008, said that he has seen no primary evidence for the Davis origin story.
“Unless someone turns some up, I relegate it to the culinary fake-lore,” Andy says. “It is clear that hamburger sandwiches were around well before 1904, and they were popular in many different locations in the 1890s. It’s also likely that Missourians were well aware of hamburger sandwiches before 1904.”
For example, in 1898 in a newspaper as remote as the Butte, Montana, Weekly Miner, there had already been mention of the dish with little explanation of what it was. A sign, Smith alluded, that people were already very familiar with the sandwich.
“Thomas asked if a nice ham sandwich wouldn’t do, and they finally compromised on hamburger,” the article reads. “When Thomas came back to the house with it, the meat bore a dainty dressing of chopped onions, and Thomas carefully scraped this from his sandwich. But not so Mary. She said she intended to eat her onions.”
Many other pieces of primary evidence show the hamburger existed on an ever-evolving continuum since the 1700s, when Germans brought Hamburg Steak—shredded low-grade beef flavored with regional spices—to America.
Soldiers during the Civil War are recorded to have consumed this kind of beef and even the Boston Cooking School Cook Book, published in 1844, includes a recipe for broiled meat cakes that sounds suspiciously close to the hamburger.
While none of these facts solve the mystery of who invented the hamburger, they do show a long-standing American affection for ground-up, juicy meat. At this point, who is to say that Davis or Lassen or Nagreen didn’t create this most-beloved fast-food dish?
It really could have been any of them or someone whose name we’ll never know, and the World’s Fair might have just been the stage on which it was set to skyrocket to popularity. All that really matters is that the hamburger is here to stay, and there are a plethora of places where it can be enjoyed.
Today, no restaurants in Missouri claim to have invented the burger. However, the following ten have almost perfected it.
Many know Bluff Burger and Brew goes by the lovable, simple nickname Triple Bs, and what the restaurant serves up can be considered triple threat: inventive burgers, cold beers, and chili for which customers wait all season.
The restaurant’s thirteen-burger menu only features three burger options that could be considered a typical order. Outside of that, customers are encouraged to feast on everything from the Taco Burger—made with taco seasoning, sour cream, salsa, and shredded cheese—to the Sticky Asian Burger, which is made with a sticky sweet-and-sour sauce and topped with a pineapple ring. Another favorite, the Stuft Burger is made with a veritable hunk of cheese stuffed between two patties and cooked for twenty minutes until the cheese seeps through both of them. The Big B, on the other hand, takes a more adventurous, yet just as gluttonous route: peppers, jack cheese, and fried jalapeños are slathered in roasted red pepper sauce and served atop fried onion twigs that are also covered in the sauce.
If you’re brave, take on the Fried Bologna burger, which is beastly enough for the heartiest American.
2110 S. Ninth Street, Columbia, Missouri 65201
Booches Billiard Hall has been around since 1884, and for 90 of its 132 years, it was operated as a men’s-only establishment. Luckily for everyone from USA Today reporters, who have generously named it a top burger place in the United States, to hungry Mizzou students, professors, and alumni, the legendary eatery now welcomes everyone to enjoy these just-over-slider-sized burgers that are made-to-order.
Served on a square piece of wax paper, the juicy meat truly shines when the patty is topped with a melted American-Swiss-cheese combination that hermetically seals cheese and burger to the fluffy-as-air bun.
Patrons may have a hefty wait during peak consumption times, such as game day, but it’s worth it to observe the original, ornate wooden bar, marvel at the hefty amounts of Cardinals baseball and Stag beer paraphernalia, and take in a game of pool. A friendly warning to those who wish to partake on the weekend: A sign out front reads “Closed Sunday. See you in Church.”
It would be a disservice not to include a particularly delicious barbecue burger that brings patrons near and far to Danna’s Bar-B-Que & Burger Shop, which is so popular it has expanded to three different locations around the Branson area.
Lines often stretch around the restaurant and out the door, but the food here is worth the wait. The tender burgers, which are often overlooked for other more hardcore barbecue fare, are all available with BBQ sauce. The must-try, however, is the Danna cheeseburger, which is topped with pulled pork and the restaurant’s signature mild barbecue sauce. If you’re lucky, you can finish off your meal with a slice of delicious salted caramel pecan pie, served with homemade custard.
Although owners Jason and Suzanne Miller got their start with Instant Karma Hot Dogs, the Eagle Drive-In is all about the burgers.
“People are just like ‘I have to do this,’” Suzanne says.
Why, you ask? The drive-in’s burger creations are a delightful kind of outlandish. For the regular menu, Head Chef Jeremy Canada serves highlights like the Eagle Burger—a beef patty topped with cheddar, Swiss, American cheese, mixed greens, tomato, onion, pickle, a fried quail egg, and eagle sauce—and the Number Six Burger—an elk patty topped with clover honey, caramelized onions, and Swiss cheese.
The restaurant also does one-off monthly and daily specials like the Cali Roll Burger—a tuna patty topped with cucumber guacamole, cream cheese, wasabi mayo—or the Salted Caramel and Bacon Burger, which needs no explanation.
Although the restaurant’s creative concoctions are all worth trying, those who like to choose their own destiny will delight in the build-your-own-burger option. First, pick your third-pound patty: beef, bison, elk, or lamb. Next, pick the cheese: cheddar, Swiss, American, feta, or bleu. Finally, decide what else you want on there; lettuce, tomato, pickle, white onion, red onion, caramelized onions, jalapeños, bacon, and even quail eggs are all options.
When I-55 came through Crystal City and the Dairy Queen that Curt Grass owned had to be torn down, he already had his eye on his next venture: Gordon’s Stoplight Drive-In at the cross-section of Bailey Road and Truman Boulevard.
“We knew the reputation of the place,” Curt says. “My wife and I had been frequenting the place since we were old enough to eat hamburgers.”
Twenty years later, this Jefferson County institution still holds true to the must-stop quality it has had since 1948. The most popular item on the menu is the gargantuan Quadzilla, which consists of four hamburger patties—seared, crispy edges—and any condiment the customer requests. Grass calls it the monster of all burgers.
Another favorite is the Jumbo Burger, which is made with one to three patties and is served with raw, chopped Bermuda onion, oil and vinegar-based cole slaw, and a special barbeque sauce heated to the precise temperature of 175 degrees.
Curt says this process caramelizes the flavor. The perfect side comes in the form of a bowl of chili; the homegrown recipe hasn’t changed since the day the diner opened.
“Part of the secret of a success in life is to eat what you like, and let the food fight it out inside.”At least that’s what Missouri’s gift to the literary world, Mark Twain, once wrote. Luckily for the residents of the author’s town, they can indulge in decadent delights without worrying about food fighting it out.
At Mark Twain Brewing Company, each of the restaurant’s eight burger options complements one of the many beers brewed on site. The restaurant even has some suggestions: the Burger Royale—a half-pound patty topped with bacon and a fried egg—goes well with the Jumping Frog IPA, and the Missouri Smokehouse burger, which is covered in barbecue sauce and shoestring fried onions, is great with Coffee Chocolate Stout.
Owner Bill Martin takes pride in recommending the black bean burger, which is the restaurant’s only vegetarian burger option and one of its best sellers. He likes to pair it with the Scrapbook Pale Ale.
Bill knows a lot about Twain and Missouri lore for that matter. In fact, he was a Missouri River tour guide until he opened the brewpub about two years ago as a place where travelers could meet. That sort of hospitality makes Mark Twain Brewing Company stand out among Hannibal’s cornucopia of Samuel Clemens-themed businesses. However, what really makes it stand out is the fact that Bill and his team serve the best burgers and brews in town.What makes the burgers so special? The buns are made from the brewery’s own craft beer, so they go down as smooth as the Clemens Kölsch.
“The bun doesn’t fill you up,” Bill says. “We let the burger do that.”
If you’re the kind of person who knows exactly what toppings you want, Stacked Burger Bar, located in the revitalizing Carondelet neighborhood, is the place for you.
With more than sixty-four options on a checklist that includes a sriracha-infused beef patty, a brioche bun, feta cheese, bourbon bacon maple jam, and more, this restaurant puts the fate of its hamburger in your hands.
Of course, Stacked also offers a list of pre-ordained items, including customer favorite Big Fat Greek Burger, which is topped with roasted red pepper hummus, pickled cucumbers and red onions, spinach, Kalamata olive relish, and feta.
For those who would rather be eating pizza, you’re also in luck: the That’s Amore burger comes covered in what is essentially a full Italian meal—mushrooms, caramelized onions, and pizza sauce covered with gooey Fontina cheese.
If you’re in need of something to wash these things down, try the Mad Cow cocktail, a generous glass of milk stout topped with vanilla bean ice cream. With live music many nights of the week, your best bet for the shortest wait at this up-and-coming St. Louis favorite is lunchtime.
Tanya Iverson never thought she’d be back in Springfield running the restaurant she had helped manage in the 1990s. However, after her father died in a motorcycle accident, she returned from Arizona and began managing this forty-year-old establishment known as much for its burgers as it is for its staff that knows the cast of regulars by name.
“There are so many regulars who tell me that my dad would be proud, and it means a great deal because they knew him,” Tanya says. “‘Just don’t girly-ize it up,’ is all they’ll say to me now.”
True-to-form, she hasn’t overhauled this charming dive bar. W.F. Cody’s retains its original allure, though several new coats of paint adorn the bathroom walls and new signs and lighting have added to its functionality. Here, the real draw is the food, not the decor, and burgers are king.
A spicy favorite, the Southwest Burger comes with pepper jack cheese, salsa, and jalapeños. The Mushroom Swiss Burger is also a staple on the menu. None, however, rival The Larry. Named after Tanya’s father, The Larry comes with American cheese, a secret-sauce-type mayo, bacon, and a fried egg on top.
If you can’t find your way to this thirty-year-old establishment in Westport, you’ll know it when you see the cheeseburger-shaped car bedecked with floppy lettuce and sesame seeds sitting out front. Although some may call it shabby, this iconic Kansas City burger joint is full of quirk, and the dinge is part of it. Arcade games, TVs, a mighty beer selection on tap, and stalls of flea market vendors selling every kind of nostalgic kitsch beckon.
The burgers are simple, and the meat is sourced from the legendary Kansas City butcher shop McGonigle’s Market, after which it is seasoned well. Order the basics at the bar: ten-ounce beef patties, onions, bacon, and cheese. The rest is serve-yourself at a toppings station replete with Thousand Island dressing.
For those who dare, there’s also the Super Flea challenge: If you eat five ten-ounce burger patties stacked with bacon, cheese, and two pounds of fries in thirty minutes or less, you’ll receive the meal for free and a commemorative T-shirt.
Patrons should note that this dive is a cash-only joint. Come with your wallet full should the ATM be empty; it likely will be.
You don’t find many places like White Grill these days.
The thirty-five-seat diner is the kind of hole-in-the-wall spot that only gets dressed up when parents come in with red, plastic tablecloths, candles, and flowers for their children’s pre-prom dinner in the spring. It’s also the kind of place that hand-cranks out six to seven buckets of Suzie Q curly fries—the burger joint’s most popular side dish—every single day.
Manager-turned-owner Mike Lile has been working at the seventy-eight-year-old restaurant since he was twelve years old. He describes it as unique, particularly because it hasn’t changed all that much since its first inception.
The burgers are simple, but it’s the fresh-never-frozen beef that counts in this scenario. Served in quarter or half-pound portions, the crispy burgers are best enjoyed Whistleburger style—between two pieces of perfectly browned toast. But as chain burger joints come and go, does Mike ever worry that White Grill will succumb?
“It will be here as long as I will,” he says.