By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
In the beginning there was the hamburger, and it was good.
Back at the dawn of American cuisine (I'm talking the '30s -- the goddamn Paleozoic Era, foodwise) there was the hamburger, and all things sprang forth from it. Sure, we had our Betty Crockers with their apple brown betties, ham with pineapple rings, and terrifying Jell-O molds. And we had regional cuisine -- Southwestern chili/chiles, Acadian gumbo, tidewater BBQ, scrapple, hash and cornbread -- deep veins of traditional cookery that, in subsequent years, would be plumbed, explored and then ruthlessly strip-mined. We even had some rotund fellows like the late James Beard, who acted as tireless, P.T. Barnum-style promoters of our gustatory cornucopia.
But in the beginning, there was the hamburger. And when we started exporting our culture around the globe, the hamburger went first. It was our vanguard, our tip of the spear. Like cavemen, we offered up meat and fire as if no one had ever thought of that before. And when the world mocked us -- taking the hamburger politely, but with a wry smile, and telling us what a clever little culture we were for thinking of such a thing -- we did what Americans always do when our elders, betters and France tell us that something of ours isn't good enough: We added cheese.
742 S. Broadway
Denver, CO 80209
Region: South Denver
Griff’s Burger Bar
742 South Broadway
H ours: 9 a.m. - 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday
10 a.m. - 10 p.m. Sunday
Giant cheeseburger: $1.69
Double giant cheeseburger: $2.89
Regular fries: $1.49
More than that, we added special sauce, lettuce, (more) cheese, pickles, onions and a sesame-seed bun. We learned how to make the hamburger bigger, better, faster and in wondrous variety. We developed an entire industry designed to ensure the hamburger's speedy delivery to the masses. We added teenage girls in short shorts and rollerskates to the mix, tied the hamburger to the muscle-bound American car culture, employed a generation of pimply-faced boys to dunk the fries and make the milkshakes that went with the hamburgers, then employed their fathers in the slaughterhouses and rendering plants that supplied the beef. We invented takeout. We invented drive-thru. We invented prefab. We grew burger franchises like mushrooms -- in big, funky clumps -- and developed an interstate highway system specifically to create off-ramps, because off-ramps are where franchises flourish.
And then, when that still wasn't enough, we started a few wars to make the world ostensibly safe for democracy, but mostly for cheeseburgers. World War II, Korea, Vietnam -- am I saying that these terrible conflicts were all fought so that Ray Kroc (the father of McDonald's and the secret king of Burgertown) would have new markets for selling his meat patties? Yes, I am. Sure, there were the Nazis, and they were some pretty bad guys. There was also the Red Menace, the Yellow Peril, the Mauve Hazard, international communism and all that, but mostly we fought for cheeseburgers. And say what you will about the catastrophic loss of life involved, the cities burned and the governments toppled, but goddamn if there isn't a Mickey D's right now in Red Square selling Quarter Pounders to the (former) commies. I could get on a plane right this minute and fly to Ho Chi Minh City for Burger King takeout, a bucket of KFC Extra Crispy and a chalupa. I could go to Paris for some McNuggets, Seoul for a milkshake and Toronto for a super-sized order of fries -- and we didn't even have to invade Canada.
But the burger wars of the twentieth century were not fought exclusively on foreign soil. For decades, we had a civil conflict right here in the States, fought by a thousand rival burger franchises, and while it was essentially bloodless, it was no less fierce. Just about everyone has a long-gone chain remembered from childhood -- some place whose memory will be forever entwined with the feel of the back-seat upholstery in the family station wagon or that weird, achy sense of dislocation that came on the third day of a driving vacation when Dad finally limped the Family Truckster across the state line and you arrived somewhere totally, terribly different. Maybe it was a Burger Castle or a Burger Chef, a Lum's, a Lenny's or a Howdie Beefburger. For me, it was an A&W franchise somewhere in the deep South where you ordered through a little tin box on a pole and a roller-skating carhop brought your tray right out to you. Ours must've been ninety years old, wearing a paper hat and shorts in the orange-and-brown A&W corporate colors, and she was really too old to negotiate the curbs, so she just kind of stumbled over to the car with the tray in her hands, then stumbled back inside without speaking a word. We were the only car there. Maybe we'd been the only car in twenty years.
Late last Saturday I visited another casualty of the American burger wars: the sole surviving Denver outpost of the Griff's Burger Bar chain. Back in the day (and to be truthful, I don't know exactly when "the day" was, since this outfit's history is so spotty), Griff's could have given McDonald's a run for its money. The interstate chain owned by the Griffiths family was based in Texas, with locations stretching from Louisiana to Arizona and maybe as far north as Ohio. It had branding -- every Griff's outpost was done in the same steep-sided, A-frame style with the same bright-yellow sign out front that screamed HAMBURGERS in big, block capitals -- as well as drive-thrus. It had a mascot (some creepy little red-and-white-striped mutant-dwarf-clown thing named "Griffy," who exhorted you to stock up on nineteen-cent cheeseburgers), it had patio dining and, most important, it had location. No Griff's was more than spitting distance from a highway off-ramp, and many sprang up right alongside the beam of Route 66.