High school friends Alex Berger, 16, and Samantha Schmitt, 16, bite into…
Fire. The wheel. A hamburger with cheese.
Pasadena is staking its claim Sunday as the birthplace of one of mankind’s greatest discoveries with the launch of Pasadena Cheeseburger Week, a Chamber of Commerce event promoting area restaurants.
Legend has it that teenage short-order cook Lionel Clark Sternberger invented the cheeseburger one fateful day in the mid-1920s at a restaurant called “The Rite Spot” on Colorado Boulevard, west of the Colorado Street Bridge, then part of Highway 66.
The chamber makes its case with less than rock-solid proof: a Wikipedia entry citing competing claims and only second-hand accounts of the Sternberger story, including an un-sourced, single-sentence obituary from a 1964 issue of Time magazine. But that’s only half the point.
“It’s intended to be a fun thing,” said chamber President Paul Little, comfortable with the tale’s apparent truthiness. He boasts that competing origin stories promoted in Denver (where in 1935 a diner owner filed for a cheeseburger patent, according to the Denver Post) and Louisville, Ky., date only as far back as the 1930s.
But could the cheeseburger really have been invented in Pasadena? Historic documents and personal accounts build a compelling argument.
The first stop on a scavenger hunt for proof of Pasadena’s cheeseburger birthright was the archives of the Pasadena Museum of History, where reading room manager Anuja Navare found a menu for The Rite Spot. Among steaks, sandwiches and a chicken-and-noodle dish is listed the “Aristocratic Burger: the Original Hamburger with Cheese.” The price was 15 cents.
The menu places The Rite Spot at 1500 W. Colorado Blvd., on the corner of Avenue 64, where a credit union office stands today, and lists a second location at 606 E. Colorado in Glendale, both operated by an L.C. Sternberger. Though undated, the menu was produced by the Trapp Printing Co. in Glendale, which according to records, closed in 1939.
The 1930s encompassed a time of vast experimentation with hamburger toppings, said Andrew F. Smith, a lecturer on food studies at New York University and author of several books, including “Hamburger: a Global History.”
“In the 1930s, you name it, and people started putting it in burgers,” said Smith, who traces the initial popularization of the hamburger to street vendors outside the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Cheese didn’t come until later.
“If your menu is from the 1930s, it certainly means they were [serving cheeseburgers] early on,” he said.
Don Anderson, 82 and owner of the Anderson Business Technology shop in Old Pasadena, already had a hunch. “I remember as a little boy we used to go to Sternberger’s Rite Spot. He was a friend of my father,” said Anderson, who describes the place as “a pretty good-sized restaurant, like a Bob’s Big Boy later on — a lot of Tournament of Roses people went there.”
But records located with the help of Pasadena Public Library research librarian Dan McLaughlin show the Sternbergers were already in business before the start of the Great Depression. Lionel and his twin brother Van were born Feb. 21, 1907, in New York City to parents Herman and Minna Murray Sternberger, who sometime between 1910 and 1920 moved to 6231 Annan Way in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood, according to federal Census and Social Security Index records.
Time magazine and other sources say Sternberger would have been 16 at the time of his discovery, dating the cheeseburger to 1923 or early 1924. Other accounts say 1926. The first record of a Sternberger in Pasadena is Thurston’s Pasadena City Directory for 1927, which credits Lionel as proprietor of an unnamed restaurant at 1500 W. Colorado.
When Lionel died on Jan. 30, 1964, leaving a wife and no children, obituaries in the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times emphasized his ownership of Doc Jocoy, a top Southern California racehorse of the day. Only the Times noted that Lionel “was credited with inventing the cheeseburger.”
An October 1968 Times obituary for Lionel’s brother Van gives credit to both for co-inventing the cheeseburger in 1922. But unlike Lionel, Van was survived by several children.
Van’s son Don Sternberger, 67, of Murietta, heard the story behind the “Aristocratic Burger” as a child serving them at a restaurant the family later opened at 6138 N. Figueroa Street in Highland Park, also called The Rite Spot.
“Lionel was a big eater. One day he just decided he wanted a hamburger with cheese on it and started doing it. That’s how my dad described it to me,” said Don Sternberger, uncertain of the year. “My dad was proud of it. I tried once to get him to go to In-N-Out with me and he wouldn’t.”