From Jan. 8-13, this year’s Cheeseburger Week, join in the fifth annual celebration during which Pasadena honors native Lionel Sternberger, reputed to be the first restaurateur to have crowned a meat patty with a slab of melting cheese at his father’s eatery, The Rite Spot at 1500 W. Colorado Blvd., back in 1924.      

This year, the commemoration becomes official with a pre-Cheeseburger Week dedication of a plaque at 11 o’clock this very morning (Jan. 5) at the Los Angeles Financial Credit Union. The building, across the Arroyo Seco in the city’s San Rafael area, occupies the original Rite Spot site at the westernmost edge of Pasadena, just west of Avenue 64.

Of course, the modern edifice bears absolutely no resemblance to the original (pardon the expression) shack that once housed The Rite Spot. If you log into the official Cheeseburger Week website (pasadenarestaurantweek.com) there’s a great photo of it, along with a list of this year’s participants and, as an extra bonus, a video of Jimmy Buffett singing his “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” the official song of the Pasadena celebration despite the fact that Buffett’s lyrics fail to mention our city.

There are several creation myths about the birth of the cheeseburger at The Rite Spot: that young Lionel accidentally burned a hamburger and, to hide the damage, placed a slice of cheese on the burned side; that a hobo who ordered the burger asked Lionel to add the cheese; or that Lionel was in reality a “culinary” pioneer who liked to experiment.

Whatever the inspiration, there’s no doubt that the cheeseburger, in all guises from basic fast-food to gourmet extravaganzas, is one of America’s most beloved foods. And, since its inception five years ago, Cheeseburger Week has caught on big time in the city, earning what seems to be permanent placement on Pasadena’s winter calendar.

The Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event includes a Cheeseburger Challenge. You can log onto the website during the week to vote for your favorite burgers. Last year’s 14 categories included all-around favorite traditional burger, lunch counter burger, white table cloth burger, sliders, gourmet burger, bar burger, beer and burger, alternative burger, turkey burger, and vegan burger, even offering a choice to vote on favorite cocktail and dessert go-withs. Close to 1,300 voters responded.

My favorite category is “alternative burger,” which last year was won by Umami’s ahi tuna burger with runners up A/K/A’s portobello and brie and Lucky Baldwin’s salmon burgers. All three eateries are participating again this year. And, even better, the 2016 winners in all 14 categories have re-upped for 2017. In fact, as I write (on Dec. 29) the only 2016 participants not on the as-yet incomplete list are Magnolia House and La Grande Orange.

The website offers advice for multistop “Cheeseburger Crawls” (with designated drivers if adult beverages are to be included), even proposing certain groupings: e.g., South Lake Avenue, traditional and Old Pasadena crawls. Their suggestion is for four friends to pick four of the 40-plus participants and order a single burger at each, cut it into four pieces so each person can have a bite and then head to the next restaurant on the list.

Frankly, that has its drawbacks. I’m pretty sure as a woman who worked her way through grad school waiting tables that a party of four sharing a lone cheeseburger might tee off an overworked server unless the tip was at least equal to the cost of the sandwich. And, especially with some of those dolled-up burgers crammed with a jillion fancy toppings, a mere quarter is unlikely to capture the totality of the creation. IMHO, a minimum order at each stop should include at least a half-burger for each person.

Although I’m really looking forward to crawling around Pasadena next week with my husband and various friends, I’m torn. Like many of us, I’ve gained a fair bit of weight in the past couple of months, mostly from pre- and post-election stress helped along by plenty of holiday goodies and baddies, so I swore to my doctor last week that I would apply myself with rigor to an exercise and weight-loss regimen immediately.

But just as I’m freezing the last of the sugarplums, swearing off the eggnog, removing the (too-tight) clothing I’ve been draping over the treadmill for the past several weeks and putting the last touches on my one-item list of New Year’s resolutions, Cheeseburger Week comes along and sings its irresistible siren song. Get thee behind me Satan? Not a chance! Resolutions be damned till Jan.14.

As Jimmy Buffet puts it:

“Cheeseburger is paradise

Medium rare with mustard’d be nice

Not too particular, not too precise

I’m just a cheeseburger in paradise

I like mine with lettuce and tomato

Heinz 57 and French fried potatoes

Big kosher pickle and a cold draught beer

Well good God almighty which way do I steer

For a cheeseburger in Paradise?”

Answer: Head to Pasadena Jan. 8-13. 


For a complete list of Cheeseburger Week participants and to vote for your favorites, visit pasadenarestaurantweek.com.