About 25 years ago--before the freeway bypassed downtown Ventura, back when the Ventura Freeway was also Ventura's Main Street--there was a tiny (very tiny) hamburger joint on East Main, a couple of blocks east of the mission. It always had people standing in front of it, either eating or waiting for their food, and it's hard for me to remember, at this late date, just why I never stopped there to eat.
Since the little yellow and brown building is still there, and since just as many people seem to be either eating or standing in line as in years gone by, I started wondering recently whether the place is doing something right. And whether it might not be too late to find out what.
Thus, although I've certainly got to be considered a Johnny-come-lately at the Top Hat, I've now become one of its enthusiasts, one of those who periodically stand around on that corner. The other day, as it happens, I was sitting (there are 13 stools around the exterior of the building; the interior is entirely work space). I was trying to explain to myself why I thought this food epitomized a certain segment of truly "American" cuisine, although you almost cringe at using a word like "cuisine" at the Top Hat.
What could be more American than the Top Hat's double cheeseburger? It's really a chili burger with two patties, lettuce, mayonnaise and cheese--actually, a little too much cheese for my own taste. Granted, purists may moan that mayonnaise should not sully a true chili burger, but this doesn't seem to lessen the burger's American authenticity.
Or Charlotte's Special, the chili dog, loaded with meaty, greasy all-American chili? The dog itself doesn't burst in your mouth when you bite into it as do those greatest of chili dogs, at Pink's in Los Angeles, but the result is still satisfying in a "real food" way.
These hot dogs and hamburgers are as American as foods get (please, don't bother to tell me that the hot dog is a sausage originating in Frankfurt, Germany, or that the hamburger comes from Hamburg; it's what we've made of them in this country that counts). To add to the list, what's more American than fried chicken? The Top Hat does it very crisp in clean oil, cooked quickly enough that it stays moist. The meat is dripping when you bite through the crust.
It would be an understatement to say that this is one of the more inexpensive places to eat. When owner Charlotte Bell took over some 25 years ago, hamburgers were 35 cents and hot dogs were a quarter. (Who knows what the prices were when the Top Hat first opened--"about 1938"?) But even today, you're only talking about $1.65 for the chili dog and $1.85 for the double chili burger, with the chicken and french fries at the top of the list running a big $2.85.
These prices, together with the quality of the food, are probably why you can still, at nearly any time of the day, see 12 or 15 people waiting out in front of the Top Hat. They're usually a pretty mixed group, ranging from muscular guys in T-shirts and biker beards to elderly ladies who live nearby. Plenty of well-worn cowboy hats are sprinkled around the crowd; lots of the conversations are in Spanish.
Some of those waiting are leaning against the news racks on the corner, listening to what everyone else is having. "A hot dog with ketchup and mustard and an order of onion rings," is coming across the counter, while a guy in a business suit might be picking up the "corn burritos and a Pepsi" to go. There's a lot of "to go" here since, after all, 13 stools aren't many, and this is an area of heavy retail: Besides some other restaurants there are numerous thrift shops and a few somewhat seedy bars.
As for those corn burritos, they're misnamed. These are corn tortillas stuffed with refried beans, covered with cheese: bean burritos, properly speaking. In any case, they're very crisp and well worth ordering.
The burritos and the double cheeseburger are about the most popular items, says Charlotte, from inside the minuscule building. If you stretched out both arms you'd just about touch both walls. Watching her at work in this tiny space makes you think there might be a thing or two that Charlotte and her first mate might be able to teach those robots we now use in automobile production about the economy of movement. Not to mention pricing.
WHERE AND WHEN
Top Hat, 299 E. Main St., Ventura. Open Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. No credit cards. Lunch for two, $5 to $7.