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Pasadena claims its slice of burger history

A slice of cheese, that is. The city launches Pasadena Cheeseburger Week to promote local restaurants and put its name on the invention of a now-ubiquitous American sandwich.

January 16, 2012|By Joe Piasecki, Los Angeles Times
  • According to family legend, Lionel Sternberger invented the cheeseburger in the mid-1920s at this roadside snack stand in Pasadena. Pictured is Lionel's father, Herman Sternberger.
According to family legend, Lionel Sternberger invented the cheeseburger… (Family photo )

Fire. The wheel. A hamburger with cheese.

Pasadena is staking its claim this week 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 Route 66.

The chamber makes its case with less than rock-solid proof: a Wikipedia entry citing competing claims and second-hand accounts of the Sternberger story, including an unsourced, 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 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? Anuja Navare, reading room manager for the Pasadena Museum of History, found a menu for The Rite Spot that listed the "Aristocratic Burger: the Original Hamburger with Cheese," for 15 cents.

The undated menu was produced by the Trapp Printing Co. in Glendale, which closed in 1939. It locates The Rite Spot at 1500 W. Colorado Blvd., at Avenue 64, with a second location at 606 E. Colorado in Glendale, both operated by an L.C. Sternberger. The earliest known mention of Sternberger's business is in Thurston's Pasadena City Directory for 1927; it credits Lionel Sternberger as proprietor of an unnamed restaurant at 1500 W. Colorado.

If Sternberger flipped his first cheeseburger at 16, as Time magazine wrote, he would have done it in 1923 or early 1924. Other accounts say 1926.

By the 1930s, cheese and other toppings were well established as burger add-ons, 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. "If your menu is from the 1930s, it certainly means they were [serving cheeseburgers] early on," he said.

Lionel and his twin brother, Van, were born Feb. 21, 1907, in New York City and moved to 6231 Annan Way in Highland Park between 1910 and 1920, according to federal Census and Social Security Index records.

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."

Sternberger said his father claimed Lionel grilled the first cheeseburger while working at a roadside fruit, tobacco and hamburger stand that the family had operated before building the first Rite Spot on those same grounds in the late 1920s or early '30s.

Food historian Smith, who was born in Burbank, said his parents first dated and fell in love over burgers.

"We eat history every day, and what we are eating today is going to influence tomorrow," Smith said. "The cheeseburger may not be regarded the same way as passing a new law, but it sure made a difference in people's lives."

joe.piasecki@latimes.com

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