ToquiNotes: Stepping Back in Time for a Bite to Eat at Burger Chef and Loading Up at "The Works" Bar

By Jeff Toquinto on July 07, 2018 from ToquiNotes via Connect-Bridgeport.com

As I often do in this blog, I like to reminisce about places from the past. Often times, because I really love food, I like to talk about restaurants no longer with us that so many of us used to enjoy.
 
Most recently, I began thinking about the old Burger Chef chains that dotted the country side and were right here in Harrison County. You remember them don’t you?
 
Although I was never able to ascertain if there was ever a location in Bridgeport, I fondly remember two sites. One of those sites I occasionally went to was in Nutter Fort and the other, which I frequently visited or had dinner brought home, was situated in downtown Clarksburg on Chestnut Street in the area right beside where Dominos is located today.
 
The Nutter Fort location today is Mother Goose Land. The Clarksburg location hosts an eye doctor’s office – the Center for Vision Care.
 
While there isn’t necessarily anything Bridgeport about those business – and for purposes of my own blog that doesn’t have to be the gold standard – there certainly was a Bridgeport connection. Those businesses were owned by Bridgeport’s restaurant icon Pat O’Mara. The same guy that also brought you Bonanza and USA Steak Buffet, was the owner and operator of both of the above mentioned locations, according to his son and several others.
 
O’Mara’s son Pat, who is a 1984 graduate of Bridgeport High School, is still in the food business. Today, you’ll find him operating the Brickside Grille (ironically in the old Bonanza building that has a tiny piece of its property in Bridgeport) and as a co-owner of The Caboose in Clarksburg.
 
“I definitely remember those two and my father owning them and I’m pretty sure there were others,” said O’Mara. “I was pretty young at the time when they were in operation. Honestly, I kind of grew up at those businesses.”
 
O’Mara’s memories stirred many of mine that I had forgotten. Burger Chef was known for so many things including their paper hats and some of the best milkshakes known to mankind. He refreshed my thoughts on those.
 
“I was always hanging out there; I think as early as two-years-old. They even had the conveyor belt for the hamburgers. I would act like I was working and would go back and help myself to a milkshake,” said O’Mara fondly recalling the business.
 
They were known for something else – cheap burgers. As a kid, I still remember the 19 cent hamburgers and 29 cent cheese burgers. They would also have deals on their specialty burgers like the Big Shef and the Super Shef sandwiches. My father told me, and there are plenty of images on the Web to prove it, that they used to feature exclusively 15 cent hamburgers.
 
For those on the tight budget – and the Toquinto family qualified – it was those 19 cent and 29 cent specials that occasionally meant a night on the town. And when you ordered those burgers you were treated to what I thought was the absolute greatest thing of all time – “the works bar.”
 
Long before you had a buffet chain in every city or local restaurant offering weekend or holiday buffets, the idea of anyone but the person behind the counter or the cooks in the kitchen area preparing your food ready to eat was a somewhat foreign concept.
 
Not at Burger Chef.
 
Instead, you ordered your burgers plain and headed to “the works” bar. Suddenly, that 19 cent hamburger could become a goliath. You could load it with multiple items and it’s where I began to get my love for onions, mayonnaise and pickles on my hamburgers. Until that time, I never had any of those items on my burgers, but decided to give it a try.
 
Four decades and probably 150-plus pounds later, I pretty sure I’m hooked on what started back in the 1970s. The thing is I’ve never talked to a person that had a bad thing to say about Burger Chef, yet eventually, like so many other places that were near and dear to our hearts, the chain faded and eventually disappeared.
 
There’s really nothing like it since. Sure, Fuddruckers came along with the same “works bar” style. As good as their burgers are, there’s one big difference – the price. There’s nothing, even though I didn’t put a time test on cash value today vs. the 1970s and 1980s, on their menu that resembles a 19 cent burger.
 
According to a few Web sites and a generally agreeing Wikipedia page, the business started in 1954. Forty-two years later – in 1996 – it went completely by the wayside; the downfall had started as the chain had earlier been sold to Hardee’s. Long before that 1996 date, primarily in the 1980s, most of the restaurants were gone or had witnessed their names changed to the Hardee’s brand.
 
If you would have told me there wouldn’t be a place for Burger Chef in our fast food world as a youngster I would have never believed it.
 
At one time, there were 1,600 McDonald’s in the country. Burger Chef had 1,200 locations at the same time in 1972. There’s no need to rehash who came out ahead. 
 
It’s strange how it worked out as Burger Chef was actually an innovator on many of McDonald’s staples today. They actually had a kids meal called “the fun meal” years before McDonald’s had their own. They had the “filet of fish” as opposed to the “filet o’ fish.”
 
They seemed to have many things before McDonald’s did and some things – like the works bar – that McDonald’s has never had. Yet, Burger Chef didn’t make it. The only thing that remains are the memories of a quality burger at a good price that even our modest family could enjoy.
 
Burger Chef, thanks for being a friend. My stomach misses you.
 
Editor's Note: Top photo shows the Chestnut Street location with photo feature O'Mara family members, while the photo below this note is of the Nutter Fort location and were provided by Dick Duez. Second photo shows the old menu at most Burger Chef restaurants and a look of a works bar is after that. The photo above this note shows the signature meal from Burger Chef. The cover photo is a much earlier photo of the Nutter Fort Burger Chef.


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