I have no bone to pick with anything that the Kane County Chronicle's John Puterbaugh wrote in last Friday's full-page feature about the new "deluxe" hamburger restaurants opening in the area—most notably Smashburger, which opened a few weeks back in Batavia; and Tom & Eddie's, which opened on Friday in Geneva Commons.
What I had to chuckle and shake my head at was the piece's big banner headline: "Upscale burgers hitting the scene."
As though the only burgers you could previously get around here were the skinny, pathetic things that are served by the dozen in White Castle bags, or the ones that are smothered in shredded lettuce and all sorts of other glop at McDonald's.
Having reached the point in life where Dr. Peter Cladis now has me on a starter-model cholesterol medication, and tells me to choose chicken or fish a lot more often than I do beef, I don't consume nearly as many burgers as I did in my younger years.
But once in a while you just gotta have one. Burgers are comfort food when you're a long way from home. So, in roughly two decades of traveling the country, mostly on business, I'll guess that I've ordered someone's "specialty burger" at all sorts of restaurants, bars and various roadside joints in probably 40 different states.
Of all of them, the best I've ever enjoyed—and it's not even really very close—is right at the corner of State and First streets in Geneva, IL. That's right; it's Bob Arbizzani's Owl Burger, fixed and served basically the same way for nearly 30 years, at The Little Owl.
The Little Owl (so dubbed, famously, in 1920 by founder Egisto "Tony" Lencioni in response to a traveling cigar salesman who sought to have him name his new establishment the "White Owl") has been a Geneva institution for 90 years, but the Arbizzani family bought the place in 1947, and Bob, the current owner, started working there as a boy for his father, Mick, in the early 1960s.
But it wasn't until the early '80s when Bob, by then assuming most of the Owl's managerial responsibilities, was hungry while working the kitchen on a Saturday night and sought to make himself "a little better burger" for dinner. He tossed 6 ounces—nearly a half-pound—of ground chuck onto a hot grill, along with an onion slice. Meanwhile, he put a Turano French-bread roll in the toaster oven. The burger, placed on the French roll after being grilled to medium—still a touch of pink at the center—was topped with a slice of American cheese and the grilled onions.
"We'd been looking to establish some sort of a 'signature sandwich,' " Bob said, for people who didn't care for the Owl's older specialty, the pepperoncini-dressed Italian beef (which, in 1967, I was instructed to order as a "dago beef" by Jerry Perrone when he sent me down the street, still in my shoeshine apron, from City Barber Shop for Saturday lunch—but that's a story for another time.)
"I thought this was a good option for a signature sandwich," said Bob, "and we've always had people in the kitchen who would know how to cook it to order; medium rare or medium well or what have you."
Today, the Owl Burger, at $8.95 with pickle, coleslaw and choice of French fries, steak fries (my favorite) or sweet-potato fries, continues to be the Owl's top seller—and it's what I order, in all of its hot-and-juicy deliciousness, probably 80 percent of the time when I walk in. Have it for lunch and even by 6 p.m., you're not going to be hungry for more than a light dinner. It's certainly not something Dr. Cladis would want me to have more than once a week, maybe twice.
But when I'm in the mood for a burger, and I'm in town, the Owl Burger is my choice—no question. I've simply not had a better burger anywhere in America.
Let me hasten to add that as of this writing, I've not tried any of the creations at the new Tom & Eddies. (I'll leave Smashburger to our Bulldog friends in Batavia.) If their most similar burger offering is as good, at the same price, I'll be happy to offer an update.