On a historic stretch of road, just 20 minutes west of downtown St. Louis, Missouri, the Chuck-A-Burger drive-in has remained virtually unchanged for 64 years. Still sporting the same red-and-white striped façade that has greeted hungry travelers since 1957, there is no confusing it with any other diner or chain restaurant.
St. Charles Rock Road carries a fair share of history itself. This is the same road that Meriwether Lewis traveled to meet up with William Clark and begin one of history’s best-known cross-country road trips. Chuck-A-Burger has not been around quite that long, but I bet Lewis and Clark would have stopped here if they could, for a delicious curbside meal.
I’m a fan of all things historic and mid-century, and I spend a lot of time talking with my kids about the “good old days.” Fortunately, Chuck-A-Burger—a high school hangout spot for me as well as for my parents before me—is still thriving, and remains exactly what it has always been: a 1950s time capsule of good food and fun times, and a celebration of roadside culture.
A cherry on top
The building features massive windows surrounding a seating area, an original car hop station, and a distinct slanted roof adorned with ‘50s-style neon lettering—it’s exactly what you might expect to see in an Elvis movie or an episode of Happy Days. The interior matches the exterior perfectly, complete with a sit-down counter.
My family and I make a trip to Chuck-A-Burger not long before dusk on a warm summer night. The parking spaces around the building are almost full, but we score a spot. We don’t wait long before a carhop greets us with a warm smile and offers to explain the menu—but we already know what we want.
The menu items (and prices) have also remained the same, at least for the last few decades, and include everything you’d expect to find at a ‘50s diner: burgers, shakes, malts, chili, hot dogs, and specialty items such as chicken strips, codfish, tamales, and Frito pie.
My wife and I happen to both be in the mood for the same thing: a BBQ Chuck burger with a Cherry Coke and breaded mushrooms (always fresh, hot, and terrific with ranch dip). The kids opt for their own favorites, including crisp curly fries and hand-crafted vanilla shakes. The drinks all come topped with an actual cherry—a subtle but significant touch.
Chuck-A-Burger, owned by Ron Stille, has always been a family business. Stille, who took over the business from his father, has been working here since 1978 and rarely misses a day of work. Stille and I have the chance to talk about what has changed over the years (or perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t) and what keeps a place like Chuck-A-Burger going strong.
Stille says that everywhere he goes, people recognize him and ask about Chuck-A-Burger: “I was leaving a parking garage downtown, and I had three different people say to me, ‘Hey, did you bring burgers?’ It’s a legendary place and people know it.”
People don’t just know Chuck-A-Burger, they love it. As surrounding businesses have come and gone over the decades, Chuck-A-Burger remains a neighborhood anchor. It’s a place that people visit both to bring back old memories and to create new ones. Its recognition goes well beyond locals—Lovefood.com recently listed Chuck-A-Burger as the “Best Retro Diner” in the state of Missouri.
I ask Stille how the name came to be. Back in 1955, Stille’s dad and two others quite literally “put three names in a hat,” and the one they pulled out was Chuck-A-Burger, a reference to the ground chuck that was (and still is) used to create the burgers. Today, diners can choose from a single, double, or triple Chuck, or specialty concoctions such as a BBQ Chuck, Pizza Chuck, and Hollywood Chuck.
No matter which one you choose, Stille says he’s proud of the burgers’ trademark crispy edges. “It’s hard to do,” he says. “When you’re really busy—and you put 15 or 20 patties on that grill—it’s hard to make every one crispy on the edge.” It may not be easy, but it’s worth it—my BBQ Chuck, topped with coleslaw, is juicy but quite crispy, blending perfectly with the Cherry Coke and a heaping side of roadside nostalgia.
Cruisin’ since 1957
Along with the great food, Chuck-A-Burger was once also known as the place to catch a staple of ‘50s fashion: a poodle skirt. “My mom used to make all the poodle skirts for the [car hops],” Stille says. “She rented out the skirts and even sold them.”
Chuck-A-Burger’s tagline “Cruisin’ since 1957” conjures up images of what is in my opinion the most classic of all classic cars: the ‘57 Chevy. Classic cars and Chuck-A-Burger have always gone hand in hand; the diner’s parking lot hosts car shows and serves as a hub for Friday night cruises after football games at the local high school (located across the street). Stille owns a ‘57 Chevy, which has been featured in various photo shoots around the area. The car once made an on-ice appearance before a St. Louis Blues hockey game and played a minor role in the 1996 movie Larger than Life starring Bill Murray.
We drive away from Chuck-A-Burger with our hearts and stomachs full—and as we get back on the road, slowly returning to the present, we carry a bit of the past along with us.
If you go:
Chuck-A-Burger is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. The restaurant accepts cash just like it did in 1957, but is modern enough to also accept all major credit cards.