Without the sauce, it might be just another burger. And without the burger, the Plaza Tavern might be just another bar.
Anyone who has eaten this quarter-pounder ventures a guess at what’s in the cool, white sauce. Sour cream and mayonnaise are two known ingredients, but the rest remains a closely guarded secret. (Seriously. The owner keeps the recipe in a safe deposit box.) The Plaza started serving its famous burger in 1964. Mary Huss invented the sauce after she and her husband, Harold, bought the bar the year before.
But what gives it that signature zip? Garlic salt? Chives? Maybe parsley? All good guesses, but quite possibly all wrong.
“Whatever it is, this unique topping is good. Very, very good,” wrote George Motz in his 2008 book, Hamburger America. And as Motz correctly notes, one would be remiss not to order a side of fried cheese curds to accompany the burger.
The bar’s design aesthetic is not of this decade, or the last one. It’s adorned with mural-sized paintings of scenes straight out of an old Hamm’s beer commercial, and customers settle into vinyl booths to eat at Formica tables. For amusement, there are arcade games, including Ms. Pac-Man and a dome hockey table (Badgers vs. Gophers). Motz called it “an enormous romper room for adults.”
The Plaza claims that its famous patrons have included Bill Murray, Johnny Cash, Tom Wopat x’74, Brett Favre, Neil Young, Joan ’84 and John Cusack, and Greta Van Susteren ’76. And Badger alumni rhapsodize about the burger. “Holy macaroni, I miss this place,” an alumna from San Diego wrote on the social networking site Yelp.com.
“Just the thought literally makes my mouth water,” wrote Anne Kissel Elliot ’75 on Facebook. “That special sauce makes the Plazaburger a vivid and wonderful memory.”
Maybe it’s more than the burger that makes the Plaza a special place for so many alumni. It could be the memories of friends they were with, what happened on those nights, and the people they met.
Then again, maybe it’s just the sauce. It is that good.
Published in the Winter 2010 issue