It all started innocently enough.
“Let’s grab a burger and a beer for lunch,” I say.
We meet at the Payne Café (3528 Payne Ave., 216-361-9448), a greying den of iniquity in the heart of Chinatown.
“It’s more of a lunch place,” a pal says, politely suggesting that it’s best to visit the Payne during daylight hours.
We belly up to the bar and order a round of beers – two-dollar Buds – and take in the scenery, which is to say the back bar lined with booze, a weathered pool table, one solitary four-top.
There’s a menu, but everybody orders the Ruby Burger ($5), named after the owner/bartender/cook.
“Two Rubys,” we say. “And another round of beers.”
We ask Ruby if she sells french fries. “You can’t eat a Ruby Burger and fries,” she responds.
Somebody down the bar orders the soup: cream of potato.
Ruby sets to making our lunch. She tosses a few blobs of ground beef onto the coal-black griddle. Used to be that every bar had such a flattop, useful for everything from fried eggs and hash to seared beefsteak. Ruby cropdusts the meatblobs with some secret seasoning and presses it deep into the meat with a wood-handled rectangular patty press. Only then do we begin to get a sense of how big these burgers are, their scalloped edges extending far and wide around the cast iron utensil.
Ruby must have felt bad about the fries because she whips up a batch of warm potato salad from scratch using, apparently, ingredients she keeps on hand for just such an occasion.
“She ever make you potato salad?” we ask our pal, the regular.
“Never,” he says, amused by the incongruity of it all.
Ruby sets down a pair of her namesake burgers, things of beauty, really. The normal-size bun looks absolutely Lilliputian compared to the beef patty, its charred and flared perimeter escaping its bunny borders by a good three inches. There’s lettuce, there’s bacon, there’s cheese, there’s onion and, what’s this, ham? And who uses good china in a dive bar?
Considerately, Ruby serves the burgers with a steak knife and fistful of napkins. A guy needs both to conquer the Ruby.
A fresh round of beers, obviously.
“It’s an emergency,” says the frazzled lady who enters the bar. “Can I get a little cash?”
We use the interruption as an excuse to step outside into the surprisingly warm sunshine. Day drinking: that moment in time when “a burger and a beer” morphs into an afternoon of guilty pleasures. Joints like the Payne Café have a way of doing that. Places with cheap beer and zero judgment.
“Where to next?”