Were Cheeseburgers Invented in Pasadena?

Here's how you know a food item is universally beloved, a smash hit: everyone fights over where and when it was invented.

The cheeseburger is just such a dish. It is universally beloved (and in the U.S., September 18 is "National Cheeseburger Day"), probably even surpassing its culinary father, the hamburger. I have to imagine that on a national level, cheeseburger sales far surpass those of plain ol' burgers.

And the question of just who first put cheese to beef is a hotly contested one: there are even disputes over registered trademarks. But as it turns out, Pasadena is most likely the first place this glorious dish was set in front of customers.

The restaurant, a quick-service spot with a long counter and bistro tables surrounding the parking lot, was called Rite Spot. (A little something for geography buffs: the location would now considered Eagle Rock.) The owner's son, 16-year-old Lionel Sternberger, slapped some cheese on a still-cooking burger patty in 1924, and presented his "cheese hamburger" to the world.

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But because Sternberger didn't think to call his creation a cheeseburger, there are other places across the country that feel they have a better claim to ownership.

Kaelin's, in Louisville, KY, has a note on their menu proclaiming themselves "the home of the cheeseburger." The owner didn't create it until 1934, but he did come up with the snappier name, so we give him points for wordplay. Though this was a full 10 years after the Rite Spot started plating cheeseburgers, the media landscape was entirely different back then; it's entirely plausible a Kentucky eatery had never heard about the Pasadena restaurant scene. Sure, worldwide food fads have always existed, but not on today's cronut levels.

And even though Kaelin's first used the term, they don't hold the trademark on it. That was awarded to a Denver, CO restaurant in 1935, narrowly beating out the founder of the Illinois-based Steak 'n Shake chain, who applied for the same trademark.

And of course, it didn't take long for restaurateurs to expand upon the cheeseburger idea, for better or worse. A South L.A. restaurant called O'Dell's was, as early as 1928, offering burgers topped with cheese. And chili. And spaghetti. Yes, all at once, for 40 cents.

That combo is of course just Cincinnati chili in a bun. And that dish had its official debut in 1922. Further proof that when it comes to comfort food, it's difficult to trace inspirations and origins. Still ... let's let Pasadena claim the cheeseburger. Given how many important burger chains started here, and how many we all eat, it only makes sense to call it a SoCal original. To cheeseburgers!

Click here for our favorite cheeseburger recipes.

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About the Author

Katherine's role as the Living editor at KCET.org keeps her running from farms to markets to restaurants to pop-up swaps all over SoCal. She's been living in and writing about this area for over a decade.
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