Steve’s Lunch offers up a slice of Americana

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, businessmen, neighbors, police officers, prostitutes, and an occasional celebrity dine together inside of Steve’s Lunch. The 8-seat lunch counter has been serving some of Cleveland’s finest food since 1956.

Currently, the entire location is under renovation. According to S and S Construction, the commercial space next door is being remodeled into an ice cream shop and apartments on the second floor are being repurposed into office space.

However, the biggest change to come to the restaurant didn’t happen on the corner of W. 50th and Lorain.

In July of 2010, owner Ed Salzgeber opened up a second restaurant called Steve’s Dinner off Ridge Rd. in Brooklyn.

Despite the new location, the original Steve’s is still the more popular destination.

In front of Steve’s Lunch a few men are usually huddled together smoking underneath the restaurant’s shredded overhang. The words “Steve’s Lunch” are barely visible on the rotting wooden sign that looms over the entrance.

Walking inside, your feet glide on the dirt and dust of the uneven floor that shows the wear of 55 years worth of dragging work boots.

The air is dense with the smell of cooked hot dogs, warm chili and cooking grease. The distinctive scent of industrial sweat and petroleum-laced dirt carried in by a handful of factory workers lingers in the air.

The walls of Steve’s are painted with the distinctive yellow grime only decades of nicotine tar and cooking grease can provide.

The counters are rippled with the impressions of elbows and hot cups of coffee. Sitting on top of the counter are two old school jukeboxes filled with county classics, punk rock and teenage pop. Written on the jukeboxes is a warning, play at your own risk.

The menu at Steve’s is American fare coupled with depression era pricing. Specialties named after local cops like the Fat Mike and the Rockin’ Eddie are randomly advertised along the back wall.

Near the big front window are an old flat iron hot dog grill and a big trough of chili.  A sever of 32 years and daughter in-law of the original owner, Angela Spanakis said, “We’ve used the same chili recipe since the 50’s, people seem to like it so no need to change.”

Steve’s is famous for its chilidogs. Spanakis said, “We sell around 400 of them a week.”

The dog comes on a regulation sized bun filled with a slightly smaller than average sized skinless all-beef hot dog.  It is topped with a finely ground dry chili that soaks into the bun creating a not too soggy, not too dry bun.  Piles of shredded cheese, onions, and yellow mustard finish off the $1.50 slice of heaven.

Other popular menu items include the slaw dog, the cheese dog and the endless variations of breakfast skillet plates.

During its 55 years of service, Steve’s Lunch has become a legend amongst the area’s culinary multitudes.  The lunch counter has pulled off the rare feat of becoming more than just a place to eat – it has become an institution.

Names like Bill Crosby, George Clooney and Drew Cary have all taken a seat inside Steve’s. In 2008, the men’s fashion magazine GQ did a photo shoot inside the restaurant with Indian’s centerfielder Grady Sizemore. But the best way to understand how important Steve’s is to the definition of Cleveland is to examine the opening sequence of the Drew Carry Show.  The entire plot is Drew’s quest to get a hot dog from Steve’s Lunch.

Spanakis said visits by famous people are rare. “Mostly it’s just regular people who come in during their lunch break or for dinner,” she said.  Her favorite famous guest is Drew Carry, “He is a very nice man.”

Perhaps the reason the restaurant has entered into our collective heart is that it reflects the gritty Detroit Shoreway neighborhood it calls home.

As Cleveland grew into a world leading manufacturing center in the first half of the 20th century, waves of immigrants moved into the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood in search of employment.

Given rise by infusion of immigrant’s families, the building housing Steve’s Lunch has always served food. In the 1930’s and 40’s, it was home to a series of confectioner shops. Those businesses gave way to a short-lived delicatessen in the early 1950’s. In 1956, Steve Spanakis opened Steve’s Lunch to serve the multitude of shift working laborers in the area.

A business that served hot meals for less than a blue-collar worker made an hour was sure to be successful. However, over the years a lot of changes have come to the neighborhood Steve’s calls home.

Huge amounts of families moved to the suburbs to chase the American dream. The loss of the middle class, along with their tax dollars, signified an inevitable downturn for the neighborhood. This, coupled with the implosion of the manufacturing base, has worked to transform the area into a shell of its former self.

A drive down Lorain Ave. between W 45 St. and W. 85 St. reveals numerous empty store fronts and cracked streets. The factories and businesses that once served as the life blood of the neighborhood sit empty but rehabilitation efforts are underway according to the Detroit-Shoreway Neighborhood Organization.

The Gordon Square district has been transformed. It is once again the cultural center of the neighborhood.  New shops, restaurants and housing have brought life and money back to parts of the community. A new school, the Urban Community School, occupies the former site of a bakery.

Steve’s has also experienced a transformation of its own.

In 2002, Steve Spanakis retired and put the business up for sale. A former customer, Ed Salzgeber, along with his partner Don Straw, stepped in and bought the venerable establishment.

Salzgeber can be found working the grill some afternoons. He said, “Buying Steve’s made sense because everyone loves it.” He pointed out that the aspect of free hot dogs did influence his decision. “I still eat them with chili,” Salzgeber said.

Another transformation occurring at Steve’s can be seen long after the sun slips below the horizon.

Around 1 a.m. is when the incoherent ramblings and laughter of drunks takes over for the day shift.

At night the smell of stale beer, whiskey, and sweat intermixes with the smoke of cooking food. At night is when old drunks, wannabe hipsters, cops, crack addicts, and the average graveyard shift worker all come together in search of chilidog tranquility.

You would think with such a diverse mix of customers Steve’s would be a late night disaster. But Slazenger said, “People usually get along in here, you might have a fight every once and a while, but for the most part everybody just wants some food.”

The only major crime to happen inside of Steve’s was a shooting in 1969. Four men got into an argument and someone pulled a gun. The victim was shot once and lived.

Steve’s Lunch is a slice of Americana on the near West Side. It reminds us of a bye gone era when Cleveland was defined by industry, not by foreclosed homes and economic depression.  Their menu brings us back to a simpler time when you could get a hot meal for under $4.  Perhaps that’s the reason why so many people still enjoy Steve’s Lunch.

PHOTO BY NORA RODRIQUEZ Thursday, June 16, 2011; Steve’s Lunch, 5004 Lorain Ave: Steve’s Lunch, an eight-seat lunch counter, has been serving food since 1956.

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