Hamburger heaven

As its tongue-in-cheek Web site describes, there is a correct way to do everything at The Fatted Calf, from entering the building and getting in line to ordering and eating. But while the site also says hamburgers are a “true American icon, right up there with Jimmy Dean, the Model T and overpriced health care” (all true), I am inclined to disagree with its claim to serving the “best burger in town.”

Don’t get me wrong – The Fatted Calf is fully deserving of its landmark status (the place is often heralded as “legendary”), having survived the build-up of ritzy Clayton over the past 42 years while remaining authentic and inexpensive. I will go so far as to say it is one of the best burger joints in town.

The building sits in the middle of bustling downtown Clayton, dwarfed by shiny high-rises. Inside, it feels as though you’re in Robin Hood’s neighborhood pub or maybe even your grandpa’s basement in South County – only it smells like french fries. Everything is served in those red-and-white plaid cardboard baskets and Styrofoam, and there are at least two Heinz ketchup bottles on every table. Also, it’s eerily quiet.

The menu is simple, almost curt: Calf burger with a choice of toppings (ranging from 75 cents to $1.25 each), side orders, a few nonburger selections and beverages.

First and foremost: the Calf burger. This third of a pound of Angus beef is made to order and served piping hot to your table five to 10 minutes after ordering. It’s charbroiled, “served upon” a perfectly toasted bun and is juicy but slightly crispy around the edges, leaving enough room inside for some tenderness. Sure, the patty itself is good enough, but it’s what’s on top that counts.

The Fatted Calf’s famous soft Cheddar cheese, dished out with an ice cream scoop and plopped on top of the open-faced burger, has a great consistency for this patty, but it’s a bit too sweet and processed for my taste. That said, however, it’s what the joint is known for, so consider at least getting it on the side.

The creamed onion, something I’ve never heard of, is simply some cream cheese whipped with bits of onion – your two favorite toppings condensed. Like the Cheddar, its smooth and thick texture is unusual but perfect for a burger. It’s flavorful, but not overpoweringly so.

Bacon and sautéed mushrooms are options, both prepared quite well (crispy and rich, respectively), and there’s also the classic sliced American, Swiss or Pepper Jack cheeses, and onion, tomato or lettuce (the nice, crunchy kind).

Sides, also made to order, are another draw. The steak fries are good – not too greasy, but not crispy enough. Onion rings, on the other hand, are thick-cut and very crispy. On the healthier end, there’s a tossed salad, served as a typical St. Louis-style salad with iceberg and romaine, shredded carrots and your choice of dressing. I recommend the house dressing, an unfamiliar-tasting heavy, green, peppery concoction that tastes good on just about anything. The tasty fried mushrooms are served with horseradish, a great alternative to ketchup or mustard. I would, however, stay away from the coleslaw, which lacks creaminess and zest.

There are alternatives if beef isn’t your thing. The Deluxe Fish Sandwich, deep-fried cod smothered in that famous cheese and with tartar sauce on the side, is very crispy and fishy. The tuna steak sandwich was overcooked, bland and dry; swapping the provided tartar sauce for that house-made dressing helps give it the kick it’s missing. A chicken breast sandwich is available for those who really can’t find anything they like.

But the place isn’t called “The Fatted Tuna Steak” or “The Fatted Lettuce Leaf.” It’s called The Fatted Calf. And rightly so. Stick with the beef on this one, folks.


Dine-In-Ability: The time-capsule atmosphere is half the draw, so order at the counter then sit and wait for your food at one of the tables with built-in cup holders.
Try It, You’ll Like It: A burger topped with blue cheese, lettuce and tomato with a side of fried mushrooms. And a Bud Light draft.
Feast or Famine: It’s the renowned slab o’ calf or a few mediocre alternatives; vegetarians need not apply.
Where: The Fatted Calf, 12 S. Bemiston St., Clayton, 314.726.1141
When: Mon. to Sat. – 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.