Steakburger staying put, preparing 50th-anniversary celebration

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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The iconic Steakburger Restaurant & Golf-O-Rama has provided memorable outings for three generations of Clark County residents in its nearly half-century of prominence.

In 2007, word of a proposed land sale leaked out: Instead of burgers and bogeys, the site was reportedly destined to become home to yet another bank branch on Hazel Dell’s main drag.

Fear not, fans.

Today, there’s no deal in sight. And, Steakburger’s longtime owners have recommitted to the local landmark. They’ve poured new effort into the food and family-friendly environment, spiffed up the joint and are poised for a big 50-year anniversary celebration.

“We’re definitely going to be around,” said John Derr, hired on as the restaurant manager in February 2009.

Derr is given much credit by owners Merilyn and Bob Condon — she’s the daughter of Harvey and Ruth Johnson, who purchased the place back in 1962 — for pumping new life into the restaurant.

A Canada native who has managed food operations for full-scale golf courses and the old City Grill restaurant nearby, Derr has focused on basics.

He’s retooled the food menu, which relies on fresh, locally purchased meat and products from Portland’s Alpenrose Dairy (plus, Harvey Johnson’s secret barbecue sauce) to feed customers’ craving for quality burgers, shakes and other treats.

Derr has pressed customer service back to prior standards. He’s assembled a team of servers who make sure guests feel welcome, whether the diners are teenagers on an affordable date, young-at-heart grandparents or one of the many youth sports programs or church groups who make frequent stops.

There are physical changes, too. The kitchen and dining room have been updated, with fresh lighting and a wall of memorabilia. New paint brightens the large outdoor sign and the building trim, and the dual, 18-hole putt-putt courses have been spruced up a bit.

“John, he’s been marvelous,” Merilyn Condon said. “He has the work ethic we have. And the people we’ve hired have been awesome,” she said.

“It’s not rocket science: It’s food and service,” Derr said with a smile, happy with the makeover. “We’re still doing it the way we did it 40 years ago.”

Steakburger’s reboot is great news for regulars such as JoAnn Fallstone and Joan Gould. Close friends since grade school days, the two caught up over lunch on a recent weekday.

“We’re still here, eating the burgers,” Fallstone said. A meal-and-golf outing “is one thing I can do with my grandchildren,” she said. “I’m glad they’re going to stay.”

A few tables away, Pam and Ted Graham enjoyed their own meal and similar memories.

There were plenty of visits following their sons’ many Little League baseball games and other events, Pam Graham said.

“It was the fun place to come,” she said. Tables that overlook the twin golf courses let parents keep watch on children while they relax, she said.

“When it’s 75 degrees and 8 o’clock at night, it’s a great place to come and have an ice cream treat and play some golf,” Graham said.

Fun and games

Ah, the golf: That golden goose needs no major adjustment.

“When the sun is out, this place rocks,” said Ginger Tweed, restaurant night manager.

She’s taken by how many adult couples explain Steakburger is where they first met, or first dated, she said.

In fact, the Condons have frozen the golf prices for some time now. It’s welcome relief for players of all ages, tempted by the loop-de-loop, cannon shot and other challenging golf holes.

“There’s no sense to raise the prices. With the recession and all right now, we feel lucky,” Merilyn Condon said.

Steakburger is the last vestige of her father’s restaurant chain that once included branches on East Fourth Plain Boulevard in Vancouver and on Portland’s 82nd Avenue.

However, Hazel Dell was the lone outlet to offer miniature golf. The courses were built by the family after it purchased the existing restaurant in January 1962.

Playing favorites

The hot spot has withstood decades of change, including construction of Interstate 5 in the 1960s and, more recently, a widening that took out one tall Douglas fir tree but (barely) left the golf layout unscathed, Condon said.

“I think we are the only (Hazel Dell) landmark with the same owners since before the freeway went in,” she said.

A few years ago, developers floated a business deal too good to refuse. But it soured when county planners insisted on reduced driveway access from Highway 99, Condon said.

“We never, ever put it on the market. We never listed it,” she said. “People came to us and wanted to purchase it.”

Now, throngs arrive only to savor the food and golf. And that should continue, for some time to come.

Customers can come play “at (age) 70, 50, 30 and 2 … and, all of you are kind of at the same advantage,” Condon said, explaining the recipe for success.

She’s uncertain whether to hold the 50-year bash in January 2012, or more likely, wait for the summer.

But, there’s no doubt over which Steakburger golf hole is both the most and least favored, she said: The round mound fondly called “Mount St. Helens.”

For regulars, “It’s a challenge, and they love it,” she said.

“And the newcomers just hate it, because they can’t get (the ball) in.”

How about it, Columbian website viewers?

Is the volcano hole all it’s cracked up to be? Or is another one your personal treasure or curse?

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.