Photo: Shady Glen

In Acquired Tastes, The Takeout explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.

As a state, Connecticut is so small, it barely warrants a professional sports team (no offense to the Hartford Yard Goats). Outsiders associate the state with New Haven pizza, common-sense gun regulations, and unchecked affluence. Rarely are people aware that the state is home to one of the best cheeseburgers in the whole nation.

I grew up in Manchester, Connecticut, around the corner from Shady Glen, a former dairy farm that’s become a local institution. Established in 1948, the restaurant is acclaimed for its ice cream and minestrone soup, but what earned them national recognition and a nod from the James Beard Foundation is their gravity-defying cheeseburger, immediately identifiable by the crispy cheese slices that frame the meat like an asymmetrical halo.

Soon after Shady Glen opened as an ice cream parlor, owners Bernice and John Reig realized they needed a menu item to keep New Englanders coming back during the frigid, winter months. Trial and error resulted in the restaurant’s signature offering: the aforementioned cheeseburger, christened the “Bernice Original.” In all my years consuming cheeseburgers, I’ve never seen another like it and I will argue forever that if you’re not crisping the cheese on your burgers, you’re not really living.

Shady Glen is famously tight-lipped about their proprietary cheese recipe, but the process of crisping the cheese is on full display to anyone lucky enough to score a counter seat. Chefs use a four-foot grill to cook the hamburger, before draping four slices of cheese on top of the meat. As in real estate, location is everything: The cheese slices are positioned so they meet in the middle, covering the center of the burger. The rest of the cheese hangs off the sides of the patty, looking like a bed whose sheets have been left untucked.

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Crisping the cheese is an art form and as such, there is no prescribed amount of time required to complete the task. Instead, employees are trained to intuit when the slices have cooked long enough. When the cheese looks appropriately crisped, chefs wedge a spatula under the cheese and burger, twisting the cheese like a glassblower would to create the burger’s golden wings. From there, chefs gingerly plate the burger, careful not to allow the bun to squish the delicate folds.

The completed product is a triumph of both flavor and architecture. The center of the patty runneth over with melted, gooey cheese. The sides are framed with paper-thin, cheese wafers that can either be folded into the rest of the burger, or snapped off and eaten independently. Condiments are delivered to each table on a separate tray, the unspoken implication being that you could garnish your meal with ketchup and mustard, but really, why would you change a thing when perfection has already been achieved?

With two locations in Manchester, Shady Glen is too celebrated to be categorized as a traditional mom-and-pop shop. Regardless, the environment there is very much that of a family-owned and locally beloved business. The restaurant has incredible staff retention, with some employees working there for 30 years or more.

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One such employee is Billy Hoch, the restaurant’s current owner, who started working for the business as a pre-pubescent kid, back in 1954. As Billy worked his way up the ladder, he bore witness to the restaurant’s cult-like appeal. He also weathered Shady Glen’s worst disaster, a cheese catastrophe of such epic proportions, it threatened to shutter the entire business.

In 2010, shortly after Billy took over managerial control, disaster struck. For years, Shady Glen relied on Schreiber Foods, one of the country’s largest cheese producers, to manufacture the restaurant’s proprietary cheese recipe. On an ordinary day in the spring of 2010, Shady Glen received their customary order of 10,000 pounds of cheese. In keeping with restaurant protocol, a chef took a cheese loaf, sliced it up and placed it on the grill to confirm quality control. Only this time, the cheese didn’t crisp—it turned jet black.

Panic ensued. For four months, Billy experimented with both European and domestic cheeses, grilling cheddar, light cheddar, low-fat cheddar, muenster and Colby, searching for a cheese whose flavor profile and consistency might successfully replicate the crispy cheese experience to which customers had become so accustomed. Nothing worked, and it was during this time that Billy seriously worried the restaurant might not be able to overcome this hurdle.

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“That’s the one scary thing, when it all revolves around crispy cheese and now you can’t produce it,” he told The Takeout.

Schreiber bigwigs were unable to account for the difference, insisting the recipe hadn’t been altered. It was only after Billy examined some paperwork left behind by the company that he noticed something had changed—specifically, the company’s address.

Unbeknownst to Shady Glen, six months earlier, Schreiber had moved their plant from Wisconsin to Missouri in search of cheaper labor. To a cheese autodidact like Billy, the implications were obvious and catastrophic—the Missouri cows had a different pH and acidity from their Wisconsin counterparts, creating an entirely different product.

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The “Crispy Cheese Crisis,” as local outlets referred to it, lasted for four long months. During this time, Billy delegated the responsibility of running the restaurant to other managers as he focused on single-handedly resuscitating Shady Glen’s secret weapon. He reached out to food chemists at the University of Wisconsin, who were able to use the restaurant’s process for crisping the cheese as a way to reverse engineer and mimic the original product. Restaurant patrons who refused to visit during the crisis gradually returned, and those who remained loyal during the troubled times enjoyed the return to the status quo.

On June 12, Shady Glen will celebrate its 70th anniversary. Generations of people like me who grew up eating the Bernice Original and now return annually to show it off to our significant others, will stop by to enjoy the best and most consistent cheeseburger on either side of the Mississippi. If you’re ever in the area, I must insist you hop off I-84 and investigate.

If you’re not local, I ask only that you consider crisping your cheese from the comfort of your own grill. As Shady Glen’s founders discovered, the process requires much trial and error. But nothing tastes as good as crisped cheese feels.

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