Pie ‘n Burger still a must stop for the Rose Bowl bound

Pasadena diner remains unchanged, great
Pie ‘n Burger still a must stop for the Rose Bowl bound
Photos courtesy of the Pie 'n Burger
It isn't just journalists who love the Pie 'n Burger, a diner in Pasadena.

It was 10 years ago that the planet and stars — or at least the hamburger gods — aligned and I was able to steer Badgers fans headed to the Rose Bowl to the best burger in Pasadena, and perhaps all of California.

They got a piece of the best pie, too.

First, as the University of Wisconsin-Madison football team and its hungry faithful fans get set to head west again, a brief background.

When I was a UW-Madison student many decades ago, I’d buy the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper at what was then Rennebohm’s drug store at the corner of State and Lake. I got it to read two columnists: Mike Royko on page two and John Schulian in the sports pages.

Schulian’s 900-word portraits of the winners, losers, scamps and scoundrels of the sports world were entertaining and moving, the writing always stylish. Schulian graduated from newspapers to writing for television and film, and moved to southern California — Pasadena, home of the Rose Bowl.

We’ve never met but we’ve corresponded for many years now. Back in late 2009, with the Badgers headed to the Rose Bowl, I sent John a note asking if he had any tips for Wisconsin fans making the trip.

He responded with a 900-word portrait of Pasadena — architecture, politics, history — saving the best for last: An ode to a Pasadena greasy spoon called Pie ‘n Burger.

“I wasn’t sure of its greasy-spoon worthiness when I moved to Pasadena,” Schulian wrote. “But I gave Pie ‘n Burger, just up the street from Caltech, a whirl, and the burger and pie were perfect, and — bonus points — the hash browns curled my toes.”

“The next time I went in,” Schulian continued, “a week or two later, the same waitress was behind the counter. I think she’d been there the day they opened the door. My kind of woman. I sat down. She looked up. ‘The usual?’ I knew I was home.”

I passed along Schulian’s assessment in my newspaper column, and I later heard from many Badgers fans who raved about Pie ‘n Burger.

Last week, I reached out to longtime Pie ‘n Burger owner Michael Osborn, who happily recalled the Wisconsin invasion of his diner a decade ago.

“It was a sea of red,” Osborn said. “We were so busy. I remember one of our waitresses said, ‘Is anyone left in the state of Wisconsin? I think they’re all standing outside the door.'”

Pie ‘n Burger has been operating since 1963, and Osborn’s experience with it dates almost to that time. His grandmother worked at a department store around the corner and Osborn was 9 when he had his first burger and pie (strawberry) at the diner. He began working there while attending college at the University of Southern Califoirnia and eventually bought out the owners.

He has changed little over the years.

“Every day is kind of like ‘Groundhog Day,'” Osborn said. “Which isn’t all bad. We’re doing everything exactly the same way we used to. Some new equipment, but I try to make it still look like an old-fashioned diner.”

Last week, too, I sent a note to John Schulian. It had been a while and I was curious if he remained a fan of the diner.

“New burger joints pop up every week in Pasadena,” Schulian wrote in reply. “But I’m still a Pie ‘n Burger guy through and through. In fact I’ll be having breakfast there tomorrow with Fred Claire, who was the Dodgers’ general manager the last time they won the World Series, in 1988. I’ll probably snag a couple slices of coconut cream pie to take home, too. And soon enough I’ll be grabbing a seat at the counter and ordering one of those world-class cheeseburgers with a side of hash browns.”

Schulian concluded, “That’s the good life, my friend.”

The diner’s reputation has reached a point that this year, Pie ‘n Burger will be operating two walk-up stands inside the Rose Bowl stadium on the day of the game.

Still, consider a trip to the diner itself.

“We’ll take care of all the Badgers,” Osborn said. “I promise.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.