I was out in South Bend, IN recently for a couple of meetings that required an overnight stay in the city. I didn't really know where to go for dinner that evening, so after I checked into the hotel I started to do some on-line searches for restaurants in the city. I didn't want anything overly fancy, but I didn't want fast food, either. A burger sounded good and I started to look into burger places in the area. I found one in downtown South Bend - CJ's Pub, famous for their 10 oz. burgers. I immediately set out to find the place.
It turns out that CJ's Pub is sort of an institution in South Bend. The idea for the place began in the early 80's when two sisters, Cindy Medich, a columnist for the South Bend Tribune, and her sister, Judy Gish, began to talk about opening a business together. They settled on opening a tavern/burger joint on North Michigan Ave. in South Bend, near Memorial Hospital. Of course, they named the place "CJ's" and it opened on Labor Day of 1984. It quickly became a favorite of Notre Dame students and alums for their burgers, waffle fries, appetizers and cold beer. They put in a number of televisions throughout the place that sat about 125 to 150 people, making it one of the very first sports bars in the Midwest.
The sisters welcomed their brother, Frederick, also known as "Ricky Joe", to work at the business and he quickly became the "face" of the place. Ricky Joe was described as an interesting guy who was a performing musician, a scratch golfer, a huge Notre Dame sports fan and a guy who welcomed all to his family's place in South Bend. Ricky Joe was sort of a bon vivant, travelin' kind of guy before he decided to come back and settle in South Bend to help his sisters out.
The original CJ's was nothing more than a hole in the wall that had a boat load of Notre Dame memorabilia on the walls. It was popular with the college kids as it stayed open until 3 a.m. every day except Sunday when it would close at midnight. The Medich family was in the location for 21 years before a freak accident almost brought their business to a close.
Workers were tearing down a six story building next door to CJ's Pub in January of 2005 when part of the structure fell onto the building. Part of their building collapsed (four people were inside, including Ricky Joe, but no one was hurt), damage was extensive to the structure, including the infrastructure of electrical and plumbing. After 7 months and $250,000 in repairs later, the family reopened CJ's Pub in time for the Notre Dame football season.
However, another tragedy hit the Medich family - Ricky Joe suffered from pneumonia in the fall of 2008. When being looked over by doctors, they found cancer in his lungs. It quickly spread to his brain and lymph nodes and he died just over two years ago at the early age of 60. His death devasted the Medich sisters - Cindy Medich couldn't bring herself to enter CJ's Pub after Ricky's death. Judy was also having a hard time coming to work and in early 2010, they decided to close the original location. But the spirit of Ricky Joe got them looking for a new location to put CJ's and the decided on a spot at the corner of Wayne and S. Michigan where the old Rumrunners bar was located (see map). In fact, Ricky had talked about moving to that very same location before he died, so the sisters thought it was fitting that they move to that very building. The sisters reopened CJ's Pub in August of 2010. It's not much larger than the old location, but they are now in the heart of the downtown area of South Bend.
It was around 7 p.m. when I got into CJ's Pub. I took a seat at the bar and the portly bartender asked if I was there for the General Electric party. I said, "No." Then I stopped for a second and said, "Should I be?" He sort of laughed as I took a seat at the bar. He gave me a menu and asked me what I wanted to drink. They had a number of beers on tap - including something called "House Light". I asked what that was and he told me it was whatever light beer they got a special on that particular week. It was Miller Light that week. I told him I'd just take a Bud Light in a bottle. And it was very, very cold.
The inside of CJ's Pub is well lit and features a long wall of pictures and memorabilia. I'm not a Notre Dame fan at all - I usually root for whoever is playing against them, much to the consternation of my former neighbor, George - but I do understand and appreciate the Fighting Irish's place in football history. There were many pictures of Ricky Joe Medich with Notre Dame sports legends and famous alums. A number of flat screen televisions were hung throughout the dining area and there was one behind the bar.
Burgers are the main item on the menu at CJ's Pub. The burger menu features a number of named burgers that start out with CJ's famous 10 oz. "Super Burger" patty including the Baja Burger that has pepperjack cheese and banana pepper rings, the Hockey Works that has Swiss cheese, mushrooms and Canadian bacon, and the Four Horsemen that featured Swiss, American, cheddar and pepperjack cheeses. In addition to the burgers, CJ's Pub also has a handful of appetizers and sides, as well as soups and salads, and sandwiches, paninis and wraps.
The large party for General Electric began to trickle in and it was apparent that the bartender was also the waiter. My first beer was gone rather rapidly, thanks to the coldness of the beer, and I was ready for another. But the bartender was taking orders for the large table. Finally, another bartender and another waitress showed up for work and I was able to get my beer.
The first bartender/waiter finally came back and asked me if I wanted something to eat and I just ordered up a Swiss cheese, mushroom and bacon burger. Their waffle fries sounded good, but I knew that I would have more than enough to eat with the burger. "Lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion on it," he asked. Sure! You bet!
Now, one of the best things I liked about CJ's Pub was the cold, cold beer. It was flowing down the gullet pretty easily. I love cold beer and the colder the beer, the easier I drink it. I'd had about four beers before I realized that I hadn't gotten my food. It was well past 20 minutes after I had initially ordered my food, but with a lot of people in there, not to mention a large party seated directly behind me, it was taking for ever to get my food.
It was nearly 30 minutes after I ordered my burger when the second bartender came out with a big burger on a plate and a large plate of a combination of the waffle fries and onion rings. He looked at the large bartender/waiter and said, "Did this guy have the works with the combo plate?"
He said, "He had the works, but not the combo plate."
The bartender turned to me and said, "You had the works, buddy?" I said, no, I had the mushroom/Swiss/bacon burger. He said, "Yeah, that's what we call "The Works"." Oh! I didn't know the vernacular of CJ's Pub, but I learned part of it right then and there.
The burger was, indeed, huge. The patty was layered with an ample amount of Swiss cheese and mushrooms with two slices of bacon crossed on top. A side of potato chips came with the burger, but I wasn't overly interested in those. The burger, itself, was thick and juicy. It had a great flavor and the toppings went along very well with it. The bun was moist and helped with the overall taste. With each bite, I found myself becoming more and more impressed with this Super Burger from CJ's. I can see why they've been called the Best Burger in South Bend for years and years.
And it was a belly buster. I'm very glad I didn't get any waffle fries with the meal as I probably wouldn't have made any dent in those. But the burger was top notch. I'm going to have to do a lot of reshuffling when it comes to my Best Burger list in 2012 and CJ's Pub is going to get some serious consideration as either Top 10 burger or, at the very least, will garner a High Honorable Mention from me. Given the history and tradition at Notre Dame and how great the hamburgers taste at CJ's Pub, I may be able to get over my disdain for all things Fighting Irish if I get back to South Bend on a regular basis.