Why One Steak 'N Shake Is On The National Register Of Historic Places

The name "Route 66" conjures very specific images, not just for Americans, but for fans of Americana worldwide. Towering neon signs and drive-ins backlit against the night are about as iconic an image of 20th century America as can be found short of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover (via the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program).

For those making the storied Route 66 road trip and looking to find the best burger in every state along the way, the Springfield, Missouri Steak 'n Shake is a must-see. Says who? Well, the National Parks Service for one (via Missouri State Parks). But don't just take their word for it: the classic burger chain is also recommended by the Springfield, Missouri visitor's center, Road Trip USA, and virtually any guidebook or glossy-photoed coffee table book on Route 66 you can pick up. According to former owner Gary Leonard, the restaurant is even an international destination, drawing guests from all over the globe, including tour groups from the region once known as Czechoslovakia (via Route 66 News). But the 1962 building is more than just a place for tourists and cross-country road-trippers to grab lunch, it's a heritage site — the restaurant was added to the National Register of Historic Places on August 1, 2012 as the family-run franchise location celebrated its 50th birthday.

It's more than just the neon lights

What makes this eatery different from the others that line Route 66 as it winds from Illinois to the California coast (via Roadtrip USA)? According to the National Register of Historic Places registration form for the Springfield, Missouri Steak 'n Shake, the restaurant's location and iconic imagery, "a significant example of roadside architecture associated with historic Route 66," play a big part. Its longevity was also a factor: The drive-in served hungry Route 66 travelers throughout the road's existence, from the morning that Steak 'n Shake opened its glass-and-chrome doors in 1962 until the Missouri segment of Route 66 was decommissioned in 1981. Still drivable as East St. Louis Street, the road continues to be used by Steak 'n Shake customers, the structure looking the same today as it did sixty years ago.

A massive light-up road sign, complete with chrome-on-chrome detailing, evokes George Lucas's ode to the classic car era, American Graffiti. Its white-walled, windowed exterior and red-and-white striped awning emblazoned with company catch-phrase "Takhomasak" are reminiscent of the first MacDonald's franchises, and the same neon-lettering beckons travelers today as in Route 66's heyday.

While perhaps not as famous an image of mid-century Americana as the golden arches, the Route 66 Steak 'n Shake is an archetypal example in its own right. After all, the restaurant gained its historic landmark status and popularity as a tourism destination in part because it's so stylistically emblematic of drive-in-era burger and malt shops.