Packed into its nine large tables and underneath several antique stores worth of trinkets, the Sunday afternoon lunch rush begins at the Anchor Bar in Superior, Wisconsin. The crowd is a mix of hungover college students who just got out of bed, and families who just got out of church.
They all come for the food. The Anchor Bar's menu is a simple one; it consists entirely of burgers. (Technically you can order a grilled cheese if you're a vegetarian, but no one ever does that.) The variety of burgers available is impressive however. There are 15 different 1/3 pound creations to choose from, with options ranging from the bizarre: the Cashew Burger (topped with cashews and mozzarella cheese) and the Hawaiian Burger (topped with a slice of grilled pineapple and mozzarella) to your more standard cheeseburger and bacon cheeseburger. They're cooked on the same grill that the bar has used since it's founding in 1977.
“The grill is magic,” said Tom, one of the cooks. “I just flip 'em and dress 'em.”
And these burgers are cheap. Every regular-sized burger is priced between $3-4. The one pound monster burger called the Gallybuster goes for $5.25. Fries can be added for a buck, which everyone does because they are ridiculously good. They are made by placing a potato in a contraption that looks similar to a can crusher. The contraption slices the potatoes into french fry shapes, and into the deep fryer they go. As the menu puts it, 'They were potatoes a minute ago.' The drinks are cheap too. A 34 oz. mug of Leinenkugels or Grain Belt can be had for $2.75. Pitchers of beer are $4.50, $2.50 after 10 pm.
The after-church crowd casually converses, with the discussion frequently drifting upwards toward the mesmerizing collection of knickknacks mounted on the walls and ceiling of the dim, cramped bar. Collected over the years through auctions, rummage sales and sometimes the generosity of its patrons, the Anchor Bar has developed a definite maritime theme: maps, globes, life preservers, (including one from the infamous Edmund Fitzgerald) ropes, pulleys, and hooks, paddles, dozens of framed pictures of the gigantic ships that populate the Duluth/Superior harbor in the summertime, etc. But if you look hard enough there is some weird stuff to be found: A ventriloquist dummy, a rocking horse, three old dentist chairs that surround one table, mannequin heads, a prosthetic leg and foot, a book containing a complete list of new Wisconsin statutes and ordinances enacted for 1917, the list goes on.
A table of grandparents with their grandchildren becomes enamored with the gigantic blue plastic sailfish that is roped in directly above their table, until their food arrives. The baskets of burgers and fries are carried out by the only cook on duty, a pear-shaped old lady with short purple hair. 'Here she comes, Ms. Superior...' a UMD student jokingly sings at a nearby table to the tune of the Ms. America jingle.
His friend offers a meek laugh, still reeling from an unpleasant encounter with one of the waiters. The friend had asked the waiter 'what beers they had,' to which the clearly aggravated waiter replied 'Christ, do you really want me to name all of them?' Which he then sarcastically attempted to do, rattling off 15 or so different names until finally the student, obviously newly legal, settled on a bottle of Bud Light. The Anchor Bar is not renowned for its customer service.
Another member of the hungover college kid table returns from the bathroom having discovered another piece of the bar's charm. The bathroom's ceiling is covered in graffiti. There's the offensive, (Mike B is a CUNT) the religious, (Jesus is love) and a whole lot of unintelligible ramblings that seem to be typical to bathroom etchings. And a lot of them are etchings, literally carved into the ceiling.
His tales of the bathroom literature are cut short by a cacophony of shrieking and stomping. A group of five people enter and head straight to the bar. There are four females, two dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, two dressed like they came straight from a nightclub. They are accompanied by a man who looks like a parody of a pimp: he's wearing a white Sean John tracksuit matched with impeccably white Nikes. Below his crispy gelled hair stylish glasses perch, tinted a light shade of brown, which matches his mulatto skin. A meticulously constructed, pencil-thin beard hugs his jaw line and he is wearing a gold chain and several rings.
At two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon their intentions are clear: They came to drink. After taking an Anchor Bomb (two maraschino cherries soaked in a shot glass full of 151 rum - available for only a buck!) at the bar, they find a table and continue ordering drinks while one of them shows the group how to tie a cherry stem into a knot with her tongue. Their conversation is much more interesting than the grandchildren's sailfish fascination, or the college kid's rehashing of weekend shenanigans. Although they speak in loud, quick bursts, which renders most of their discourse indecipherable, it's clear that it is a vulgar, sexually charged discussion. Needless to say, the raucous crew accelerated the exodus following the lunch rush; the Anchor Bar cleared out quickly.
The combination of delicious food, cheap booze, its thousands of trinkets and quintessential Wisconsin atmosphere has brought the Anchor regional fame. One bartender, Rachel, recalled a time when she was in Minneapolis on a flight bound for Las Vegas. While making smalltalk with the man seated next to her, she mentioned she hailed from Superior. The man, a resident of St. Cloud, immediately exclaimed “Oh, have you ever been to the Anchor Bar?” Shortly after telling that story, a man who had just finished his meal walked up to the bar and asked Rachel he could have a card, a menu or pen, anything with 'Anchor Bar' written on it so he could document his stay at the iconic tavern.1
But the Anchor will never be bastardized into a tourist trap.
“We're not trying to get rich off it, and I think that is a big part of it's success,” said owner Adam Anderson. “It's ridiculous to pay more than five bucks for a burger.”
On Friday night the Anchor Bar is packed. The college kids are back, putting work into their impending hangovers. A group of regulars is entrenched at the end of the bar, 20 cigarettes deep into a 70-cigarette night. A statewide smoking ban is going into effect on July 5, so they enjoy indoor smoking while they still can. The air remains relatively clear due to the bar's two Smoke Eaters, which are barely noticed amongst the tangled thicket of antiques growing from the ceiling. There are plans to build a smoker's patio out back this summer. With the exception of one table at the far end of the restaurant, families and the elderly are absent. A steadily growing group of people anxiously lingers by the entrance, waiting for a table to open up.
The jukebox blares over the loud crowd. Linkin Park, Beck, Meatloaf, 3-6 Mafia, Journey, Tim McGraw – there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the music selection. Any top 40 hit in the last 40 years can and will be played, and only the college kids seem to mind, or notice.
There are two working televisions at the Anchor Bar, both located behind the bar.2 A Lifetime movie plays on one of the TVs. Some watch impassively, others ignore it completely. No one asks to change the channel, although, as some college kids note, both the Bucks and the Timberwolves are currently playing. The other TV is tuned to Animal Planet. Nobody pays any attention to the giant wildebeast being devoured by crocodiles.
Perhaps this is due to the giant Gallybuster being devoured by an obese Packers fan at a table across from the bar. A few onlookers express a mixture of awe and disgust as the tower of three 1/3 pound patties topped with American cheese and fried onions overpowers its two flimsy buns. It quickly devolves into a sloppy mess of ketchup-covered ground beef chunks, interspersed with bits of disintegrating bread. A fork will be needed to complete this meal.3
In one of the more perplexing displays of wasted money, three people sit at the bar's slot machines. These are not you typical casino slot machines however, in that they don't pay out any money. They take money, people press some buttons, lights flash and electronic wheels spin, then the machines ask for more money. This group of people engages in this expensive, pointless routine for 45 minutes before moving on to pool.
One of the waiters, understandably stressed due to the large crowd, argues with a middle-aged patron. This argument, which seems to happen fairly often, is over the Anchor Bar's 'no plastic' policy. Only cash and local checks are accepted here. There is an ATM near the entrance, but it comes with a $2.50 surcharge. The patron, after voicing his displeasure with the policy, goes grumbling to the ATM. Next time he'll be sure to bring cash.
It's Tuesday night and business is slow. A family of six, a table of college kids, a table of tatooed 30-somethings, and a handful of old barflies is all there is. A CNN news show and NBC's 'The Biggest Loser' flicker muted on the televisions. Ms. Superior is back at work in the kitchen, flipping burgers while chatting with a waitress.
The ceiling in the bathroom has been painted black, although some of the more vigorously etched statements remain visible. Two of the slot machines are out of order, although no one attempts to play the remaining working machines.
One of the barflies asks a college kid, who is sitting at the bar paying for his meal, (with cash of course) if it's supposed to rain tomorrow. The kid replies “Fuck if I know. I think the weatherman said it could but you know that [weathermen] don't know shit.” The barfly, taken aback by this vulgar response, quickly turns away. The kid, who overestimated the man's crustiness, sheepishly tips out the bartender and makes a quick exit.
“How's was your food?” the waitress asks one of the men at the bar.
“It's great, as always,” the man replies.
Of course it is. In the eclectic chaos that defines the Anchor Bar, the food reigns supreme.
1 A more nationally-known Anchor Bar is located in Buffalo, New York. That Anchor Bar is the birthplace of the Buffalo Wing, a staple of any Super Bowl party worth its salt.
2There's one other TV that stands unused near the entrance. According to the waitress you need a paper clip to turn it on and change the channel, because the remote is lost and the buttons fell off sometime during the last decade.
3On an average night the Anchor Bar goes through 120 lbs. of ground beef, 150 lbs. of potatoes, and 25 lbs. of bacon, all delivered fresh daily