Thriving Champ's hotspot then; Auburn I-80 offramp now
Media Life’s “Then & Now” installment this week takes you to a place where thoughts of coronary bypasses took a holiday and good times abounded.
It’s a Friday night in Auburn. Perhaps you’ll take in that new “Jaws” movie at the State Theatre or quaff a glass of ale at the Shanghai in lower town.
With the night still young, you and your significant other cross the highway and pull up in your brand new, two-tone Pinto — white walls and mag wheels glowing in the neon signage — to Champ’s Steakhouse.
Inside, a roaring fire in the fireplace sends flickers of light and shadows dancing across bare granite and limestone walls.
You order two vodka martinis and ask for a table with a view of the Auburn Ravine flowing by.
You take your seat, open the menu and half-heartedly glance at the steaks and chops, the low-calorie choices, and the crab and shrimp louies. You toy with the idea of having the barbecue spareribs with that famous Champ’s sauce.
But that wasn’t what you really came for. Nosiree.
As sure as Jimmy Carter is in the White House, you’re going for the carnivore special — the $6.25 Butterball Steak Dinner.
Straight from the broiler, about as rare as Champ’s can make it, there’s a steak in store for the old pie hole.
When the waitress comes for your order, you signal another round of martinis and settle on some sides. That $6.25 not only comes with a steak, but you’d better loosen that girdle or a notch on the silver-buckled belt for soup, salad, a baked potato slathered in butter or cheesy sauce, coffee and dessert.
By the time you roll out of Champ’s you’re ready for anything that young upstart director Steven Spielberg can hurl your way — and maybe some popcorn and a Coke.
For many Auburnites, Champ’s is a warm, glowing vision of the past, with its set of regular old codgers still propped at the bar with a cool one in one hand, a Marlboro in the other, and a twinkle in their eye for the Old Auburn that was slowly being shut down, paved over and passed by.
Champ’s, according to a 1946 article in the Journal, was built that year and featured “mountain stonework” while offering steaks and chops. It was open 24 hours a day and located at what was then called “Four Corners.” In fact, for the first nine years, that was what the lounge and eatery were called.
That changed in 1955, when George Champas took over and named it after himself. It would stay that way until its demise to make way for Interstate 80 widening in 1985. The state bought the property in 1971 in anticipation of widening the freeway. From 1972 to 1979, Don and Shirlie Fuller owned Champ's.
By 1985, Champs was being operated by Jerry Loiso and he was none too sad to see the restaurant go. Loiso started a new Champ’s in Colfax on South Canyon Way and handed out buttons to the regulars proclaiming “Champ’s Steak House Auburn CA RIP.”
Fast-food places were supplanting true roadhouses like Champ’s, he said.
“We are going to let this place die a quiet, dignified death,” Loiso proclaimed.
And so it didn’t, really — torn down, paved over and passed by to make way for an off ramp.
But the Champ’s name and the Champ’s memories — including the legendary Butterball Steak Dinner — live on.
Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.