Headed to Olympic Club? Try the burger dog
Thursday, June 14, 2012
San Francisco – Some 50 years ago, when he was in his early teens and a junior member at The Olympic Club, Johnny Miller often played the front nine of the Lake Course over par, but he never finished 18 underfed.
Regardless of his score, all of Miller’s rounds came with the same highlight: a refueling stop, between the 10th and 11th holes, at the snack shack run by Bill Parrish, whom Miller addressed as “Mr. Parrish” but everyone knew as “Burger Bill.”
A big-band trumpeter by training and an entrepreneur by necessity, Parrish earned his nickname in the early 1950s when he set up shop, with a trailer and a grill, alongside Lake Merced in San Francisco, just across the road from The Olympic Club.
Burgers and hot dogs were the mainstays of his menu, and fishermen were his target market, but golfers also became faithful patrons. The best-selling item was the “burger dog” – ground beef, lightly seasoned, shaped into what looked more like a sausage than a patty, and served on an old-fashioned hot dog bun.
A lot of people loved them. But enough Olympic members were so addicted that in 1954, they made Parrish an offer.
Instead of flipping burgers just outside their gates, why not move his concession inside their club?
“I was never really a hot dog guy, so for me, the burgers were just perfect,” Miller says. “They were so good, they sometimes seemed like the entire reason I was out there in the first place. I couldn’t wait to get to the 11th hole.”
Decades have passed. And just as the Lake Course has withstood the test of time – it’s preparing to host its fifth U.S. Open next week – so has the business launched by Burger Bill.
Though Parrish died in 1999, his daughter, Candy Parrish-Thrush, 59, now runs the operation, as she has since the early ’80s, using the same recipe to the same effect. Phil Mickelson loves her burgers, as does Justin Timberlake. Tiger Woods has wolfed down plenty of them. When Bill Clinton reverse-sandbagged his way around the Lake Course, he made a point of stopping for a burger. So did the actor Michael Douglas, though he dispatched his stunt-double to make the buy.
“Not sure why he did that,” Parrish-Thrush says. “Maybe he thought I’d bug him for his autograph.”
In 1987, when The Olympic Club staged its third U.S. Open, Parrish-Thrush was allowed to sell her burgers to the general public. But in 1998, when the Open returned, her business was confined to the vendor tents. This year, she’ll be restricted to members-only areas.
Like playing the Lake Course, enjoying a burger dog requires special access. Or a drive to wine country, an hour north of San Francisco, where Burger Bill has left a legacy, too.
Since 1973, in the vineyard-latticed foothills of the Napa Valley, yet another Parrish – Bill’s son, Steve – has operated a snack shack on each of the two courses at Silverado Resort and Spa, building a following as loyal as the one his father enjoyed.
Throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, when Silverado hosted the Transamerica Championship, Larry Nelson was one of many senior pros who slipped away from practice rounds to scarf back burgers. Ditto Charles Coody, who indulged so often that Parrish later mailed him one of his custom molds, the better for shaping 20 burgers at a time.
“People sometimes tell me, ‘We came here just for the burger,’ ” says Steve Parrish, 65. “No matter how often I hear it, it never gets old.”
Among those who flatter him with praise these days is Miller, who, in a fitting twist, purchased Silverado in 2010. A Napa native, Miller has deep ties to the property; he learned the game there. But he and Parrish also go way back; both attended Lincoln High School in San Francisco and were teammates on the school’s golf squad.
“Even way back then, it was pretty clear who the better player was,” says Parrish, who, out of frustration with his flatstick, gave up the game a few years ago.
When the Silverado deal went through, Miller set about overhauling the resort, renovating the North Course,which reopened last year, and drawing up plans to revamp the South Course. Updating the accommodations will come next.
“Some people also told me we should get rid of the guy who’s doing the food stands,” Miller says. “I said, ‘Are you kidding? Not only is Steve a friend, but those burgers are irreplaceable.’ There were a lot of good things about this property when we bought it,but the burgers were the one thing that were truly great.”
After so many years, and so many burgers, Miller says he still doesn’t know “what makes the burgers so darned good.”
Then again, neither does Steve Parrish. Like his sister, Candy, he makes them just as their father did, and it’s nothing fancy – ground chuck with salt and pepper, set to sizzle without butter or oil. And the core condiments are the same as ever – mustard, onion, dill pickles, relish, American cheese (OK, now you can get ketchup, mayo, lettuce and tomato).
The secret, Parrish says, may lie with the grills, so richly seasoned throughout the decades. But more likely, he concedes, the key ingredient is location, be it Silverado or Olympic.
“Believe me, I’ve tried making them at home plenty of times,” Parrish says. “But it’s like eating a hot dog at the ballpark. You have one at home, and it just doesn’t taste the same.”
– Oakland, Calif.-based Josh Sens is a freelance writer who plays golf throughout the Bay Area, and never on an empty stomach.