Restaurant as fun house: Shambarger’s

Shambarger'sAI came across this restaurant while looking through lists of winners of Holiday Magazine awards. I was intrigued to learn that Shambarger’s, in the small town of Redkey, Indiana, was one of only five restaurants in that state to win such an award in 1972.

As I learned more about Shambarger’s I had mixed reactions: fascination at its creator’s unstoppable spirit, surprise that it had won prestigious awards, and gratitude that I had never been compelled to sit through a 5- to 6-hour dinner and vaudeville show there.

BeaconSupperClubDenverFor Shambarger’s fell into a category I call the fun house restaurant, once occupied by hotspots of enforced jollity such as Greenwich Village’s Village Grove Nut Club or the Beacon Supper Club in Denver whose owners put on funny hats to make people laugh [pictured]. La Nicoise in Washington, D.C. had waiters on roller skates.

Shambarger’s, adjacent to a railroad track, resembled an abandoned building on the outside, a junk shop on the inside [see painting below by Clyde Thornburg, 1971]. Its proprietor John Shambarger “performed” most of the seven-course dinner preparation in front of 50 or so guests who made reservations many months in advance, often traveled some distance, and paid about $100 a person in today’s dollars.

Shambarger'sClydeThornburg1971Making ten or more costume changes an evening, as a pirate, Tiny Tim, a Hawaiian dancer, etc., John chopped and mixed while singing, pattering, or loudly playing records keyed to each dish. Sometimes he told jokes, kissed women diners, or screamed ‘Aaayyyyy’ in people’s ears in concert with a Spike Jones record.

And all this without cocktails! No alcoholic drinks were served, except in later years when dinner began with punch bowl of “Bloody Redkey” made of tomato juice spiked with a Budweiser six-pack. Burp.

Holiday magazine’s volunteer judges in the 1960s and 1970s had a weakness for French cuisine. Which was what Shambarger’s provided, sort of. The menu was actually as jumbled as the decor of old clocks, menus, mirrors, lamps, and a moose head wearing a hat. It always included a main dish of Imperial Prime Ribs of Beef Flambee (in rum) and a dessert of sky-high strawberry pie (see above), but the first five courses varied. In one 1968 account they included – in a sequence that is perplexing – chicken soup, fresh fruit cup, corn fritters rolled in powdered sugar, shrimp, and guacamole with John’s special dressing.

Recipes for Shambarger’s guacamole and “Antique Salad Dressing” are furnished in the Holiday Magazine Award Cookbook (1976). I like guacamole and do not think it needs a dressing, especially not one made of cottonseed oil, vinegar, chopped onions, loads of sugar, catsup, concentrated lemon juice, and apple butter.

According to newspaper accounts, Redkey’s townspeople rarely ate at Shambarger’s, but they were always intrigued by the influx of well-dressed visitors from afar. In the words of Jayne Miller, who grew up in the area and now heads up Historic Redkey, Inc. (and provided information and images for this story), the locals knew that “magic” took place inside Shambarger’s humble structure.

The restaurant had its fans and its detractors, but enough of the former to keep Shambarger’s in business under John’s management from the 1960s through the early 1980s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2013

14 Comments

Filed under food, history, restaurants

14 responses to “Restaurant as fun house: Shambarger’s

  1. Anonymous

    We could never get a reservation. But I remember those that did and they loved the restaurant and the ambiance. And the food. I need to visit Redkey even if it is forty years later . It’s never too late for anything…
    Eadie

  2. Nicholas S

    There is much too be done In Redkey but it is a gorgeous small town we have several buildings occupied by small businesses. Very quiet and humble town filled with great people. Ill never leave Jay County and I’m only 19. I plan on reviving one of those buildings as well.

  3. Roby Ford

    I remember Shambarger’s very well. We were told it was to expensive and the reservations were too far ahead when I was a kid. I miss the old Redkey when back in the late 50′s to mid 60s, when us children hardly went to Muncie or farther out. Every thing you needed was in Redkey! Now I’m trying to recollect with a 65 year old brain. Lived in the Redkey area all my life. There used to be: three barber shops, five gas stations (they served you), two grocery stores, clothing store, drug store, funeral home, furniture store, cleaners, Ben’s shoe repair, doctor, dentist, two hardware stores, hotel, two restaurants, three taverns, bank, 5 and dime store, theater, auto and truck repair, feed mill, two lumber yards, saw mill, five churches and a big school. But Shambargers was so secretive and yet the talk of the town. We would watch classy people from all over stop, look, and enter the businesses. Thought they were weird to come to Redkey at the time. I’ve talked to business people in other states — they would ask me where I’m from and I would say Redkey, you don’t know where that is and they would reply, “yeah that’s where Shambarger’s restaurant is!”

  4. Anonymous

    I am John Shambarger’s granddaughter. I remember “working” there as a child, I deveined shrimp and ate hamburgers with homemade Hot Catsup. I received my first tip of one dollar and thought that was the best thing ever! My memories of Shambarger’s are very precious to me.

  5. Anonymous

    Neat article …. My brother was a dishwasher there when he was in high school and we were family friends with John….what a great time to grow up in.. My dad had his company Christmas party there every year and I loved getting a piece of the strawberry pie(more of a creation if I remember right) brought home.

  6. My grandparents lived in Redkey and we use to visit them many a weekend. in the summer me and my siblings would walk up town to the 5-dime store to get penny candy or a cheap toy. I couldn’t believe there was a restaurant there, on the outside it looked abandoned. But my mom would talk about how our family Dr. would go from Anderson to eat there and they served pheasant under glass. It was hard to believe looking at it, but I always tried to peek inside but you just couldn’t see anything. That was a long time ago back in the 70′s.

  7. My grandmother used to cook at Shambargers before John made it famous. When Shambargers was famous it was very entertaining for the locals. You never knew what famous person(s) you might see while they took a stroll of little Redkey. It was a sad day when Shambargers closed.

  8. Jason Crouch

    I grew up just out side of Red Key years after it was closed, as I heard stories about a place in Red Key I could never believe that people would really drive to little old Red Key to eat. Reading this really is an eye opener. I am now a Chef in Indianapolis and have thought about going back someday after I have had my fun and made a name for myself. I think this would be a great way to retire and still be able to make people smile with my food. Mybe someday down the road you will hear of it open again…..

  9. Nancy

    I just purchased a signed cookbook and also an amber John Shambarger decanter bottle (head). Do you have any idea of the monetary worth of each item?

  10. This was a wonderful surprise to find! Having lived in Redkey for 8 years, I have heard many stories of Shambarger’s and the people who used to come. It makes me sad to have missed this place in its heyday, although there are signs of life popping up all over town again.

    • Don Nicole, Fort Wayne, IN

      Do you mean life popping up that someone may open it up again. We lived in Fort Wayne and previously in Muncie and visited Shambarger’s a lot. In fact I bought an antique chair for $12.00 from John to accompany a desk I had and refinished them both. They are in our Daughter’s hallway in her large home in Denver, N.C.

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