I 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.
For 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.
Making 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
51 responses to “Restaurant as fun house: Shambarger’s”
My wife and I were fortunate to dine at Shambargers twice in the early 70s. We were part of a group of UPI photographers covering the Indy 500 , hosted by Nikon sales rep, Rex Miller.
One night we shared the experience with Michigan basketball coach, Johnny Orr who later coached long term at Iowa State.
I feel really lucky to have enjoyed the Shambarger experience twice. It really was unique and the food was excellent.
I’m so lucky to have actually made reservations months in advance and our friends, co-workers and family all went together back in the early 70’s. It was a long time ago, but I still remember the sound of the train and John singing “that’s a my boy!” while cutting and waving around ribs from the standing rib roast! ….and the Strawberry pie….so good. I remember him using what looked like HUGE old hotel lobby chandeliers for bowls as he mixed the ingredients for the next course.
That would not be an experience you would forget. Love the chandeliers for bowls!
This article was very interesting my last name is Shambarger and I live in Ohio in Napoleon
Back in 1966 I was a young Marine stationed on Okinawa. At that time I was associated with a organization called the Navigators. While attending Navigator functions I had the privilege of meeting a young airman who constantly and very proudly talked of his parents off beat and upbeat family owned restaurant in Redkey, IN. I received a special invitation to the restaurant for anytime I cared to go. Unfortunately I never took him up on his kind offer and consequently I missed a great opportunity. The young mans name was John Shambarger. We were friends.
One feature of Shambargers he did not play up to ‘important people.’ We were there and he was making salad course with record ‘fly me to the moon’ playing. I was next to front. He said” I have little gift to special person”. He gave it to me a drinking glass and asked me to turn around and give it to Neil Armstrong. Also so there was Norman Rockwell and his wife but no mention of him. Fun place — we were there two times.
Great story! Thanks for the added perspective. I like that attitude.
My husband and I had the privilege of dining there in the early 70s…..what a memory. Midway through dinner, the whole group was ordered to take a walk around the town while they cleared and reset the table. It was a hoot. And the train that came by shook the restaurant so much…..you wondered if the place was going to come down. What a special memory ….with the fruit course, he donned on a hula skirt!! He was great. Everything was delicious.I was telling my grandchildren about this and I just had to come and look Shambarger’s up….Jane Hubbard
Hi my Name is Danny E. Shambarger. John Shambarger is my grandpa he was married To Bessie Shambarger, and my grandpa and grandma had a son and his name was Eugene Shambarger. And my father was born in 1934. My father really did not know his Dad because he left my Dad and Grandma when he was about 5 years old. I am trying to find out more about my grandpa John Shambarger, if he had any brothers and sisters. So if anybody knows more about the Shambarger Family History please call me Danny E. Shambarger at 217-508-7169. I would really like to know more. In remembrance of my Dad that I lost on May 6, 2014. It would really be a big help to me.
HI Danny, I think you have the wrong Shambarger. John Connell Shambarger is my father and I have a sister and brother. Our mother was Harriett Meehan-Cox Shambarger. Both of my parents were born in Indiana. Sara Shambarger
HI MY NAME IS DANNY E. SHAMBARGER. JOHN SHAMBARGER IS MY GRANDPA, MY FATHER’S NAME WAS EUGENE SHAMBARGER. I AM TRYING TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT MY FAMILY HISTORY. I AM FROM ILLINOIS, SO IF ANYBODY KNOWS MORE PLEASE CALL ME ON MY CELLPHONE AT 1-217-508-8768.
Dawn – I hope you’re right. John was my uncle & I worked there too, back in the 70’s. I’m still close w/all my cousins from Uncle John. They are all wonderful chefs, cooks & bakers. But, we are all up in years. Perhaps one of the grandchildren would be interested in opening SHAMBARGER’s once again. That would be awesome.j
To work, I think it needs to have the same atmosphere. Needs to be a show and serve alcohol. Most of the fun was in the show, but the food was great too. The small town charm was the best touch. Beth, have any ideas?
Worked there when I was 15 and it was magical. We were friends of Beth and I was paid $50 for a night, which was unheard of. Great food and atmosphere. John was very quit and had dementia I think. I live in Houston now and still miss those small Indiana nights. The interior was eclectic and had about 500 menus from all of over the world. I have several cookbooks and items that I get on eBay and they are not worth much money, but sure have sentimental value. I remember the Bloody Redkey having Budweiser. Great avocado dip with Ritz crackers. Real old school. The Rib roast was out of this world. Beth Shambarger was a hoot too. She catered our wedding. She was always an underrated cook.
Thanks for sharing your memories!
Taught at Ball State in 1965-66. Went there once around Christmas that year. Manny and Sheila Adler
I have an ashtray with his picture & signature on it….wonder if it’s worth anything to anybody?
Good morning Lisa. Do you still have that ashtray? I am interested if you do. Thanks.
My husband and I ate at Shambarger’s in about 1979. We had seen an article about it at Win Schuler’s, and decided to give it a try since we lived in Ossian, IN, which was not far away. We got reservations because a party from White House Ohio had to cancel due to snow. We had no clue what we were in for. We really enjoyed the experience and we’re grateful that we got to visit Shambarger’s before it closed. I seem to recall that the night we went there that a lady was the server due to Mr Shambarger being ill. I ate from a church commemorative plate, and my husband had a calendar plate. When the lady was making the mile high strawberry pie, she concluded by taking the spatula and smearing whipped cream all over a male diner’s face. I think that he felt honored!
I ate there once in 1975. I think it was about $22.00.
I think he called it “Foot High Strawberry Pie”.
I remember the prime rib, the pie, and the fritters he put on top of our green salads.
I wrote down all of the courses, but I lost the list. It was only forty years ago…
I went to Shambargers in, I think, about 1975 or 76. Got there early and the door was locked, but there was a handwritten file card taped to the front door that said, “Good food across the street”. Yeah, OK, there was a drugstore over there.
BTW, the railroad track through Redkey damn nearly crashes through the building (it passes VERY close by the front corner of the building) and if a train didn’t pass by often enough and make a crapload of noise Mr, Shambarger would play a record of a train, LOUDLY. All this time, meanwhile, he was cutting and cooking in front of his now captiv(ated) audience. This guy knew what he was doing. A Bloody Red Key was made with Tomato Juice and STROHS, not Bud, btw. That’s what I saw him do.
He came around and kissed all of the women in the place, and he also kissed me in a dramatic turn b/c I was a hippie with long hair. The implication, I suppose, was that he couldn’t tell the difference between me and a girl; I have always thought that it was an impulsive comedic joke on his part. Probably it was.
Thanks for sharing your memory. Yikes, a record of a train! I’m guessing he didn’t get a lot of males with long hair coming in.
Where would I get a copy of that cookbook? I collect cookbooks to read. Very interesting reading and entertaining for me. Let me know. That would be a great fundraiser for the town of Red Key to boost the interest of improvements to the town. I thought the restaurant was still in business. Eadie
I’m going to visit even if Shambargers isn’t open. The picture featured on this page would be a great book cover.
“The Mad Chef of Redkey” is the name of the cookbook.
I can’t find it online. Can you give me any information as to where I can purchase a couple of voices? I would appreciate this. Amazon is a no go and eBay absolutely not. Maybe the junior league there may have them.
Any info appreciated.
Trying to find the recipe for johns corn fritters. I used to have it but lost my copy in a move.any ideas on how to find a copy?
I haven’t seen one, but would suggest contacting Historic Redkey, Inc. for possible assistance.
I have the cookbook at home. I’ll see if I can take a picture and upload it.
Lived in Albany until 1967 and my parents went a few times to Shambarger’s and told us stories of the eccentric restaurant, food, and the owner. Wish it would open again so we might enjoy some memories of small town America.
Hi, my name is Daniel Shambarger.
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…
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.
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!”
With that much History this town should be busy with flashback businesses, Antique shops, reproduction shops, Museums, Bed and Breakfasts. I believe the Lil’ Bistro is just the tip of the Iceberg. When Mr. Noble passed I was worried our town would be forgotten, but I believe it will rise up again like the phoenix. We have too much notoriety to just become a ghost town!!!
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.
My Aunt Beth gave me a cookbook years ago.
A friend of mine and I drove your mom home from the restaurant the night that we had the privilege of dining there. I can only guess, but this may have been in 1975 or 1976.
Do I remember correctly that your Dad used to feed a stray dog outside the back door of the building?
He was a wonderful showman and he was an excellent chef. Is it true that he started in the Merchant Marine?
I’m sorry, but it’s been about three miilion years since I’ve been there and, as they say, the memory is the first thing to go, I’m getting old.
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.
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.
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.
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…..
That would be fun!
What was the name of the Bar that was about a block east of Shambargers?
Val’s or The Click.
I remember 2 bars at that time, one was the Click and I can not remember the name of the 2nd bar. The other eatery I remember was the little pizza place next to the track on the south end of Redkey, they made the best pizza’s and subs…
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?
No, sorry but I don’t have the slightest idea.
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.
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.
I don’t know of any plans to recreate the restaurant but there are efforts to revive the town’s business zone.
Recently the owner of the building took an old sign off the building and Shambargers name is still visible. Pretty awesome 40+ years later I think his energy is telling us something!