Free Burgers, Lawsuits and Cardiac Surgery at John Howie Steak

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This is the "Triple Bypass Burger" served at the Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, Arizona. It is constructed of a pound-and-a-half of beef, 6 slices of cheese, some vegetables (mostly for color, I'm guessing), a bun and secret sauce. It clocks in at somewhere around 6,000 calories and is only the second-largest burger on a menu that also includes such charming sides as fries cooked in pure lard, packs of Lucky Strike filterless cigarettes and bottles of JOLT Cola (which, honest to god, I didn't even think was sold anymore).

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This is one of the "nurses" (read: waitresses) at the Heart Attack Grill. Can you see the gimmick they're going for here? This place doesn't have customers, it has "patients". There are no orders, only "prescriptions". Folks who weigh in at over 350 lbs. eat for free and the motto of the place is "Taste Worth Dying For."

It is a restaurant that is playing unashamedly on the American appetite for large food and gigantic portions. It is deliberately taunting us, laughing at the notion of obesity and heart disease and the kind of hunger which oversteps the bounds of reason and rationality and makes people crave something like a two-pound burger brought by a pretty girl in a nurse's uniform and preceded by a "doctor" checking your heart with a stethoscope. In this way, it is a parody, masquerading as an actual restaurant, and it is brilliant in a totally lowest-common-denominator sort of way. The ultimate, sweet irony of the place is that it is owned and operated by Jon Basso--a man who once ran a chain of personal fitness training studios. The entire idea for the place came out of a thesis paper on dieting.

This is John Howie Steak in Bellevue--a classy place, playing with nothing, courting no controversy. Run by chef John Howie (of Seastar and SPORT), it is a steakhouse after the classic model: dark and oppulent and offering giant whacks of meat for giant chunks of change.

So what do these two operations have in common? Nothing more than the threat of a lawsuit. See, when John Howie chef Mark Hipkiss recently decided to add a couple items to the lunch menu, he came up with the idea for a massively luxe burger with which to tempt his clientelle. It would be a huge thing--a 12oz burger, tempura-fried Kurobuta bacon (drool...), and onion rings squished between two whole Tillamook cheddar and Swiss grilled cheese sandwiches--and he named it (of course) the "Triple By-Pass".

Of course, being a wise marketer, Basso of the Heart Attack Grill had trademarked the names of his burgers. The Triple Bypass? That was his. And he threatened John Howie Steak with a lawsuit if they didn't immediately cease with the copy-catting.

Howie and Hipkiss did. They didn't really have much of a choice. And as of right now, the burger is listed on the menu simply as "What's That Burger?". But in order to come up with a proper name, they conceived of a contest: Taking name suggestions at and offering by way of inspiration a free party for 6, including 6 of the aforementioned burgers and 6 pints of John Howie Steak Amber Ale to the person who comes up with the best name before the contest ends on October 30.

There are some rules. Entrants must be of legal drinking age for starters. Entries must include their name, address and phone number, along with a suggested new name for the burger. And the subject line of the email must read "John Howie Burger Contest". A winner (and a new name) will be announced on November 1.

Because I am a man of a decidedly literary bent, I came up with a suggestion of my own--one which I think captures both the grandeur and the danger of said burger. If it were up to me, and if I were interested in entering the contest in the correct way, I would call it simply, "Death in the Afternoon."

And then hope that the estate of Ernest Hemingway wasn't in a litigious kind of mood.

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