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Remembering the best burger place in the solar system, which now stands in the shadow of Rio Tinto Stadium

SANDY — Two words from my growing-up years guaranteed to conjure up good memories:

Center Drive-Inn.

It was located at the bottom of the street, half a mile from my house, all downhill. They made the best hamburgers there in the history of the solar system. And the best fries. And the best shakes. So it was a health food place.

The pinball machine in the corner consumed most all the money I made from my first job with the Deseret News — delivering it on my bike. (I shared Routes 605-C and D with my brother, Dee, who got half the so-called profits, which he also blew on the Center’s pinger).

For the entire time I was a kid, the Center was in business, owned by Byron and Myrle Smith, who lived just around the corner and managed the place like a Swiss railroad. “By” handled the orders and the cooking and Myrle was the hostess. They named their hamburgers Chubby’s and peeled fresh potatoes daily into what they called curly fries. They were ahead of their time. A Chubby with curly fries qualified as a work of art.

By the time I moved on, so had the Center. The Smiths sold out and retired, and in 1977 a man named Jim Bournakis and his wife, Georgia, became the owners. They retained the Center name for a while and kept burgers and curly fries on the menu, while adding other items, including big American breakfasts and Greek specialties. Then early in the '80s they changed the name, for obvious reasons, to Jim’s Diner.

I hadn’t thought much at all about the Center/Jim’s Diner until a couple of weeks ago when an article on the Real Salt Lake professional soccer team mentioned that new owner Dell Loy Hansen has plans to develop beyond Rio Tinto Stadium — and the only thing that separates Jim’s Diner from Rio Tinto is the negligible width of the Sandy canal.

I wondered: Did that mean the building that housed the old Center Drive-Inn would soon bite the dust?

Every other landmark I grew up around in Sandy has yielded to progress. Jordan High School became Jordan Commons. Don’s Market became M & M Meats and is now a copy center. My grandma’s house is still on State Street, but it’s a payday loans store. Steve Brown’s farm is a soccer stadium. The closest beet field is in Idaho.

All those houses on State Street where Dee used to throw the paper, miss the porch and hit the bushes, they’re gone — not that they’d be taking the paper anymore even if they were there.

Alan Jackson should be writing a song about this.

* * *

So I drove out to Sandy and walked inside a building I hadn’t been in since I was a card-carrying Beetdigger cruising the halls of Jordan High School.

The amazing thing was how little has changed. There are pictures of Greece on the walls and an RSL banner by the cash register and the paint is different — and the pinball machine is gone — but squint and in most every physical sense Jim’s Diner is the Center Drive-Inn, counter stools, booths and all. Even the management style remains. Jim takes the orders and cooks; Georgia runs the front.

I ordered a burger, fries and a shake and pretended it was just like old times. But it wasn’t. For one thing, I couldn’t finish the fries or the shake.

It was all just a tad depressing; like paying homage to a fading film star.

Jim and Georgia serve good food in big portions at small prices ($13.95 for a ribeye steak). They’re nice people, if maybe a bit beleaguered. For over 30 years, not long after emigrating from Greece, they’ve been putting in 12-hour days at their diner, building the American dream a burger and a gyro at a time.

Would they be willing to sell and retire? Georgia said probably. Then she thought for a minute and said, absolutely. But at this point it’s only conjecture because they haven’t heard anything from the soccer people.

“To this day, nobody has approached us,” she said. “Tomorrow, I don’t know.”

Then she added, “But it would be hard to leave. Our customers, they are like our family.”

I know where she’s coming from.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: