Bill’s Toasty Shop is an open-all-night, cash-only diner in Taylorville. At 5 p.m. on a December evening, it casts the only light on its side street around the corner from the Christian County Courthouse. If Bill’s looks like the diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, that’s because it dates back to the painter’s era. Bill’s opened in 1932. Its ten stools, two booths, metal awning and worn Pepsi sign seem just that old.

I’m in this classic Central Illinois restaurant for a classic Central Illinois meal: the horseshoe sandwich. The horseshoe, for those of you who never venture south of Interstate 80, is, from the bottom up, a slice of Texas toast, a hamburger, French fries, and a coating of cheese sauce. Indigenous to Springfield, it is eaten only in the state capital and its hinterlands. Every genuine Springfield bar and grill serves a ’shoe, which is the city’s signature culinary innovation. Without the horseshoe, Springfield would be nothing but Abraham Lincoln’s hometown.

 According to the book Springfield’s Celebrated Horseshoe Sandwich, by Carolyn Harmon and Tony Leone, the ’shoe was invented at the Leland Hotel, in 1928. Here’s the origin story:

Joe Schweska, the Leland Hotel chef, was looking for a new dish to add to the lunch menu. According to his granddaughter, Jan Militello, he had leftover Easter ham. His wife, Elizabeth, found a recipe in one of her cookbooks for Welsh rarebit sauce, and they came up with the original idea. (Welsh rarebit sauce is a British dish of melted cheese blended with beer and seasonings and served over toast.) According to some people, the name horseshoe originated from the shape of a bone-in-ham slice. A daughter, Jackie, said the name came from the shape of the potato wedges, which were cut lengthwise and placed around three sides of the ham to resemble a horseshoe. A hot platter was supposed to resemble the anvil. Some people say the potato wedges were the nails.

Unlike the corn dog, which was also invented in Springfield, but is now served at every state and county fair, the horseshoe has remained a regional curiosity. In 1947, the Saturday Evening Post called it “an indigestible but satisfying collection of toast, fried egg, ham and French-fried potatoes, covered with a thick Welsh rarebit and served on a sizzling platter.” (Hamburger, cheaper and easier to prepare on a grill than ham, is now the default meat.) It’s an acquired taste that not everyone acquires. Barack Obama spent eight years as a state senator in Springfield, but when he returned to address the Illinois General Assembly as president in 2016, he confessed, “I don’t miss horseshoes.” The horseshoe is an overwhelming meal — 1,900 calories — which is why most restaurants offer a half-sized version called a pony shoe.

The horseshoe at Bill’s Toasty Shop was a bit limp: soggy fries, runny sauce, tough patty. I paid $6.50 for short-order cooking, so what did I expect? The ’shoe can be done better, and it is, at Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery, a state government watering hole near the Capitol. Obed & Isaac’s has perfected its presentation of the dish’s three essential elements — fries, meat, cheese — so its horseshoe is a medley of crunchiness, chewiness, and creaminess. 

Like the pizza, the horseshoe can be served with almost any topping. Obed & Isaac’s also offers Angus beef, Papa Conn’s ham, chicken breast, corned beef, Buffalo chicken, veggie burger, turkey, turkey burger, pulled pork, lamb burger, and pork tenderloin beneath the fries and cheese. Despite Obama’s disdain for the dish, after he was elected president, the Springfield State Journal-Register asked local gourmets to design “Obama ’shoes.” According to the Springfield’s Celebrated Horseshoe Sandwich, the co-owner of D’Arcy’s Pint “created a Hawaiian horseshoe, which reflected Obama’s childhood. It included a seasoned hamburger patty, cheesy rice, a fried egg, French fries, cheese sauce and brown gravy served with paprika and parsley. It was served with grilled pineapple, a tomato rose and hot sauce.” Just proving that the horseshoe is a versatile enough concept to absorb influences from any of America’s culinary cultures.

I’ve eaten traditional horseshoes in Hillsboro, Taylorville and Springfield. So I went to D’Arcy’s Pint in search of something more adventurous. I could have had bacon, or pastrami, or breaded tenderloin. Instead, I chose walleye. I like walleye. But it didn’t taste like a horseshoe. It tasted like fish and chips drizzled with cheese, if you’ve ever had a hankering for that — no, you haven’t had a hankering for that. Sometimes, it’s best to stick with the classics.