June 21, 2009 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit | With video

Marcus hamburgers are a slice of Detroit history on a bun

Marcus Hamburgers has been at this location on McNichols near Mt. Elliot since 1929. (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)

On a lonely stretch of McNichols between Woodward and Van Dyke, the remains of a light industrial district stand broken and shuttered. It looks a lot like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, right down to the abandoned boats washed up on a vacant lot. The best-kept property in the area is Sacred Heart of St. Mary Cemetery.

It's here between the thriving Federal Pipe and Supply and the burned-out shells of former fast food joints that Mike and Louie Lozanovski keep the original Marcus Hamburgers Restaurant afloat. The brothers, age 47 and 43 respectively, both worked in the diner as young men after emigrating to the U.S. from Macedonia with their parents when they were teenagers. Mike overcame his fear of burning his hands on the hissing burgers here and Louie sacrificed a fingertip to the meat grinder.

They both had a lot invested here, so when the restaurant's owners -- their cousins, Steve and Linda Panovski -- decided to move Marcus Hamburgers to Sterling Heights in 1995, the brothers bought the Detroit location -- and didn't change a thing. The Panovskis recently moved on again, opening Marcus Grill in Shelby Township, and again Louie and a partner bought their former location, following in the family footsteps.

But this story is about the little diner on Six Mile (McNichols) with the horseshoe counter and the swiveling stools -- no tables or booths -- and the waitress that's worked there more than 30 years and the customers who've been coming back even longer. It's a place you might expect to be as sparsely populated as its neighborhood, but many days at noon most of the seats are filled and the phone is ringing with takeout orders. It's only open for breakfast and lunch -- and you can get breakfast anytime. It's the kind of place with a throng of "regulars," many of whom come more than once a week. Leslie Boyd of Detroit brings his whole family three times a week after his dialysis appointments. Richard Dempnock drives 80 miles roundtrip from Clarkston for the baked fish on Fridays.

Marcus Hamburgers was founded in 1929 by Charles G. Marcus, who started selling snacks from a horse-drawn pushcart at the Highland Park Ford factory and eventually had 12 restaurants in and around Detroit. The Six Mile location is the original. Marcus advertised his burgers as "all steak." He even sued another restaurant for advertising their burgers as "all-steak" in 1935, according to a Detroit News clipping. The lawsuit was thrown out.

The most memorable thing about these burgers -- although they do taste yummy -- is their shape. Charles Marcus had special metal dies made for cutting the packed ground meat into rectangles that fit a hot dog bun. Mike Lozanovski says that new takeout customers routinely stomp indignantly back into the restaurant after looking into their bag to find what looks to them like hot dogs. "One guy was so mad," Mike says. "But I explained they were burgers and I asked him, 'Do you still want them?' He said he'd try them and the next day he ordered eight more."

The reason for the flattened harmonica shape has stumped the Lozanovskis. However, a little digging found that Charles Marcus's granddaughter Kelli Marcus, 35, a teacher, still lives in the area. Kelli was more than happy to make a trip back to the Original Marcus Hamburgers to clear up the mystery -- and saw that her grandfather's legacy lives on, pretty much unchanged.

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