It began, one could say, in 1918, when Nick Tahou Hots (now Nick Tahou's) was opened in Rochester on Main Street.1
Tahou's originally served a mixture of hots and potatoes, but it wasn't until much later that the name evolved into what we now know as the Garbage Plate.
"Groups of college kids would come in and say, 'Give me one of those plates with all that garbage on it.' It eventually turned into 'Give me one of those garbage plates,' " Alex Tahou (the founder's grandson) told the Democrat and Chronicle in 2000.2
The Garbage Plate itself is relatively simple. Take a strong paper plate (or a styrofoam container with lid, if it's "to go") and give yourself a good base layer of two out of the following four items:
Once that's been established, now comes the "main layer" of your choice: two cheeseburgers, or two hamburgers; a fried fish fillet; two fried eggs; a Delmonico steak; two Texas hots; two white hots (hot dogs without nitrates) -- the list goes on.
On top of that layer, you have deli mustard (not yellow mustard!) smeared on the "main layer," followed by diced raw onion. And then, the final touch.
Rochester has this affinity for a meat sauce (referred to as "hot sauce") which adds a certain level of spice to a cooked item, yet isn't necessarily hot. It's more flavorful than anything else. It's not a tomato-y sauce, like a meat sauce for pasta, but almost on the cusp of being something European, like a goulash sauce without the pasta. No matter the origin, this is the (almost) final ingredient to the plate.
I say it's almost the final ingredient, because many patrons use Frank's RedHot as a condiment for the garbage plate. Others opt for ketchup, though many consider that sacrilege, figuring that if there needed to be a tomato flavor to the plate, it'd have been in the hot sauce to begin with.
The plate itself is served with sourdough bread. There's been speculation as to where it comes from in Rochester; this is not something I'm certain of, so I won't guess now.
(The best picture to date that I've seen online is located here; roadfood.com is a site created by Jane and Michael Stern, who also wrote up the Garbage Plate in their book "Eat Your Way Across the USA.")
For a long time, Tahou's (both the original location, and the Gates location which opened in 1979) were the sole purveyors of the Plate, until other eateries realized that there was a great deal of money in all that mess. These days, there are well over 50 different locations in the Rochester area (and beyond) that serve the garbage plate. Personally, I've travelled as far as Richmond, Virginia and had one at a cafe there.