More than a few readers probably celebrated their Fourth of July yesterday by slapping some good, old-fashioned All-American burgers on the grill.
The humble hamburger seems to trace its origins back to either Tulsa, Okla., or Athens, Texas, although the jury’s still out on which of these two locations holds the title of the birthplace of the burger. Wisconsin, Ohio and Connecticut have also staked a claim on the origins of this uniquely American food item.
What is fairly certain is that the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis also served as a launch pad for the modern hamburger. However, the hamburger had been evolving toward the modern concept — a grilled hamburger patty served between two buns — since around 1880.
Even more certain, Americans have been enjoying hamburgers for more than a century. Huge chains like McDonald’s and Burger King have built fast food empires around the burger.
For really good burgers, however, it’s worth seeking out some unique locations. The title of a popular Food Network series — “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” — perfectly captures the fact that some of the best burgers can be discovered in humble surroundings.
Every Friday in July, “Eating Out” will feature double-helpings of some of the best places to enjoy a juicy, traditional burger in all its glory.
A few miles off Interstate 26 on Jackson Love Highway in Erwin stands the Dari-Ace. The restaurant, established in 1960 by Bill and Marjorie Seagroves, remains at its heart an old-fashioned drive-in.
The restaurant features a drive-up window as well as a separate walk-up window, while the only seating inside the restaurant is around a U-shaped counter with high-backed swivel stools upholstered in pastel vinyls. Finding a seat at this vintage counter is one way to instantly transport yourself back into another era. The wall-mounted menu panels focus on the dairy desserts and milkshakes, the hamburgers and sandwiches and an assortment of sides, including fries, both regular and crinkle-cut, as well as tater tots, onion rings, sweet potato fries and mac ‘n’ cheese wedges.
The walls are covered with commemorative plates depicting classic cars and motorcycles. There’s even a plate fashioned in the shape of a vintage Route-66 sign. Other plates on display bear the images of Elvis and beloved Looney Tunes characters. The Dari-Ace also celebrates its 53 years of history with local photos and other displays harkening back to the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. I loved simply looking around the interior and enjoying all the fun items of Americana on display.
It’s not all about the decor, of course. A friend and I visited for burgers, and we didn’t leave disappointed.
Burgers include Hamburger and Cheeseburger, with double versions of each, as well as other sandwiches, including a Grilled Cheese, Chipped Ham and Chuckwagon. There’s also the Joe Bill Burger, which immediately attracted my notice. This burger starts with two hamburger patties topped with Provolone cheese, spicy bacon, barbecue sauce and an onion ring.
I was sold on this description and asked the server to bring me the Joe Bill with a side of Onion Rings. My friend chose the Double Cheeseburger with a side of Sweet Potato Fries.
Patrons can get a glimpse of the food preparation in the kitchen area, which certainly whets the appetite. We didn’t have to wait very long for our food to arrive.
I feel that I chose wisely with the Joe Bill Burger. This is a really flavor-packed burger. The burger gets extra kick from the spicy bacon and barbecue sauce.
The Onion Rings that accompanied my burger, however, were somewhat small and a little too heavy on the batter. The Sweet Potato Fries stood out as a winning side. My friend generously shared a couple of these excellent fries. Lightly seasoned, they were lightly breaded and seasoned quite nicely.
He also enjoyed the Double Cheeseburger. It’s nothing fancy — two standard but juicy patties served with American cheese. All in all, it was a delicious, solid burger.
We finished our visit with some sweet treats. My friend indulged with a Chocolate-Cherry Milkshake, while I did the same with a Butterscotch Sundae.
The shake was made exactly as we both like them — not at all grainy, with a creamy consistency and a welcome sweetness from the cherry to balance the rich chocolate.
The sundae featured a good helping of butterscotch sauce and soft-serve ice cream topped with whipped cream and a cherry.
The Burger Bar in Bristol, Va., stands just off State Street on Piedmont Avenue. As noted on signage inside and outside the restaurant, this downtown Bristol eatery has been a classic since 1942.
The restaurant has had different owners in the course of its 71-year history and is currently owned by Joe and Kayla Deel.
In addition to its burgers, the Burger Bar has another claim to fame. The eatery is reportedly where the legendary Hank Williams Sr. enjoyed his last meal on Jan. 1, 1953.
The interior of the restaurant looks like it hasn’t changed a lot in the last seven decades. Limited indoor seating is available at a long, curved lunch counter equipped with red and black stools. There are also a few booths and tables. There are also a couple of tables outdoors under an awning along the sidewalk.
Each cobalt green tabletop holds Coca-Cola red napkin holders and salt and pepper shakers. One wall features a memorial to Hank Williams Sr. There are also some other photos of vintage country entertainers, including one of Louis Marshall “Grandpa” Jones.
Many of the more than a dozen burger selections pay homage to Williams and his songs, including the Howling at the Moon Burger, Hey Good Looking Burger and Your Cheating Heart Burger.
The menu also offers some health-conscious alternatives, including a Veggie Burger and Turkey Burger.
I decided to try the Fire God Burger, which our server recommended for burger-lovers who also appreciate some heat. This burger is topped with chipotle and jalapeno peppers, Jack cheese and Tabasco onion straws. Usually served with fries and slaw, I instead chose to pair my burger with onion rings.
My friend and partner in my month-long tribute to burgers chose a weekly special, which was named the Oh My Cheese. This creamy comfort-burger starts out as a Grilled Cheese Sandwich containing three melted cheeses inside (American, cheddar and Swiss) and grated Parmesan cheese on the outside, with a burger in between and a choice of toppings. On most burgers, the toppings include lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle, all served on the side. He paired this cheesy burger with an order of Parmesan Fries.
Other sides include Idaho Fries, Sweet Potato Fries, Homemade Cole Slaw, Cheese Fries and Chili Cheese Fries.
The Parmesan Fries start as Idaho Fries, fried to a golden brown and then tossed in a mixing bowl to acquire a Parmesan coating.
The grill is on view just behind the lunch counter, so it’s easy to monitor the progress of your meal preparation. The food arrived promptly and immediately made a good impression.
The Fire God Burger lived up to its name and really set my lips and tongue to tingling from the hot peppers. This burger is served on a large bun, which became a minor quibble: the bun overwhelmed the otherwise juicy burger and made it taste slightly dry.
That wasn’t the case with my friend’s Oh My Cheese Burger. This ooey-gooey cheesy creation won a rave review. The different cheeses, all melted to perfection, really brought out the good flavor of the grilled, seasoned burger patty.
I liked the generous portion of large, golden-fried onion rings that came with my burger, and my friend also enjoyed the Parmesan Fries. I also received a few of these in exchange for an Onion Ring.
The Burger Bar also offers more than a dozen specialty shakes, as well as Ice Cream Floats and Malted Milkshakes. Some of the specialty shakes included Peanut Butter and Jelly, Peanut Butter Banana, Cookies and Cream and Strawberry Banana.
I ended my visit with a Chocolate-Raspberry Shake, which delighted me with its smooth creaminess and delectable blend of the two flavors.
If I have to make a choice — and that’s really the point of this column — I’d give the slightest of edges to the burgers at Dari-Ace in Erwin. For burger enthusiasts, however, both establishments are well worth seeking out. If you visit, let them know they were both recommended.
AT A GLANCE: Dari-Ace, 1105 Jackson Love Highway, Erwin. 743-7050. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Sunday. Menu items $7.29 and under. Credit cards accepted. Carryout available.
AT A GLANCE: Burger Bar, 8 Piedmont Ave., Bristol, Va. (276) 466-6200. Monday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Menu items $8.95 and under. Credit cards accepted. Carryout available.