Diner: Nostalgia on a Bun

Burger joints conjure up collective memories

Honestly, what could be more iconic than the American hamburger? It's basic: a smashed ground meat patty, cooked in some way, served on a bread product. That's it.

The rest is up to us. What we bring to that burger — and what it leaves us with — is as important as anything that goes in it, on it, above it or below it.

Here's what I mean. This all started out as a relatively scientific undertaking: Go to five burger places and have the burger at each one. I had criteria to help me judge (quality of meat, cooking style, standard toppings, fries, burger bang-for-the-buck). There was a point system; I had graphs made; my pen was in hand.

And then something got in the way: my heart and my memories, my soul and my passion.

All the stuff we bring to the table along with our appetites, stuff that can't be qualified or quantified.

By the time I finished going, scoring and judging, what became clear was that I liked, no, loved them all, and they all got high marks. Here they are, in the order visited.

Zip's Café in Mount Lookout has been a landmark on the square since the 1920s. The dark wood and the model train that runs around the ceiling scream out the accumulation of good times and laughter from years of folks enjoying the famous Zip Burger. Zip's uses fresh ground beef from a local butcher, sort of broiled in an ancient contraption that imparts that unique Zip's taste. The meat has a nice dark crust (the key to the one-of-a-kind taste) and holds its shape well. Served on an egg bun, it comes with mayo, lettuce, pickle and onion. In price, Zip's is midrange ($3.25 for a plain burger; fries are $1.75), and shoestring fries are extra.

I adore the old-fashioned feel of Quatman's Café. Just off Montgomery in north Norwood, there's a mishmash of picnic-clothed tables and chairs stuffed into two rooms and undeniable '50s feel. On a nice split-top bun, the half-pound of ground chuck, seared on a flat griddle, tender juicy and fresh, comes with the garden. You have to order mayo on the side, but (I love it) they give you a jar of Hellman's. The very crunchy shoestring fries are extra. The prices are great ($3.30 for a burger; fries are $1.30), kept low no doubt because everything is disposable here (paper plates, plastic utensils) and by volume.

The seats are filled with Xavier people, locals and working types. This place is a real equalizer — go once and you'll become a regular.

Over the years I've pounded many a beer sitting at Arthur's, around the corner from Hyde Park Square, so I was glad to go for burgers. Again, half a pound of 90 percent lean beef, shaped a little too neatly for my liking (could it come frozen?) but grilled to order. Mine was juicy but a little underdone. It comes with regular fries, tomato, onion and a pickle spear. The bun's a little flimsy but what the hell, it's finger food, dammit. Priced with the fries it was a good deal, and I like the fact that they have a lot of topper options for one price ($5.50 includes fries) ... "burger madness" they call it.

Just to trip things up a bit, we next headed out to Joe's Place on the river in New Richmond for a buffalo burger. What a great place: A big mahogany back bar, a simple dining room with pictures of the room — flooded, old articles about the place in 1907. It oozes history. I had a buffalo burger, and it was fine. The meat is raised locally and is lean and flavorful. Shoestring fries come with, but it's priced a little higher ($5.50 for a buffalo burger) than most, because of the cost of buffalo.

Finally, we ended up in Covington's Mainstrasse at Zola's. You get its feel by walking down Main and passing all the wonderful historical buildings and quirky businesses. This place uses great Kaiser buns with a half-pound of Angus, grilled on a flattop, with steak fries (yum) or the house slaw (it's $4.95 with fries or slaw). The beef was juicy and ...

Damn! Here's the thing: I fussed with numbers and points and really wanted to rate these and tell you whose was best ... all that reviewer shtick I'm supposed to do. I couldn't.

You see, I went searching for differences, and what I found were commonalities. Each of these places is similar, right down to the apostrophe in their names (an obvious symbol of pride in ownership). They all have great wooden back bars and sell logo shirts. Each one feels comfortable and homey, everyone was kind and open, the prices nearly all the same.

I was floored by an overwhelming sense of timelessness and continuity. Each place hit my heart in a different way. It was as if I tasted a collective memory in every burger. As if the memories our parents, our friends, even strangers left in these wonderful old buildings lingered and waited for me, leaving me full long after the taste was gone. ©