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Enjoy a Uniquely Delicious Burger at the Burger Bar in Bristol, Virginia
Posted on Wednesday, November 6, 2013
The Burger Bar has had a few owners over the years, and even a few names, but today Joe and Kayla Deel proudly own the historic little eatery near State Street in Bristol, Virginia. You almost have to squeeze your way past the front door, worming your way through the small floor space and past a long row of loyal, daily customers. But it’s well worth the effort to get inside: the burgers are more than just delicious, they are practically historic. With names for burgers like the Plain Jane Burger, I Can’t Get You Off My Mind, and Howlin’ at the Moon, you are not just eating food, you’re meeting a character.
The Burger Bar has a long history, first opening as the Snack King in 1942. For nearly 20 years, it was owned and operated by Sean Howlin and his mother, serving delicious hamburgers, hotdogs, and floats. But the real history for Joe Deel begins when Ben Zandi, owner of The Troutdale Dining Room, bought the Burger Bar.
During this time, Joe found himself working for Ben Zandi. Joe is not your typical cook, and he’s not your typical owner, either. He was a typical military brat who moved to a new town every two years throughout most of his childhood. He eventually returned to the area to complete a culinary degree from Virginia Intermont College, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s just a guy with a college degree. “A culinary degree is only part of the formula; you must have ambition and love,” Joe tells me while standing at the grill flipping burgers. He’s the perfect amalgamation of owner and chef. After working as a chef for twelve years, Joe bought the Burger Bar, redecorated the interior, and opened on January 1, 2013.
THE BURGER BAR IS LITERALLY A HOLE IN THE WALL after Joe bought the space next door, opened a hole in the wall, and added additional seating. The main portion of the restaurant has a beautiful bar with chrome trim and nostalgic plush, round stools so about ten people can sit. A couple of tables provide seating for another 15-20 people, so the larger space next door provides an opportunity to entertain large groups or busy dinner hours.
Old photos and newspaper articles hang on the walls, the seats are made of plush material and comfortable to use, and the low chatter of conversation make this place feel cozy. It’s small, but big on heart. A few additional tables outside give some added seating during peak hours, but also gives you a chance to watch traffic slowly pass on nearby State Street. Whether you sit inside or out, the atmosphere is comfortable, especially when you will most likely be greeted by either Joe or Kayla as soon as you walk inside.
THE MENU READS LIKE A PLAYBILL for a theatrical performance starring Hank Williams. All the burgers on the menu are named after Williams’ songs, giving them a sort of characterization of their own. In addition to the burgers, you can also order french toast, eggs and sausage, pancakes, hot dogs, a slew of side items, and finish it off with a milkshake or float. It’s enough to keep anyone’s stomach satisfied, and also enough to keep you coming back time and again.
Although Joe works hard on the menu for his restaurant, he also changes it from time to time. He will add soups for the winter season, take less popular items off the menu, and add new creations. But the biggest secret about his menu is not really a secret at all, especially for regulars who return daily: Joe will make just about anything you want, as long as he has the ingredients. He’s been known to make french toast for lunch, create a whole new burger, or entertain a Tastes of the Town Walking Tour with something entirely new.
The Howlin’ at the Moon is the most popular burger on his menu. Pictured above, the burger is loaded with chili, grilled onions, and cheese and is absolutely delicious. But when you look at the menu, you’ll quickly realize the same thing I did: this place has more unique burgers than any fast food chain could match. You could try the Oh My Cheese! burger: two grilled cheese sandwiches with a burger patty in the middle (yes, you read that correctly, and it is ginormous). You might also want to try the Big Mic: 3 buns, 2 patties, loaded with lettuce, onion, pickles, and homemade 1,000 Islands sauce. It’s his version of the Big Mac, and his is the better version.
I tried one of his daily specials when I visited: the Buffalo Bleu Cheese Burger. It’s a small burger loaded with bleu cheese he sliced himself from large chunks, sitting on the softest buns I’ve ever eaten. The bleu cheese was melted perfectly and gave the burger a different taste than the usual cheddar or American cheese topping. Almost every plate comes with a load of fries, but they are very lightly salted, thick cut, and soft. After the burger practically melted in my mouth, I was treated to a savoring after taste of ever-so-slightly spicy meat and delicious cheese, quickly finished off with a couple of those fries. It was a great meal, but all of you know what I’m going for during my next visit: The Fire God, made with ground Habaneros, Jalapeno peppers, jack cheese, and Tabasco onion straws. My mouth just watered.
But if you’re not into burgers loaded with chili, grilled cheese sandwiches, or so big you have to cut it into pieces, you could also try the Plain Jane Burger, the Burger Bar Famous Reuben, or just grab a hot dog. With a breakfast menu, kids’ menu, and a slew of side items, you are sure to find something everyone can enjoy.
Joe’s restaurant is also a part of Rooted in Appalachia, a movement for restaurant owners and chefs to use as much local produce as possible. Joe keeps it local when he can, buying produce from nearby J.R.’s Produce and The Garden Spot. He even specifically requested locally-grown produce through his food distributor, keeping as much of the business as he can in Virginia.
Let's Go Retro: Burger Bar in Bristol, Va.
Joe Tennis | Bristol Herald Courier |
BRISTOL, Va. - Joe Deel deals in hamburgers of all stripes and heights at the heart of the Twin City.
His restaurant is called the Burger Bar.
So, hey - why not stick to what the sign says?
You can come here on Piedmont Avenue in Bristol, Va., and feast on a half-pound hamburger topped with the traditional lettuce, onion, tomato and cheese.
Now add bacon or chili.
Or try the "Big Mic." That's Deel's version of McDonald's Big Mac. Only, his features two half-pound patties plus three buns, lettuce, pickles and homemade Thousand Island dressing. "It is, again, a spectacular sandwich," Deel promised.
A recent run of $6.95 specials have touted the "Mushroom Swiss Burger on Parmesan crusted bun" and the "Italiano Burger with fresh mozzarella and homemade Bruschetta."
The Country Fried Steak Burger comes with homemade gravy.
The Shepherd's Pie Burger is served open faced with cheddar cheese, mashed potatoes, roasted vegeta-bles and brown gravy.
Now for the legend: Somewhere along the way, a story began circulating about Hank Williams, saying the late singer's chauffer stopped at this restaurant, as 1952 faded into 1953. Legend or not, Hank's name remains solidly linked to the menu: One hamburger bears the name of the Williams hit "Hey, Good Lookin’."
"We're always coming up with a new burger or a new idea," Deel said. "And we don't skimp on anything. I'm a firm believer I make it up with numbers."
>> 'Keep it retro'
All this variety, too, comes sandwiched with heaping helpings of nostalgia.
Vintage 45-rpm records lie under glass next to an album by Bristol native Tennessee Ernie Ford, who rocked the top of the charts in 1955 with "Sixteen Tons."
Historic photos of Bristol hang on the walls.
Outside, the Burger Bar bears a simple, red-and-white sign topped with a boy in a bowtie, wearing a blue shirt and red pants while carrying a hamburger on a plate.
Inside, the restaurant bears checkerboard floors and a lunch counter, where you can rest on a 1950s-era bar stool and get an up-close view of your hamburger sizzling on the flat-top grill.
Let's go retro?
"That's what our goal is," Deel said. "We try to dress the part. And, when people walk in here, we play the '50s music. We definitely want to keep it retro."
>> 'Snack King'
Locals fondly recall the restaurant's days as the "Snack King" in the late 1950s. It's been dubbed the Bur-ger Bar for decades, surviving a successio of owners.
The Deels most recently took the reins at the dawn of 2013, adding seats to the eatery. "When we bought the place, we didn't want to change the asthetic of the original," Joe Deel said. "What we've done here is we try to keep it as original as possible."
All times of year, it's busy.
The Burger Bar opens for lunch and early dinner hours on Mondays through Saturdays. Early on Satur-day, you can also find breakfast with homemade pancakes, biscuits and gravy plus "sausage patties that are as big as our hamburger patties," Joe Deel bragged.
The servers wear 50s-style uniforms almost every day.
"Most of the people working here are family," Joe Deel said. "That's why it's a real mom-and-pop."
Fittingly, the 43-year-old Joe Deel bears a faint resemblance to the late, great Bill Haley, who ushered in rock'n'roll era in 1955 with "Rock Around the Clock."
The head waitress, 24-year-old Kayla Deel, is Joe's wife. And she simply has a look of yesteryear, wear-ing a simple smile - with her dark hair combed to a side and tied up in a bun. "She is definitely out of the wrong era," Joe Deel said with a grin.
Many customers, too, come in the door, wanting to converse with Joe Deel. Ever smiling, Kayla Deel said, "He definitely is a talker."
Joe Deel grinned. "We have fun here," he said. "And, the best thing I can hear is from the old-timers when they come in and say, 'You know what, Joe? This is just like it was when I used to eat here as a kid."
Blue Circle, Burger Bar make magazine's list of South's best burgers
Reader input given by Facebook posts have placed four local eateries on the list for the best burgers in the South published by Garden and Gun Magazine.
The publication asked consumers to list their favorite burger spot by state and it comprised a list for each of the 16 states surveyed.
Blue Circle and Green's Fresh Seafood of Bristol made the Tennessee list while Burger Bar and Robo's Drive-In of Pound were included among Virginia's best burgers.
Burger Bar's new owners have a taste for nostalgia
(By James Shea, Bristol Herald Courier | February 3, 2013)
BRISTOL, Va. –– Joe Deel and, his wife, Kayla, are nostalgic.
The couple wants to return the Burger Bar to its former glory. They bought the restaurant in early January and have big plans for the operation.
"We want to take something that is a jewel and make it better," Deel said.
The Burger Bar opened in 1942 and has remained on the same Piedmont Avenue corner in downtown Bristol, Va., ever since. Deel said locals don’t remember the Burger Bar of the 1940s. They remember the family who ran the restaurant in the 1980s and 1990s, and he and his wife want to bring back many of the old recipes from that era.
"People talk about the chocolate cookies that were here," Deel said.
He plans to start baking pies and selling other deserts. Deel also hopes to reduce the price of many of the items on the menu and obtain a liquor license.
The Deels purchased the restaurant from businessman Ben Zandi. Zandi bought the restaurant two years ago after the previous owner had closed the business.
"I was working for Ben and I had this offered to me," Deel said. "I like the nostalgia of it."
Both of the Deels have culinary degrees. Joe Deel has taught at the Southeast Culinary Institute and worked at several local restaurants, including The Troutdale Dining Room.
He said he first became interested in culinary arts as a career when he saw the cook at The Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon. The cook was treated like a "rock star," Deel said.
But really, his reason for the career choice is personal.
"I always say I went into cooking because I wrestled in high school and starved myself," Deel said. "I had to make weight."
Both Deel and his wife dress in 1950s clothing and are trying to continue the historic feel of the business. They are owner-operators and spend a large amount of time at the restaurant each week.
They plan to continue Zandi’s tradition of purchasing local products. The beef is from Morristown, Tenn., and many of the vegetables are locally grown. They make the sauces, cheese dip and other items on the menu.
In the short term, the Deels plan to expand the Burger Bar. They have leased the building next door, a former insurance business. They want to cut a hole in the wall and add 35 to 40 seats. They plan to decorate the expanded section in the exact same style.
"It's really hard to make money with [only] 25 seats," Joe Deel said.
He wants to work with the city and find a way to expand the business.
The Deels don’t plan on changing the Hank Williams theme. Many of the menu items are Hank Williams songs and people often stop at the restaurant during travels through the area.
According to legend, Williams ate his last meal at the Burger Bar before he died in the back seat of a car.
"Did Hank Williams stop here? Maybe?" Deel said. "We will never know, but I always tell people that he is sitting in the seat right next to them."