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A no-frills burger proves to be a pandemic savior.
A tempting burger on a restaurant menu is no news here. I frequent Whiskey Kitchen and Wilson’s Eatery often, just for a proper burger fix—I even did prior to the pandemic. On a road trip, there’s no denying that a Dave’s Double from Wendy’s is about as comforting as it gets. Case in point, there’s always a time and a place for a simple but wildly satisfying cheeseburger. It is one of America’s greatest culinary claims, in my opinion. A beef patty, melty American cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion, smashed between a bun. It’s the small nostalgic feelings that keep us going sometimes, and right now, enter the cheeseburger.
When chef René Redzepi reopened Noma in Copenhagen, arguably one of the world’s greatest restaurants, as a casual cheeseburger joint, the world took note.Pre-COVID, reservations to Noma, booked out months in advance, set guests back roughly $375 (sans libations) for dinner, per person. During COVID-19, Redzepi filled the outdoor garden with picnic tables and a menu of Noma burgers, in an effort to get people to start dining safely again — no reservations required.
In the Triangle, cheeseburgers are a pandemic star. I’ve called them a pandemic savior many times, as they’re just that, plus a side of comfort during unpredictable times. GOV’T CHEESEBURGER in Cary is one of the greatest examples of a successful pivot. In March, Postmaster restaurant offered takeout. “We did a week of service as Postmaster but with the style of food we were doing, it wasn’t translating well as to-go food,” says chef Chris Lopez. On the fly, Lopez and his team dreamt up GOV’T CHEESEBURGER, a “temporary” burger spot branded in all the right ways: casual, cheeky and not-too-serious.
“A lot of what you see on the menu is what did really well on our [Postmaster] Thursday night burger nights,” says Lopez. “We knew that burgers do well but it wasn’t on our radar that [GOV’T CHEESEBURGER] would be this successful,” he adds. The rebrand stems from a grilled cheese pop-up idea, coined GOV’T CHEESE, in reference to making American cheese in-house. For Lopez, rebranding and selling burgers are a necessity for keeping the restaurant alive. “But here we are five months later,” he says with a laugh.
The Classic, aka the Postmac (two patties with American cheese, shredduce, special sauce, onion and pickles housed between a Union Special bun) is the number one attraction, while Lopez’s personal favorite remains the mushroom melt. “I have an obsession with sour cream,” he says, noting the Funyun cream (sour cream mixed with dried chives, onion powder and a little sprinkle of MSG) is where it’s at, in his opinion. Currently, the team is plowing through 120 pounds or more of Brasstown Beef each week, with repeat customers coming for burgers more than once a week — and driving in from out of state.
Similar to Noma, GOV’T CHEESEBURGER set up outdoor tables where customers can order food and cocktails, sit outside and pretend the world is a normal place for a few minutes. Also expect burger and wine pairings with Short Walk Wines and a burger showdown, a competition with several of the Triangle’s sought-after burgers, tasted side-by-side, in order to knight a burger winner of the Triangle.
With the shuttering of High Horse, just seven months after its opening as a result of lost revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, celebrity chef Katsuji Tanabe was forced to find a new role within the community. Heading up Burgers + Burgundy, a burger-centric concept within Vidrio’s Fiera Lounge space, Tanabe launched a menu of three different gourmet burgers and a standout list of Burgundy wines and ice cream floats to wash the burgers down. While completely opposite to his previous role, Tanabe has enjoyed the more casual approach to dining.
Tanabe’s goal was to bring his culinary expertise to Vidrio to raise the bar on the restaurant’s Mediterranean sharing concept, but for now, a premium burger menu offers comfort and decadence simultaneously, as things begin to open back up to the new normal. “Burgers are the comfort food of America, it breaks classes and political views,” says Tanabe. “Food is what makes you and burgers do that and that’s what we need now — something that makes us feel better.” Plus, burgers travel well as a to-go food. Prior to the pandemic, Fiera Lounge was not available for guests to dine in so the appeal of sitting in a new space with classic American fare in a Mediterranean restaurant seems surprisingly fitting…for now.
In Durham, hyped craft cocktail bar Kingfisher has been shut down entirely since mid-March. With bars struggling to find ways to stay afloat, owners Sean Umstead and Michelle Vanderwalker turned to the classic cheeseburger for inspiration. QueenBurger came to life last month as a backyard burger pop-up, serving smash burgers (classic, vegan and veggie), beers and house-bottled cocktails. The space is set up with turf in the bar’s parking lot, with the goal of connecting safely with the community and continuing to bring fun and fresh cocktails and bites to locals. Additionally, 15 percent of sales support WE ARE, an anti-racist educational group.
“I don’t know if the cheeseburger is the savior of anything, small business-wise — but it is a reliable, comforting, nostalgic meal that is also one of the most traditional take out meals in the country,” says Umstead. “It just makes sense as it brings a sense of comfort to these uncertain times.”
Clearly, the people are here for it.
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