Fairly recently in Athens, we’ve had two new burger places open, each part of a small (or smallish) chain. Between the two of them, they kind of tell the story of food in America, the dichotomy of fast vs. slow, cheap vs. expensive, good enough vs. really good. The moral high ground is on the side of slow, expensive and tasty these days, but food choices aren’t always (or at least not always primarily) about morality.
BURGER ONE: Grindhouse Killer Burgers (1553 S. Lumpkin St., 706-612-9327) is the third iteration in Alex Brounstein’s mini-empire, started out of the Sweet Auburn Curb Market in Atlanta, where the original Grindhouse still flips burgers behind a long, shiny counter. The location here in Athens is significantly bigger, with a downstairs where you can order at the register, sit at the bar or get table service and an upstairs that is limited to those 21 and up.
The Five Points area is still relatively lacking in bars (Aromas, The Royal Peasant, Marker 7 and Five & Ten are your only other options), especially considering the residential population within a couple of blocks’ radius, so Grindhouse seems ready to pull in some folks for sporting events and regular blowing off of steam. The building is attractive, designed by locals E + E Architecture with lots of hard surfaces, brushed metal and pretty details. The parking lot is a bit of an issue, with only one point of ingress/egress and no turnaround at the far end of the rectangle, which can be stressful.
The burgers in question are flat rather than fat, and on the small side, which for some is a negative rather than a positive. Not so. If you need more food (and for many people the standard burger and fries combination will leave you sated but not stuffed, which is what you should want but in reality often do not), you can order a double, with two of the svelte patties, but the “junior” is a better balanced creation.
Made with beef ground fresh (out of house) and delivered daily, turkey or quinoa and beans, the burgers come on a potato bun Brounstein finally decided on after investigating option after option. You can build your own or pick among Euro Style (Swiss, mushrooms, lettuce, mustard, mayo), Yankee Style (bleu cheese, bacon, grilled onions, lettuce), Apache Style (pepper jack, grilled onions, green chiles, lettuce) and more. For my money, the Dixie Style (pimento cheese, fried green tomato, slaw, chipotle ranch) may not be for purists, but it’s damn delicious.
The fries are crinkle-cut, spice-dusted with restraint and served in not-too-big portions. The hand-spun milkshakes are excellent, and upstairs offers alcoholic versions. The Cheesy Poofs (fried pimento-cheese nuggets) do not need their sweet Asian dipping sauce. Everything is a nice combination of decadent and focused. The veggie burger has more substance than at most restaurants. But quality can take time. My second visit to the restaurant resulted in a 25-minute wait from the time I paid my check to the moment I got my food. I doubt that’s usual, but it is indicative that large crowds can be a problem for the kitchen the way things are organized now.
Grindhouse is open for lunch and dinner daily, takes credit cards, does take-out, screens trashy movies and has a full bar.
BURGER TWO: Cook-Out Restaurant (1097 Pkwy Blvd., between Kohl’s and Walmart off Epps Bridge), on the other hand, reminds one of where McDonald’s must have started out. The chain, out of North Carolina, aims to serve a lot of people efficiently and without bankrupting them. The place is busy, with both dine-in and two drive-thru lanes packed frequently, but orders are taken smoothly and food delivered speedily. There’s an extra menu board posted in the drive-thru before you get to the ordering station, which is a smart idea to minimize stress if you’re unfamiliar with the menu.
Not that it’s super-complicated. Cook-Out focuses on burgers, chicken sandwiches, hot dogs and BBQ and pushes its combo platters, as part of which you get one of the above (or two hot dogs), two sides of mostly fried stuff (french fries, hush puppies, chicken nuggets, onion rings, corn dog, etc.) and a giant drink for less than $5. You will not feel healthy. You will not feel virtuous. But eating isn’t always about confirming your virtue to yourself.
I’m not a big fan of the hot dogs, which you can order Cook-Out Style with chili and slaw, but the burgers are fairly solid in the fast-food category. The BBQ sandwich is not a masterpiece, but it is also about as good as what’s served at 90 percent of the places in Athens, topped with slaw and a spicy (rather than tomatoey) sauce. Perhaps the biggest attraction is in the beverage column, where you can get Cheerwine for your drink or upgrade to one of a Baskin Robbins-worthy array of milkshake flavors.
Cook-Out is open every day until late at night (3 a.m. and later), takes credit cards and does not serve alcohol or have an official website or Facebook page.
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