RETRO: Entire classes of UGA students have come and gone since Ernie Battinelli had a restaurant, although if they’re on the football team, they’ve probably had his catering. If you were around in Athens in the mid-1990s, though, the food at Uncle Ernie’s Pub ’n’ Grub (235 W. Washington St., 706-850-8990) is like Proust’s madeleines. One bite of the potato salad, and you’ll experience a host of memories, a glimpse of your former self. That is not to say it is the best potato salad in town, but it is perhaps the most evocative.
Uncle Ernie’s isn’t actually run by Ernie Battinelli, although he’s on hand to serve as a guiding influence to his son Daniel, who is the owner of the restaurant. Unlike the original Clayton Street Deli—the first Battinelli joint in Athens—Uncle Ernie’s has a full bar. It also has more TVs per square foot than probably any other restaurant in Athens, which means a lot of sports, which means it is a thoroughly dudely restaurant. If you are a woman who is conscious of such things and you glance around, you will feel quite outnumbered.
The sandwiches that make up the majority of the menu are just as much a trip back in time, which does not mean that they’re dated. Rather, they are classics. The ordering system is a bit surprisingly complex, with a large, laminated, two-sided menu that has tons of options but also small slips of paper with which to complete your order, so that you may customize your sandwich thoroughly. The big menu doesn’t give you all the choices (types of bread, spreads, sandwich fixins), so you need the little one, too, and the waiter will collect a slip from each patron at the table. If you’re getting a salad, you can use one to specify your dressing and any special instructions. There are loads of bread choices—honey wheat, pumpernickel, marble rye, sourdough, different kinds of rolls, croissants, tortillas flavored or unflavored and even gluten-free, which wasn’t an option back in the day—but they all still tend to arrive untoasted, which means the enormous sandwiches often fall apart. No matter. You can eat your massive egg salad sammich with a fork if you need to.
You might think you want to put the most ingredients possible on a sandwich, but the simpler choices, egg salad included, tend to be a little more successful. Take, for example, the meatball sub, which does not need lettuce, tomato, et al. and is better for it. These are fundamentally New York deli sandwiches, which means that a bunch of meat is the centerpiece, as in the Barrister, a combo of pastrami and corned beef that resides in the “specialty sandwiches” section of the menu, alongside Scholar, MBA, Undergrad, PhD and “Italian Sub.”
Uncle Ernie’s also has burgers (Not bad! Feel free to add a fried egg on top), Nathan’s hot dogs, quesadillas, a bunch of wraps, liverwurst, chicken parm, a black bean burger, an eggplant sandwich and a number of giant salads, many of which also feature sliced meats. Sides include fries (regular, crinkle-cut, sweet potato), tots, onion rings, the aforementioned potato salad and more. Wings are available in the evenings. The kitchen is not generally speedy, but the atmosphere is pleasant. Uncle Ernie’s is open 11 a.m.–11 p.m. daily.
ROAD TRIP: Is four hours too far to drive for just barbecue? Lexington, NC, is famous far and wide for Lexington Barbecue (100 Smokehouse Lane, 336-249-9814), which is absolutely worth a trip. Known as Honeymonk or The Monk to locals, the place is big and right off the highway. It doesn’t traffic in sawdust on the floor or cutesy pig signs. What it does have is vintage high chairs, three-cent bubble gum by the cash register, Cheerwine and excellent barbecue.
Lexington/Piedmont-style rather than Eastern North Carolina-style, the ’cue features a sauce that includes ketchup and a ton of pepper, with just the tiniest kiss of sweet alongside pure vinegar and cayenne. I am not a sauce person. I bought a bottle of this sauce. The meat (pork, of course) comes sliced or chopped, either more finely or less finely, depending on what you order. If you get the coarse-chopped, you’ll have 1-to-2-inch hunks. The slaw incorporates the sauce, which means it’s red, not mayonnaisey, and although Lexington Barbecue will bring you rolls if you want them, you are advised to get the hush puppies as your bread, because they are excellent.
There’s also fried fish, fried shrimp, hamburger steak, fried chicken, burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches with smoked turkey or pork skins, kids meals and various kinds of pie. I’m sure much of it is good, too. For being a storied type of place, the prices are darn good, going up no higher than $11.70 for a “plate,” which comes with fries, slaw and bread, as opposed to a “tray,” which doesn’t include fries but sometimes includes more meat than a plate, depending. It is absolutely worth a side trip if you’re in the area and is open 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, closed Sundays and the week of July 4.
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