Ask Mr. Gold

QUESTION: Every so often, you seem to mention Hamburger Hamlet, and usually pretty fondly. It’s a nostalgia thing, right? You can’t possibly really like the place. It’s a chain, for crying out loud. A chain, owned by Koo Koo Roo or something, with yellowing theater posters on the wall.

—Sandra, Northridge


ANSWER: I do like Hamburger Hamlet, actually and un-ironically. I’ve been going to one branch or another since I was a little kid, and some of my fondest memories of high school involve the onion-soup fondue. I’m not sure there is another restaurant or group of restaurants I have liked so well for so long. (And Hamburger Hamlet is no longer owned by Koo Koo Roo.) But I tend to go to Hamburger Hamlets for fairly specific reasons:

1) A Hamburger Hamlet is always dark and still.
2) A Hamburger Hamlet is always extremely well air-conditioned.
3) The iced tea, which has not been flavored with passion-fruit extract or mango seeds, is cold, served on lots of ice in huge glasses, and is freely refilled.
4) If you want a drink, the cocktails are generous and professionally made, especially the Bloody Marys, and no one will look at you sideways even if it happens to be 9:30 a.m. on a Wednesday.
5) Waiters leave you alone when you want to be left alone but can also be gregarious when you are in the mood for that. It must be corporate policy.
6) The hamburgers have never been great, but they aren’t bad either — there’s usually a slight, pleasantly bitter edge of char, and the condiments, especially the guacamole, are excellent.
7) The Hotsburger, which is made with a thick, loosely packed beef patty spiked with lots of chopped jalapeño and served open-faced on garlic toast, has been off the menu for years now, but somebody will always make you one if you ask for it. For a chain, this is about as responsive to customers as it gets.
8) Ditto the Tin Roof sundae.
9) “Those Potatoes,” the hash browns hip deep in sour cream, ranks as one of the great dishes of the American 1960s.
And . . .
10) The onion-soup fondue is as formidable as it was the day the restaurant opened.

If all the Hamburger Hamlets suddenly turned overnight into branches of the Daily Grill, I would probably survive — the Daily Grill’s BLTs and French fries, after all, are even better than the Hamlet’s. But sometimes, even with a city full of restaurants, no place else will do.

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