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.
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
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.