Ted's Montana Grill
1874 Peachtree Road, Atlanta GA 30309 (Map); 404-355-3897; 44 locations in 16 states listed at tedsmontanagrill.com
The Schtick: Upscale burger joint with cowboy-cool vibe and eco-friendly bent
The Burger: Spectacular seven-ounce patties of bison or beef with gourmet topping combos
Want Fries With That? The fries are outstanding; the onion rings may be even better
Setting: Turn-of-the-century Old West steakhouse/saloon
Price: Delicious Duo, $9; Cheeseburger (beef), $11; Peppercorn Burger (beef), $13; Kitchen Sink Burger (bison), $18
Launching a restaurant chain whose menu focuses primarily on a wild animal that most people know only from a Kevin Costner movie or the backside of an old nickel could be seen as a risky proposition. But then again, Ted Turner has always been a bit of a maverick. When the famed environmentalist / philanthropist / champion yachtsman / cable TV tycoon / ex-MLB owner / all-around filthy rich guy bought up half the state of Montana, five digits' worth of roaming buffalo came with it. The majestic animal was nearing extinction, so Ted made it his mission to reinvigorate the bison ranching industry. He teamed up with George McKerrow (the brains behind LongHorn Steakhouse) and invented a turn-of-the-century-style upscale saloon that would celebrate the spirit of the Old West and honor the bison as the centerpiece of the menu.
Ten years after the first Ted's Montana Grill opened (in Columbus, Ohio, of all places), there are now 44 restaurants spread across 16 states. The propaganda at Ted's will tell you that bison meat is similar in taste to beef, but "with a richer, slightly sweeter flavor." With repeated visits over the past several years under my belt, I still can't pick out a dramatic difference in a blind taste test. But whether you buy into bison or stick with the more traditional beef, Ted's Montana Grill is one of the best (if also one of the priciest) chain-burger options out there.
Speaking of options, you've got loads of them at Ted's when it comes to burgers. The menu can differ slightly from location to location, but in Turner's hometown of Atlanta (where there are currently 13 restaurants), the menu features just under twenty burger varieties, each one available in either National Bison Association-certified bison or Certified Angus beef.
If you're curious about bison but skittish at the thought of pulling the trigger on a full seven-ouncer, Ted's does offer a sampler. The Delicious Duo is a pair of three-ounce patties—one beef and one bison—dressed with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, housemade dill pickle chips, and the kitchen's own mustard remoulade on tiny brioche rolls. All of the meat—both the beef and the bison—is ground fresh on-site throughout the day, hand-formed, and cooked to order.
The classic beef Cheese Burger is simply gorgeous. All of the burgers at Ted's are griddled to develop a spectacularly seared crust (no good photos of this; it was apparently awfully damn dark in the Old West) and a beautiful melt job on the cheese (your choice of American, Swiss, Cheddar, or Monterey Jack). You have four bun choices at Ted's: a cornmeal-dusted Kaiser, an onion roll, ciabatta, or an "oatie wheat" bun. This medium-cooked burger was crazy-juicy, expertly seasoned, and so good that my picky five-year-old took the entire thing down single-handedly.
My wife also stayed with beef, but strayed into Ted's gourmet burger combinations. The Peppercorn is one of three new burgers that the chain debuted in 2011—the first new burgers on the menu in eight years. The patty is seasoned and seared with peppercorns (duh), then crowned with melted Gruyère, herb Dijon mustard, and baby arugula. Usually served atop an onion roll, the missus opted for ciabatta instead. Another solid and super-tasty offering that didn't need no stinking to-go box, thank you very much.
High-end add-ons like those are the staple of Ted's burger menu. Sure, you'll find the usual suspects like a Bacon Cheeseburger and a Swiss & Mushroom, but when you're shelling out a minimum of 10 bucks for a burger, you might as well have some fun. Some burgers go the route of barbecue sauce (George's Cadillac) or fried onion straws (Red Rock), and if you like that sort of thing on yours, you'll no doubt enjoy Ted's takes on them. For me, some of the more unusual standouts on the menu include the Canyon Creek (which features fresh jalapeños and blackberry jam among its toppings), the New Mexico (roasted Anaheim peppers, guacamole, and spicy tomato jam)...and the Kitchen Sink.
Damn, I'm a sucker for a fried egg atop a burger. The Kitchen Sink is just one of three on the menu with it, but it also adds American cheese, grilled ham, smoky bacon, grilled onions, and mushrooms. Not to worry, though; I put it on the substantial oatie wheat bun, which basically cancels all of that bad stuff right out. And I had not one, but two kinds of lettuce served on the side (shredded and leaf). Add tomato and red onion (for those of you keeping score, that's now two kinds of onions as well), and the Kitchen Sink is practically health food—you know, now that eggs are apparently good for us again. I was, however, disappointed to see that the kitchen had carelessly planted the little Stars-and-Stripes toothpick right through my yolk; I had really wanted to be the one to kickstart that silky gold rush myself.
With my "over-easy" egg already punctured and the flood of precious yolk pooling around my burger, there was no reason not to slice in for a good cross-section shot. My bison was nicely cooked to medium-rare, noticeably pinker in real-life than this picture would suggest. Although not quite as rosy as I would hope for with beef and an upscale kitchen staff, I grasped that it was perhaps just a difference between the two proteins. Coloring aside, it was phenomenally juicy, a joy to eat from the first bite to the last. (But let's watch where we stick that flag next time, okay?)
All burgers come with fresh-cut fries, and they are sensational. Long, hot, skin-on, crisp-on-the-outside-but-fluffy-on-the-inside, they are a spot-on interpretation of the American classic. But I'd also highly recommend the Salt-N'-Pepper Onion Rings. Huge bracelets of onion with a peppery kick in the crunchy crumb coat and not the least bit greasy, they rival the best upper-crust steakhouse rings I've ever had. Try 'em both by asking for a 50/50 order alongside your burger.
The cowboy-cool vibe at Ted's is also worth a quick mention. I've never been to an Old West turn-of-the-century saloon, but this sure as hell feels like the real deal. Gorgeous mahogany walls, honeycomb tile floors, Tiffany-style lamps, frosted glass, tin ceiling panels, brass accents and hardware—it's like dining on a movie set. And in true Ted Turner style, eco-responsible touches are everywhere, from the recycled butcher-paper tablecloths to the natural Boraxo powder soap in the restrooms. Even the straw in your drink is a statement: it's a biodegradable paper straw, something that hadn't even been produced in the U.S. since 1970—until Turner and McKerrow contacted the company that had first made it and resurrected it for use in all of its restaurants. The goal of Ted's Montana Grill is to be 99 percent plastic-free (think about that for a moment). Just a small step toward creating a better planet for us—and the bison—to live on.
In Atlanta, at least, we sometimes take Ted Turner for granted. And we often forget about Ted's Montana Grill. But every time I've ever been, I've come away raving about the burgers, both beef and bison. Granted, it's pricey: a naked beef burger with no cheese is 10 dollars. My bison Kitchen Sink, their most expensive burger, is $18. But for an upscale burger experience, Ted's is an occasional splurge that never disappoints.