Chevy's Diner & Pub
45 Macon Street, McDonough GA 30253 (map); 678-583-8777; Facebook page
Cooking Method: Flat top
Short Order: The '50s-themed diner has a loyal following with burgers that may well be the best in the city...of McDonough
Want Fries with That? Exceptional fries with a crisp breaded coat
Price: Ike's "I Like Cheese" Burger (4 oz.), $7.49; "Joltin' Joe's" Pepper Jack Burger (8 oz.), $9.99; Cruisin' Burger (16 oz.), $10.99; all come with fries
"We're just a little ol' diner."
That's how owner Neil Daniell described the place to me. It's off an old-fashioned town square about an hour south of Atlanta proper, in the city of McDonough—which could convincingly pass for Mayberry. But "smalltown mom-and-pop hamburger joint" doesn't really tell the full story of Chevy's Diner & Pub. Turns out they've got a rabidly zealous clientele who's eager to put the burgs in this tiny burgh on the same map as ATL's big boys.
When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution released its annual Best of the Big A burger list in January, the usual suspects found themselves looking up at a new and unexpected #1. Readers had voted Chevy's burgers ahead of legends like The Vortex, Ann's Snack Bar, and George's, as well as new kids on the gourmet burger block like Grindhouse and Farm Burger. Critically-acclaimed darlings like Holeman & Finch, Muss & Turner's, and Bocado were nowhere to be found at all (except on the list of AJC staff picks).
But as shocked as the city's foodie community might have been at this David TKOing a whole army of Goliaths, no one was more surprised than Neil Daniell. "We've got a loyal following," Daniell told me about the grass-roots campaign that his regulars had undertaken—a get-out-the-vote effort that not even his staff knew about until it was all over. "It almost brings me to tears. They came out in force." And now new customers are coming out in force, too, some driving hours to sample the burgers that managed to top the metro's masters.
The first burger at Chevy's to hit my table was the Ike's "I Like Cheese" Burger. (Every item on the '50s-themed diner's extensive menu has an era-appropriate nickname, unwieldy and obscure though some may be.) I'll admit I was taken aback. Obviously hand-pattied, but my God, what shape is that? And almost absurdly smallish-looking, not even filling up a three and a half-inch bun. There was lots and lots of cheese, all nicely melted, despite the blotchy orange of the kitchen's standard cheddar not being as photogenic as American.
Luckily for Chevy's, I wouldn't be making a judgment based on the appearance of this burger, which was ordered by my eight-year-old daughter—and enjoyed thoroughly, I might add. I should also note that the Ike's is not the burger off the kid's menu. This is the quarter-pound model found on the regular menu, and usually comes lettuce-onion-tomato-topped. It's served with fries, but not many, as you can see. I've read some knocks against Chevy's on pricing, and I get it in this case. That doesn't look like $7.49 worth of food.
My wife's "Joltin' Joe's" Pepper Jack Burger looked far more promising. This was the half-pound version, dressed with bacon and pepper jack cheese that they actually hack in-house. Daniell told me that when the price of their supplier's pepper jack rose sharply during the down economy of 2008-2009, they started buying regular jack and shaking on pepper flakes during the burger's assembly. Resourceful...and tasty. The pepper flakes bring a more noticeable level of heat and just look sexy. With a healthy helping of sweet potato tots on the side, I felt a lot better about this meal's $8.99 price tag, and a glimmer of hope that Chevy's would end up surprising me in person the way they did in the newspaper.
Chevy's burgers were all half-pounders when they first opened, according to Daniell. When some customers expressed interest in a smaller size, he offered quarter-pounders in every variety. But a few also claimed to still be hungry after eight ounces. So Daniell obliged them, too, with the Cruisin' Burger. That's a one-pound patty of 80/20 chuck, overlapping the four-inch bun by at least an inch all the way around. It's smothered in melted cheddar and topped with crisp bacon and fried onion petals.
I ordered my Cruisin' Burger medium at the enthusiastic recommendation of my server Graham. (I generally prefer medium rare, but with a patty that big, I got skittish.) It did show a nice crust from the flat top, but had only a hint of pink inside. Based on the doneness guide printed right in the menu, this more closely fit the description of a well done burger. As a result, the beef was drier than I had hoped for. Seasoning happens only during cooking at Chevy's, Daniell told me, due to so many customers' dietary restrictions, but it felt like mine could have used a few more shakes of the "secret blend," as I wasn't picking up any seasoning at all.
That said, the bacon was outstanding, the onion petals were better than I usually find fried onions on a burger to be, and the LTO—while tough to find under all that meat—helped. The cornmeal-dusted Kaiser bun had a tough time standing up to all that weight, and by the last few bites, the wheels had come off this cruiser, leaving me with a plate full of spare parts. But a one-pound burger is filling if nothing else (and at $10.99, this one's a relative bargain).
Interestingly, Daniell told me that he's toying with plans for a three-pound monster, a triple-decker of 16-ounce patties, presumably for families to share— or for good ol' boys going head-to-head on a dare. (Personally, I'd rather see them focus on nailing some of the details of what's already here.)
As for sides, the sweet potato tots that I'm seeing on more and more menus are equally excellent everywhere I've had them; Chevy's is no exception. My table also had the hand-cut chips, which I found to be bland, boring, and underseasoned. As for the regular fries, Daniell told me they're a frozen product with a unique crisp-breaded coat. Chosen by Daniell's wife (co-owner Erica) because they don't get soggy, he believes Chevy's is one of only two places in the state to offer them. They are exceptional, and Daniell confirms that the fries are as popular as the burgers at Chevy's.
There's a lot that's popular at Chevy's, apparently. There were families at every table in the main dining room, where burgers and hand-scooped Blue Bell ice cream cones were flying. The bar, designed to resemble an English pub (circa 1955, of course) was jammed on this Saturday night, with craft beers, local microbrews, and beer floats flowing. The adjoining next-door space, called the Backseat, features live music. The place was packed, with at least one group waiting in the wings for the entire time I was there. Chevy's offers super-friendly service, a fun atmosphere, and pretty good food. They're clearly a hotspot in downtown McDonough—not bad at all for "just a little ol' diner."
If I lived there, I'd probably be a regular, just like apparently everyone else in town. Based on my visit, I can't justify putting them in the same class as the big-city restaurants they managed to best for their newspaper-poll upset (a little more seasoning and a more watchful eye on donenesses wouldn't hurt), but I hope Chevy's makes the most of this moment in the spotlight. The burger world needs more Davids.