841-A Ronald Wood Road, Winder GA 30680 (Map); 770-867-0086; spitfirerestaurant.com
Cooking Method: Flattop
Short Order: Supremely juicy burgers served on the tarmac of a working airport
Want Fries with That? Go for the sweet potato fries, with their sweet custom seasoning blend, or a homemade side
Price: Cessna Burger, $8
With a rare afternoon of nothing on my Regular Life to-do list, I decided to cross off the farthest-flung place on my burger to-eat list. And perhaps the most unusual. Winder is a tiny town an hour northeast of downtown Atlanta and home of the Barrow County Airport. WDR, as it's known in pilot-speak, is one of those small regional airports with two short runways outside and less furniture than your living room inside. It's a takeoff and landing point mainly for recreational pilots and for corporate flyers looking to dodge the congestion at Hartsfield-Jackson. But it's also home of the Spitfire Restaurant, where I've heard persistent rumors of some pretty high-flying burgers. Now, there aren't many burgers that honestly warrant their own 115-mile round trip car ride. But if I had a buddy with a pilot's license and a Piper, I'd totally add Spitfire to my rotating burger itinerary.
Husband-and-wife team John and Lydia Huff opened Spitfire in mid-2011. After some frou-frou resort cooking in Charleston, John moved back home to Winder with an eye toward opening an eatery doing fine cuisine. But when the 800-square-foot space inside the airport terminal became available, the Huffs snapped it up and altered their menu plans to better suit the locale. Now weekend flyboys, local office workers, and area plane buffs bring a steady stream of business to the airport, where they can enjoy a basic slate of sandwiches, soups and salads, dogs, and burgers with a view overlooking the runways.
The burgers have quickly become the top gun of the menu; John grinds the 80/20 chuck on-site daily with a meat grinder handed down by his great-grandfather. John thinks the medieval apparatus dates back to the 1950s; it looks every bit that old to me. Absurdly heavy and forged from honest-to-God metal, this thing was like a battleship, proudly encrusted with a "they-don't-make-'em-like-this-anymore" vibe.
John puts a unique spin on his burgers by cooking down onions for "two hours or so, real low and slow" until they're caramelized, and then he adds them right to the meat mixture. Eight-ounce patties are formed by hand, dusted with salt and pepper, and taxied over to the flattop, where each one gets a beautiful outer sear. Having caramelized onions in the grind makes for a somewhat odd visual, as it gives the meat a near-mushy appearance. But John absolutely nailed my medium rare request, with beads of red juice literally dripping from the interior.
I went with a bare-bones Cessna, which featured cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and red onion. But there are models for the more adventurous, too. The Island Hopper has pineapple, jerk spices, Swiss cheese, and house-made tomato jam; the Red Eye is the most popular, with its cheddar, bacon, and fried egg. There's also a Daily Grind special, where John and Lydia do a little culinary stunt flying. Some attempts crash and burn; the fried shrimp-and-buffalo-sauce-topped number has been permanently grounded. But others earn their wings and become regular menu items, like one seasoned with blackening spice and crowned with bleu cheese and homemade steak sauce.
My burger was incredibly juicy, to the point of soaking through the toasted bun (from local bakery Engelman's) in a hurry... but a simple transfer of the LTO to the lower deck would probably be enough to remedy this minor flaw. (Interestingly, that's how it's pictured on their website.) Otherwise, it was a perfectly enjoyable burger in a relaxed and unique atmosphere. The outdoor patio is a great spot to hang with a bucket of beers. Go over a weekend for maximum airplane action or to maybe even catch a training exercise by the National Guard.
The tiny kitchen prevents John and Lydia from making as much of the menu from scratch has they would like, but they operate under a pretty stringent "if we CAN make it we DO make it" code. Along with their own sauces, the coleslaw and potato salad sides are made fresh in-house from family recipes. They even doctor up their sweet potato fries with a brown sugar/cinnamon blend that, when paired with a spot-on fry job, coarse-ground salt, and a quick hit of paprika, elevates these spuds to something that soars just a little higher than you'd think frozen fries could.
Realistically, I'm not sure how often I'll find myself in Winder, so I may never become a frequent flyer at Spitfire. But just as soon as I get myself a pilot pal who wants to take me flying sometime, I've got a great little place for a layover. The burgers will be on me.