840 East Middle Turnpike, Manchester CT 06040 (map); 860-649-4245
Cooking Method: Griddle
Short Order: Unique preparation and decades-old pedigree make for a classic burger, but flawed beef make it hard to recommend unconditionally.
Want Fries with That? Absolutely; they're perfect golden crinkle cuts.
Price: Cheeseburger, $4.75; Big Cheeseburger, $5.25
Bless George Motz. No one has single handedly done more to document and foster our hamburger heritage than he has. Starting with his film Hamburger America and subsequent book of the same name, Motz set out to cover unique burger spots using a loose set of parameters, focusing on places that had been in business for decades, preferably run by the same family, and that used fresh, never frozen beef. In essence, he is studying the hamburger before it underwent the rationalization and commoditization of the fast food business—burgers from a time when quality of ingredients and assurance of freshness were at least as important as speed of service.
The places featured in Hamburger America are all unique and worthy of attention—they are an important part of our cultural and culinary heritage. But I think that George will privately admit that he does not unconditionally love every burger in the book, although publicly he refuses to play favorites. There are burgers in his book that were probably chosen more for their historical significance or because they offer a unique version of America's favorite sandwich than the way they actually taste. I can't help but think that Shady Glen in Manchester, Connecticut, is one of those places.
When you arrive at Shady Glenn there is no doubt why it is featured in Hamburger America. The place looks like it hasn't changed since the 1940s—the brown formica counters and red and green stools that surround it like candy dots are bathed in a warm incandescent glow. The countermen are decked out in paper hats and the waitresses wear green smocks underneath white aprons.
The Shady Glenn cheeseburger has been dubbed the Bernice Original after the creator Bernice Rieg. It dates back to 1949, making it a baby boom burger. This griddle-cooked cheeseburger is unique in that the cheese is not stacked during cooking, but is laid over the burger like a blanket, a large portion making direct contact with the griddle. As you can imagine, the cheese becomes very crispy, but does not stick to the griddle. The cheese comes out perfectly melted on the patty, while the the cheesy protrusions, cooked to a dark golden hue, are so crisp they literally shatter when jabbed.
The bread is a perfect white, squishy enriched bun. Putting the cheese crisp aside, the cheese-beef-bun ratio is absolutely perfect. Folding the cheese crisp in to the sandwich adds a pleasing textural contrast to the soft bun, not unlike bacon. But there is no correct method of eating the hardened cheese—snapping it off and eating it on its own is equally permissible. Unfortunately, the beef is just plain dreadful. Cooked all the way through, it is lean, tough, and flavorless. If it is made of fresh beef, it is hard to distinguish from a frozen commodity beef patty. The superb bun and unique cheese preparation can't really cover up this flaw.
The burger, its unique construction and decades-old pedigree aside, is hard to recommend traveling a great distance for on its own. But there is so much else to love about Shady Glen—the decor, the ambiance, the ice cream, and the admirable fries and coleslaw—that it is well worth a visit. George Motz may not admit that Bernice Original is not the best burger, nor even a very good burger, but he was right to include it in Hamburger America. Shady Glen is an American classic and an important part of our hamburger heritage.
Hamburger America: Shady Glen in Manchester, Connecticut
Ted's Steamed Cheeseburgers; Meriden, Connecticut
A Visit to Louis' Lunch, "Home of the Hamburger"
Clamp's: A Timeless Connecticut Hamburger Stand
The History of the Hamburger, Featuring New Haven's Louis' Lunch