125 Barrett Parkway, Marietta GA 30066 (map); 770-919-9110; four more locations listed at cheeseburgerbobbys.com
Cooking Method: Flat-top
Short Order: Atlanta-area micro-chain does fast casual superbly, with tasty burgers, a fresh toppings bar, and over-the-top customer service
Want Fries with That? Yes, and be prepared for them to keep bringing these AYCE beauties to you
Price: Single burger w/ fries & drink, $8.25 and up
Ball State. George Mason. Virginia Commonwealth University. If you recognize the names of these colleges, it's likely for one reason. Every March, it seems, a school that no one has heard of gets invited to the NCAA basketball tournament, and—sometimes inexplicably—goes on a winning streak. They absolutely ruin the bracket you turned in for your office pool by going deep and knocking off the Kentuckys, Georgetowns, and Dukes of the world. And every now and again, one of them does it with such regularity that they're no longer seen as a Cinderella-story fluke; they become a legitimate powerhouse on par with the big boys. Ladies and gentlemen, meet
Gonzaga Cheeseburger Bobby's.
My basketball analogy isn't completely out of left field of course, or even all that original. Our friends over at BurgerBusiness have put out their own March Madness brackets for years, seeding 64 hamburger joints and chains from all over the country and pitting them against one another in a showdown for votes, ultimately crowning one annual winner. And for two years running, this 5-store micro-chain in Georgia has made it all the way to the Final Four. In 2010, Cheeseburger Bobby's topped Krystal, Culver's, NY fave Bill's Bar & Burger, and Burgerville before finally losing to eventual champ Blanc Burgers + Bottles. Not content to be a one-year bracket-buster, Bobby returned in 2011 to beat crosstown rival Yeah! Burger, Johnny Rockets, Carl's Jr., and Texas hotspot Mighty Fine only to fall (again) to the Kansas City-based Blanc, who themselves went on to a repeat title.
At first glance, Cheeseburger Bobby's is a little like Five Guys, tucked randomly into strip malls in kinda-sorta-near-Atlanta metropolises like Hiram, John's Creek, and Flowery Branch. But they're more similar to Fuddrucker's, where you order a burger and then are encouraged to hit the toppings bar like a just-paroled monk in Vegas.
It's a pretty impressive spread: three kinds of lettuce, two pickle types, two pepper varieties, sliced red or diced white onions, tomatoes, relish, and six kinds of sauces and condiments. (Bacon, sautéed mushrooms, and grilled onions are also available for a small upcharge.) According to a Bobby's employee (a statistics student, apparently), the possible number of burger combinations is over a million, with almost infinite permutations. Want a two-inch layer of jalapeños with curly-leaf lettuce both over and under your patty and a single tomato slice for color? Not my thing, but here are your plastic tongs—go for it. (Bobby's also offers several "Specialty Burgers" of the usual-suspect varieties: Mushroom & Swiss, Black & Bleu, Smokehouse, Chili-Cheese, etc.)
The patties are thin (I'd peg them at quarter-pounders) with the kitchen staff using the smash technique to get a sexy crust on their beef, which is never frozen and formed daily by hand. Predictably, that results in a well-done burg (the menu explicitly tells you this will be the case), but it's juicier and meatier than "a well-done quarter-pounder" might suggest. And of course, you can always go double-patty to jack up the meat quotient. Both the single and double are quite tasty and worth the short wait during cooking, but the real stars of this lineup are the ridiculously fresh DIY toppings. The bun is also exceptional—a soft and squishy model that's been buttered and griddled, and hangs in there all the way to the very last bite.
The fries at Cheeseburger Bobby's are stellar. Hand-cut, crisp, and nicely salted, they have a right-out-of-the-fryer slickness to them that never quite crosses the line to "greasy," but definitely lets you know that they haven't been sitting around for very long. In fact, to keep that fry stock turning over, a Bobby's employee makes the rounds every few minutes with a giant bowl of fresh ones, topping off your plate with more for as long as you care to sit there and shovel them in.
That bend-over-backward customer service is another hallmark of Cheeseburger Bobby's (and makes that seemingly slightly-elevated price tag easier to swallow). Apart from playing Fry Fairy, the staff at each impossibly clean restaurant also goes table-to-table with free Starlight mints and complimentary samples of their frozen custard, and will reportedly escort you to your car with an umbrella when it's raining. I've even heard about the time a mom held a kid's birthday party at Bobby's and forgot candles for the cake ... so a kitchen team member raced across the parking lot to pick some up at the nearby grocery store.
Now, I love a sit-down, order-from-a-menu, use-a-laundered-napkin gourmet burger. But sometimes fast casual is just easier to shoehorn into your day. And while there are plenty of nationally-known, well-established heavy hitters out there, if I'm near a bright and clean place where the employees are truly friendly, they let me top my own freshly-made burger exactly how I like it, AND they follow up with perfectly-cooked never-ending fries and free custard samples? That, burger fanatics, is what I call a slam dunk. Welcome to the big dance, Bobby.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and recently penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.