933 Main Street, St. Helena CA 94574 (map); 707-963-3486; gotts.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: A classic California griddled burger with the fixin's, marred by underseasoned, rather bland beef
Want Fries With That? Yes, excellent shoestrings
Price: Burgers, $8-$11; seafood, $9.50-$15; fries, $2.70-$5
A couple weeks ago, Carey Jones and I were barreling up Highway 29 on our way to St. Helena in our Ford Escape, downing tacos, biting breakfast sandwiches, and taking names. Another four-meals-before-10:30 day in the life of a Serious Eater.
I may not look it or act it, but I'm a pretty sentimental guy at heart. I get warm and fuzzy when I hear about friendly, family-run operations that have been slinging hash since the 19th century. My inner monologue waxes nostalgic at the concept of a drive-in movie or a soda shop where the syrup is mixed into the fountains by hand. Number one on the list of places I wish would never go away: roadside diners.
Having spent my entire life living in either New York or Boston, I can't say I'm all that familiar with them. Sure, there are the ice cream stands and seafood shacks around the Cape and the New England coast, but at its heart, the concept of a drive-up burger stand is a purely California notion.
The first wave of roadside diners started popping up in the '40s. The predecessors to modern-day fast food venues, these old fashioned diners promised hot, fast, meals cooked to order at a reasonable price. The original Taylor's Refresher was one of 'em. Started by Lloyd "Popsy" Taylor in 1949 as a humble burger shack. It managed to survive for about 50 years before it was taken over in 1999 by the Gott brothers, Joel and Duncan.
Under their guidance, the newly revamped menu, which included burgers, seafood, sandwiches, and hot dogs—all with that sort of feel-good local/seasonal/sustainable/we-recycle-everything attitude that gets you places in California—propelled the roadside stand into a full-blown mini chain, complete with a James Beard Foundation award under their belt.
The restaurant now has three locations: the original in St. Helena, and branches in Napa and San Francisco's Ferry Plaza.
It was in 2010 that things got a bit ugly. Told that they were no allowed to trademark the name Taylor's (the name belonged to Lloyd's daughters Jean Taylor Nicholson and Virginia Taylor Toogood), the Gotts decided to expand and rebrand their business by renaming it Gott's Roadside.
The Taylors were not happy and there's currently all sorts of legal turmoil surrounding the restaurant and its name. Of course, this is all only interesting to the nostalgia fiend in me. The burger fiend cares about one thing only: How does it all taste?
Carey and I happened to arrive at that magical cusp between breakfast and lunch—where they're just starting to serve burgers but are still firing off egg sandwiches on all cylinders—and used the opportunity to sample both.
True to their roadside appearance, the Cheeseburgers ($7.99) at Gott's are classic California all the way. Fans of In-N-Out or Pie N' Burger will instantly recognize them. Griddled beef with melted American cheese served on top of a big pile of crunchy iceberg lettuce with tomato, pickles, and a secret-sauce-that's-really-Thousand-Island. It all comes on a toasted egg roll wrapped in (recycled and recyclable) brown paper.
What you won't recognize is the thick, pink-in-the-center patty of ground beef sourced from Niman Ranch. This is a gourmet burger disguised as a drive-in burger. And you know what? It doesn't quite pull it off. There's an essential balance to the classic thin, griddled California-style burger. The beef is not a star player, but merely another member of the cast. The burger is just as much about the sauce, pickles, and crunchy vegetables as it is about the crisp-crusted beef.
At Gott's, not only is there too much beef, but the beef is simply bland. Underseasoned and without a significant crust, it adds bulk but not flavor. It's not a bad burger, per se, but it's as clear an example as any I can think of where someone came along and tinkered with a good idea that needed no tinkering to end up with an inferior finished product.
Fries, on the other hand, are some of the best around. Crunchy, fluffy, potatoey, and well seasoned, you couldn't ask for a better bit of fried potato.
Equally tasty was the Classic Breakfast Sandwich ($4.99), made with a couple of soft, toasted slices of thick-cut, not-too-sour sourdough bread, some excellent crisp bacon, tender eggy-eggs, and American cheese. For a buck more, you can add fried chicken and jalapeño spread to your sandwich (we didn't, but love the idea).
At the end of the day, it's not the most spectacular burger on the planet, or even in the state (or highway), but it's a fine burger served with excellent fries in a setting where I could see myself spending a long time lounging at a picnic table, lounging by the highway in the California sun. Not a bad place to be.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.