Bristol, VA: Burgers with a Side of Country Music History at Burger Bar

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[Photographs: Jed Portman]

Burger Bar

8 Piedmont Ave, Bristol VA 24201 (map); 276-466-6200; burgerbarbristol.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Come for the country music history, stay for quality burgers and fries.
Want Fries With That? The fresh, crispy sweet potato fries—recommended over regular fries—come with a brown sugar "aioli" that would be good on anything.
Price: Your Cheatin' Heart, $6.95; sweet potato fries, $2.95; milkshake, $3.95

The circumstances of Hank Williams's death are still under some debate. He was in Knoxville when he was sick—which is no surprise, he was always sick—and had to be carried, under the influence of morphine, to his car. Some people say that he was already dead. Then Hank's chauffeur, Charles Carr, began the drive to Canton, Ohio. Hank had a show there. Carr stopped at an all-night restaurant in Bristol, Virginia, around midnight.

When Carr asked Hank if he'd like anything to eat in Bristol, he says, Hank, who had been quiet up to that point, replied. "No." That was Hank's last word, if he said it. By the time Charles Carr pulled over for gas in Oak Hill, West Virginia, a few hours later, Hank Williams was definitely dead.

According to local legend, that restaurant where Hank Williams could have eaten his last meal, had he not declined it, was the Burger Bar. Now, there has been a fair amount of kick-back against the legend. Carr himself has said that he may have misremembered his meal and may not, in fact, have stopped in Bristol. One report that I found online claimed that the Burger Bar did not even exist in 1952, when Hank died (that is not true—it's been in Bristol since 1942).

I ceased all research when I heard the conviction of the line cook at the Burger Bar. "Of course it happened," he said. No need to pry too much into a good story.

The Burger Bar's role as a concluding footnote in the life of the greatest country-music songwriter of all time still brings in business, and the occasional reporter. As a stop on the Hank Williams death trail, it's become a memorial of sorts, and many of the burgers on today's menu—which has been revamped in the past few years following a closing and a subsequent takeover by upscale restaurant group Troutdale Kitchens—are named, in tribute to Hank Williams, with the titles of his songs.

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The "I Can't Help It," which takes its name from the sad "I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You," is a burger with bacon and cheese, while "Your Cheatin' Heart" is heaped with "secret sauce," green chiles, sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, and cheese.

I got "Your Cheatin' Heart" ($6.95) with pepper jack, and I shouldn't have. Not because the toppings weren't good, but because the patty was. See, I don't expect much from diner hamburgers, but it wasn't until I tried this one that I realized that it should not have been smothered with second-tier ingredients.

Since the chefs at Troutdale Kitchens took over, I learned, Burger Bar's burgers have gotten a little bit fancy. Nowadays, the patties are made from locally-sourced, grass fed beef and sprinkled with a generous amount of the house spice blend, a secret mix anchored by coarse salt and black pepper, when they're dropped onto the grill. The six-ounce burgers, made from local, grass-fed top round, come out browned outside and juicy inside and don't need anything but the toasted sesame bun.

I ate my burger with crunchy sweet potato fries ($2.95), served with a brown sugar "aioli"—made from brown sugar, white sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mayonnaise—that struck a nice balance between creamy and sweet and was a savvy alternative to ketchup.

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At the insistence of the woman behind the counter, a Miss Ashley Steele, who claims to make the best milkshakes in Bristol, I got a chocolate-raspberry shake ($3.95). The flavors of mild chocolate and fresh raspberry were awfully refreshing together later in the day, as I drove home through the hills of northeastern Tennessee. It was the best milkshake I've had in Bristol, but also the only one. That's not to damn it with faint praise—it was great—but to say that, in the name of journalistic objectivity, I will accept challengers. And another one of your milkshakes, Ashley, for the sake of comparison.

About the author: Jed Portman is blogging his way to that cabin in East Tennessee, one six-pack of soda and barbecue platter at a time. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.

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