A Hamburger Today

Atlanta: The Rusty Nail Pub Hits the Mark with Top-Shelf Burgers

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[Photographs: Todd Brock]

The Rusty Nail Pub

2900 Buford Highway NE, Atlanta GA 30324 (Map); 404-634-6306; rustynailpub.com
Cooking Method: Flattop
Short Order: One of Atlanta's quintessential dive bars surprises with one of Atlanta's better burgers
Want Fries with That? There will be 18-20 sides to pick from, but the steak fries are certainly a solid choice
Price: Super Deluxe Burger, $9.95; Red Hot Burger, $8.35; Skunk Burger, $8.95

If I were creating a total dive bar for a big Hollywood movie and needed the perfect name, I'm not sure I could do much better than The Rusty Nail. If I needed a set designer to bring to life its dark, smoky, nothing's-changed-since-the-Ford-administration interior, I'd arrange a real-life visit to The Rusty Nail. And the next time I need to blow somebody's doors off with a fantastic burger from the most un-seemingly-likely of spots, I'll unquestionably go to The Rusty Nail.

The Nail, as it's casually called around town, is best known for the 18-foot-long six-shooter out front, pointed right at a busy stretch of Buford Highway. Owner Nick Cardellino inherited the piece about 15 years ago, and it's been a politically-incorrect local landmark ever since. A buddy who had wanted to break into the barbecue biz had the custom smoker fabricated, and only then realized the uphill battle he'd face with permitting and inspections. Nick wouldn't talk on record about the last time the "Smoking Gun" was actually operational as a cooking implement, but let's just say that folks who stand next to it for the occasional photo op usually catch more than a residual whiff of burnt hickory.

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Based on outward appearances, you might not think The Rusty Nail has anything beyond mediocre pub grub. I confess, I lived in Atlanta for almost 20 years before finally venturing inside, despite multiple mouthwitness reports of excellent food. Smoky bars are not my scene; shame on me for thinking that was the whole story.

Cardellino opened The Nail in 1974 as a bar with a limited kitchen, but now he prides himself on a surprisingly diverse menu that includes his own homemade lasagna. The bar part is still unapologetically intact, with a no-minors and closed-on-Sundays approach that therefore allows smoking on the premises. The only thing more jarring in this day and age than the working cigarette vending machine at the front door is seeing your server taking drags at the bar between table runs.

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But when it comes to burgers, The Rusty Nail unfailingly exceeds whatever expectations you've brought in with you. The menu features ten variations (a second location has a slightly different menu with just nine) that all start out as 80/20 chuck, hand-pattied in back to form burgers of just under eight ounces. They hit a two-inch flattop until they develop a lovely char on the surface and then get slid into a wonderfully fluffy-and-squishy Engelman's bun with the appropriate toppings. And all of the burgers I sampled had more than a decent bit of interior color.

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The model you see above is the Super Deluxe Burger ($9.95), with mushrooms, two bacon strips, and American cheese, plus the standard LTO. Great melt job on the cheese, bacon that I suspect was fried up specifically for this burger instead of plucked off a pre-made pile, and juicy/meaty/spongy in all the right places. This was easily one of the better burgers I had in 2012; I'm already looking forward to our second date...although I never thought of The Rusty Nail as a date place.

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The Red Hot Burger ($8.35) and I were more of a one-time thing. Dipped in wing sauce and crowned with jalapeƱo slices, it brings heat...but most of it for me seemed to come from the peppers' pickling juice. That could be just a personal pet peeve—or it could be that a certain wing-inspired burger I had earlier this year has forever spoiled me for all others in the genre.

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Looking to stir up a memorable reaction with your next meal rec? Try this line on for size: "Let's head to The Rusty Nail and grab a Skunk Burger!" It may sound unappealing, but the Skunk ($8.95) is the most popular burger on the Nail's menu. Topped with grilled onions and blue cheese crumbles, this one is rich and pungent, beefy, creamy, and crunchy all at the same time.

There were loads of surprises at The Rusty Nail, but maybe none bigger than the sides. The burgers come with a side item, but I couldn't find them listed anywhere on the laminated menu. That's because they're on the daily printout of specials. The Rusty Nail, the very definition of a dive, features 18 to 20 different sides that change every 24 hours—everything from seasonal veggies, multiple styles of beans, scratch-made Brunswick stew, and loads more. (Nick's personal favorite is a doozy; who would have guessed that The Nail is the place to go when you have a hankering for Swiss chard?)

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I played it close to the vest: steak fries, tater tots, and mac and cheese. All were excellent. The potatoes are admittedly from a bag, but they sure don't taste like it. Nick purposely sought out a top-shelf (read: super-expensive for him) option from his supplier and even once leaned heavily on his rep to jump through some hoops to bring them back from unavailability. They're fried to a golden crunchy crisp and seasoned with a tasty Cajun spice blend developed by Nick's wife.

The dilapidated exterior. The dingy, dark, and smoky interior. The vinyl tablecloths. The big wooden-backed banquettes. The framed displays of 1970s kitsch (not retro crap framed recently, mind you, but old stuff actually framed way back then). The cigarette machine. Keno on the flat screens and George Thorogood on the sound system. Yes, The Rusty Nail is as old-school divey as it gets in Atlanta. But you don't judge a book by its cover, and you shouldn't judge The Nail's burgers by the obnoxious handgun colossus in the parking lot.

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 for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and 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.

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