544 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Atlanta GA 30308 (map); 404-607-1118; five other locations listed at zestoatlanta.com
Cooking Method: Flat top
Short Order: '50s-era fast-food holdout maintains a retro presence in town with a throwback alternative to the Clown, the King, and the Pigtailed Girl
Want Fries with That? Stick to the crinkle-cuts...and eat them quickly
Price: Bacon Cheeseburger, $4.25; Chubby Decker, $4.20; fries, $1.65/$1.95; onion rings, $2.40/$3.25; tater tots, $2/$2.30
Every place has them, those family-owned fast-food operations that clearly drip with history. Maybe it's always been a one-off mom-and-pop competing with the big boys or perhaps it's one of the last holdouts of a once-proud chain that's now long gone. Either way, they manage to stick it out and become a part of the local food landscape, for better or worse, and evolve into an institution all their own. Now, the food doesn't always live up to the legend (perhaps even rarely so), but most who've grown up with it give it something of a pass based on sheer nostalgia and an admiration for sticking it to the corporate giants just by hanging on through the years.
In Atlanta, that place is Zesto.
They come by that old-school look honestly, and not in that nouveau-ironic, let's-build-a-retro-diner way. Zesto started in 1945 as a subsidiary of an Illinois company that manufactured soft serve Zest-O-Mat ice cream machines. By 1949, Zesto had locations in 46 states, competing valiantly with Dairy Queen as an ice cream-only destination. But by 1955, the parent company had abandoned the concept and left its franchisees to figure it out for themselves. One, John Livaditis, who was running a handful of Atlanta outlets, decided to start slinging burgers to help boost sales. More food items were added gradually (hot dogs, fried chicken, fries) and now you can even get wings, gyros, tacos, and more. Today, the Livaditis family still runs the six Zestos in the Atlanta area. And while there are Zesto restaurants in other states (Nebraska, Washington, Indiana, Alabama, South Dakota, and Tennessee their website mentions), the Atlanta stores operate in their own little retro bubble.
Inside, it's all chrome and red vinyl and neon, and in fact, very little seems to have changed much since Zesto's heyday. The food is cooked to order, with a wait time slightly longer than what we now consider "fast food." And it's presented in no-frills fashion: paper plates and wax paper; get your own damn ketchup out of one of the squeeze bottles being passed around the seating area.
Once you have your food, you're immediately reminded that this is still, however, a fast food burger. The Bacon Cheeseburger ($4.25) I got was kinda sorta flattened out and not all that picturesque after its short wait in its tightly wound wrapper. One rogue strip of bacon was even making a break for it.
The rest of the bacon, though, looked way too nuked to be much of a flight risk. While I couldn't see how it was prepared, this had all the earmarks of that flat, monotonous industrial stuff that's zapped and strewn across a commercial patty at any number of mascot-driven outlets. There was a decent pile of it here, and I hoped that the quantity alone would counteract the lifeless-looking meat disc next to it.
Overall, it wasn't bad. It's not winning any Best-Of contests or anything, but it was clearly a burger that was "prepared" rather than "assembled." Tucking in, I knew I'd pick this burger every time over one from the McDonald's less than fifty yards away. Maybe that's not saying much, but I'm not sure Zesto's goal was ever much more than that.
Zesto's flagship sandwich draws the inevitable comparison to Mickey D's, too. The Chubby Decker ($4.20) is a two-patty affair with a familiar middle bun, pickles, onions, lettuce, cheese, and...yeah. Interestingly, though, it was added to the Zesto menu in 1959, a full eight years before the Big Mac was born. Originally called the Fat Boy, it underwent a name change in '61 when Big Boy threatened a lawsuit over similarities to their double-decker, and a Georgia Tech student suggested an homage to the singer of "The Twist." (And strangely, some of the store literature still refers to their top-selling burger by a name that was changed during JFK's administration.)
Ah, but here's something you'll likely never see over at the Golden Arches. That's a hint of pink inside those patties, evidence that someone's actually working a grill back in the kitchen, and therefore making Zesto burgers more akin to what you'd find at Steak n' Shake or I-N-O (relax, commenters, I didn't say they were anywhere near the same; just distantly related with a vaguely parallel backstory) than McDonald's or Burger King. And hey, at basically the same price point, too.
But what is it with shredded lettuce? Good God Almighty, it's the most worthless thing ever put on a burger. First off, there's always waaay too much. But maybe that's because 96 percent of it is just going to turn into plate-littering shrapnel anyway. Unless you're a diehard Big Mac fanatic, though, the Chubby Decker probably wins a blind taste-test because it was cooked for you instead of just put together.
The fries at Zesto ($1.65/$1.95) are crinkle cuts, and pretty darn tasty, at least when hot out of the fryer. They're salted nicely and served in a generous side portion. Frozen? Of course. But that doesn't make them inherently bad.
The same cannot be said of the onion rings ($2.40/$3.25) or tater tots ($2/$2.30). Bland and uninspired, neither was seasoned or even salted at all. I'm not averse to picking up a shaker if I need an extra hit, but it shouldn't be required to make it palatable. They're clearly hitting the crinkle-cuts with it back there, so how about sharing the sodium love?
Soft serve is still a big deal at Zesto, with simple cones that have delightful throwback names like the Brown Crown (a chocolate-dipped classic that you know would be called something like The Extreme Choco-Blaster if it were invented today). It's worth pointing out (as Zesto loves to) that they use genuine ice cream and not ice milk, and it's a nice capper to your trip down Nostalgia Lane.
A small fish like Zesto gets lost in the shuffle of the multinational fast food purveyors. Even in Atlanta, when most folks want cheap eats from a '50s-style diner slinging old-fashioned burgers and dogs, the place that comes to mind is The Varsity. Zesto doesn't have anywhere near that kind of iconic status, but there is something satisfyingly simple about the way they're still doing things after all these years.
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, pizzas for Slice, and desserts for Sweets, 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 The Gaslight Anthem. Or both.