675 W. Crossville Road, Roswell, GA 30075 (map); 770-992-5272
Cooking Method: Flat-top
Short Order: Old-school diner still slinging a sloppy-but-solid burger at maybe the best price in town
Want Fries with That? Meh. The crinkle-cuts are straight from a freezer bag and unremarkable in every way
Price: Cheeseburger, $3.19; Jimmy Rhea's Special Cheeseburger, $3.29
Having first opened in 1983, Rhea's has been around since way before the burger boom of the mid-2000s. But despite being one of Atlanta's original burgermeisters, the three-diner chain in the northern suburbs rarely makes the "Best Of" lists and is usually forgotten when the subject of serious burger joints is raised. I guess it's easy to see why. No extreme burgers. No fancy-pants celebrichef in the front office. No brioche buns, no housemade aioli, no bullhorns. Forget flying under the radar; one of the true charter members of the city's crowded burgerscape isn't even on the radar for many connoisseurs. And that's too bad, because almost 30 years in, Rhea's is still cranking out a burger that's both wonderfully simple and simply wonderful—and worthy of more praise than it ever seems to get.
Like all good franchises of the '80s, the three locations of Rhea's (pronounced Ray's) are all strikingly similar, differentiated from one another mainly by Roman numerals. A visit to Rhea's is pretty much like a visit to Rhea's II, which is almost exactly like a visit to Rhea's III. Stop in any one shortly before lunch hour, and you're likely to take a seat to the sideways glances of the old-timers who know whose regular stool you just bogarted. That's not to say that it's an unfriendly vibe; there's just that unshakable feeling that everyone here knows everyone else...except you.
There's a diner counter as well as table service in the single-room restaurant, with a décor style perhaps best described as Vintage Non-Existent. (At Rhea's III, the location closest to my house, there are exactly two items adorning the walls. One is a review from the local paper. The other is a framed photo of the Pope. Want ambience? Outback is across the parking lot.) But the total lack of fussiness at Rhea's is perfectly apropos and only mirrored by the pleasant waitstaff: unobtrusively gliding up to take your order and slipping silently away sans chitchat, refilling your Styrofoam soda cup as often as you like, moving about the kitchen with that effortlessly efficient choreography of diner veterans.
The menu is equally sparse, with the priciest item (a hamburger steak dinner entrée with sides and a drink) ringing up at a whopping $6.99. Your burger choices consist of a hamburger, a cheeseburger, and Jimmy Rhea's Special Cheeseburger. Settle down, Sparky—the "Special" is simply their standard cheeseburger on toasted French bread instead of a sesame seed bun, for a 10¢ upcharge. All are served with LTO, ketchup, mustard, and mayo unless specified. Double your meat for another $1.85, add bacon for 85 cents. Those are your options. All of them.
Doesn't sound all that "special," does it? Well, that's kind of the point. Rhea's certainly isn't reinventing the wheel here. What they are doing is serving up a satisfyingly sloppy diner burger. My thin patties were griddled up nicely until a slight crust had formed, each with a blanket of melting American cheese. The buttered French bread slices got the flattop treatment, too, resulting in a burger whose top two-thirds were all kinds of warm and toasty and juicy and ooey and gooey.
The bottom third was where the distractions came for me. I'm a recent convert to eating tomatoes on my burgers, but this double-thick layer was too much. Coupled with the lettuce layer underneath, it created a sensation of "cold" upon every bite, and that's a total turnoff for me.
Ah, yes, the lettuce. My heart sinks every time I see shredded lettuce on a burger. Lettuce in leaf form is fairly inoffensive, I guess, but 99 times out of 100, shredded lettuce just sets off my Lazy Kitchen Lookout Alarm. I think it's just too easy for a line cook to grab a giant mittful of the stuff and pile it on instead of carefully doling out a proportion that properly corresponds to the quantity of meat. As a result, I usually feel like I've got a mouthful of salad getting in the way of my burger, with the rabbit food inevitably spilling out all over the place at every bite.
Ultimately, the excess salad is a small complaint that was easily remedied by removing the L and T from my lunch. Once I did, I found my Jimmy's Special to be an excellent interpretation of the classic diner burger, at a price that had me wondering how the BK across the street stays in business.
I don't know why Rhea's isn't more than a locals-only joint with a small cult of loyal regulars. Or maybe I do: They aren't sexy and don't do anything special. Nothing, that is, except make a sensational stripped-down version of the all-American favorite. That's plenty special in my book.
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