I will always remember BRGR Kitchen + Bar as the first restaurant where I walked into the ladies' room.
At least, I thought it was the ladies' room. There's no door to the bathroom; you just take a turn down a narrow hall and you're suddenly in the darkened room. For a moment I panicked and could feel myself blushing, until a guy came out of one of the closed stalls and assured me that I wasn't in the wrong place. "It's a unisex john," he said, pointing out the male and female figures painted on the glass of each stall door. "You just have to be alert to pick the right door, like Let's Make a Deal."
When I returned to the table and told my dining companions about this twist, they were like little kids: Each had to get up and see for themselves. "It's very European," said Truman, who has never been to Europe. "And it could be an interesting way to meet new friends."
BRGR — pronounced B-R-G-R instead of burger — is all about concepts: mostly creating a new way to market and eat America's favorite sandwich. Like its more upscale rival, Blanc Burgers + Bottles (from which it borrowed a couple of culinary ideas and a plus sign), BRGR isn't just a restaurant; it's an idea for a franchise. One of the three owners, Alan Gaylin, has a background in corporate restaurants. Michael Slavin, the director of operations — and designer of the menu in his other role as executive chef — is a veteran of the Houston's chain and Jack Stack Barbecue.
Gaylin and Slavin know what they're doing. The two-month-old BRGR is already running as slickly as a newly minted corporate location. Servers are, for the most part, well-trained and reasonably attentive; the menu is interesting but not complicated; food comes out of the kitchen quickly and hot. Really, does a neighborhood burger joint need to be anything more than that?
We noticed some glitches but nothing too monumental. I wrote them off as part of the process, believing that this BRGR is a prototype restaurant where all the kinks are supposed to be worked out.
In two visits, my loudmouthed friends offered up plenty of advice to Slavin, who took it all quite graciously. Bob and Truman hated the egg buns, which are baked for the restaurant by Bagel Works in Kansas City, Kansas. The buns on the sandwiches were too frail and unsubstantial for the big, juicy burger patties. (The next time we visited, the buns seemed brawnier.)
The yeasty, salty, freshly baked pretzels served with the chile-fondue starter were terrific, but the "seven cheeses and smoked chiles" in the cheese dip didn't come across; the dip tasted like Velveeta and Ro-Tel. Nothing against the latter, but it's an $8 starter. The truffle fries didn't have a hint of truffle taste, and the build-your-own mac and cheese is a great idea but too costly for me to consider ordering it — sorry, but in this economy, I'm not forking over an extra buck each for jalapeños, peas and roasted garlic.
I'd also vote to rethink the napkins, which look like clean mechanic's rags. They're part of this joint's "garage" theme, which is so subtle I nearly missed it; servers wear shirts that vaguely evoke the uniforms worn by gas-station attendants, but few of us remember what those were.
I not only remember gas-station attendants but I also remember Green Goddess dressing, which was popular before ranch dressing kicked it to the culinary curb. Slavin gives it a nostalgic revival, sticking close to the classic 80-year-old recipe for a dressing heavily seasoned with fresh herbs and serving it with the veggie chips and salads. I also recall when Big Macs were seriously big and, apparently, Slavin does, too. My favorite creation on his menu is an homage called the Big Mock: a CinemaScope-sized version of the Mac with two thick, juicy patties, Swiss cheese, pickles, onions and "special sauce." It was déjà vu delicious!
The burgers were excellent. I don't know if I'd call them gourmet burgers, but they're classier than your basic bar-and-grill variety. I loved the Knob Hill — a snooty Patty Melt with Wisconsin Swiss, grilled onions and Russian dressing on Parmesan-crusted sourdough — even though it was, for all its pretensions, still a Patty Melt. Bob liked the idea of the Pittsburger until he had a hard time manipulating the sandwich, heavily loaded with cheese, hot fries and cold slaw. He was much more excited by the easier-to-eat house chili, made with Fat Tire Amber Ale and bits of sirloin steak, and topped with a hunk of skillet corn bread.
BRGR uses certified Angus beef and is serious when it claims that they're cooked to order. On each of my visits, the kitchen grilled the burgers exactly right. This isn't always the case at other establishments around town.
The day I went with Carol Ann, she waffled about what she wanted to eat. "I want the roasted chicken," she said. "No, I want the portobello mushroom burger." The waitress looked at her patiently. "Order something!" I snapped.
She decided on the Tailgate: a pretzel bun laden with Scimeca's beer brats, Wisconsin Cheddar and sautéed peppers and onions. "It's delicious!" she said. "But I better not eat dessert or I'll weigh 500 pounds."
Unlike Blanc Burgers, which insists on calling its milkshakes "dessert" — I don't make that distinction — BRGR actually features a couple of pies every day in addition to its milkshakes and malts. And they're not Golden Boy pies, which I expected, but pies made for the restaurant by a former Leona Yarbrough waitress named Tina Myers. The chocolate meringue pie that we shared was out of this world. And the banana cream pie, smothered in whipped cream, that a woman at another table was greedily devouring? That looked good, too.
"I know that woman," Truman whispered. "She's had lap-band surgery! Why is she eating that pie?"
Because at BRGR, the temptation to at least sample everything on the menu is almost overwhelming, which makes those four letters almost a dirty word.