The results are in.
As part of its annual America’s Favorite Cities reader’s poll, Travel + Leisure revealed in its May issue the top 20 urban American cities that pay proper homage to the all-mighty burger.
At the bottom of the list at number 20 was San Francisco, which received kudos for perfecting the pesticide-free, grass-fed natural beef burger. Bay Area foodies now have yet another reason to pay top dollar for “retro-meets-contemporary” fare.
But wait just a second. San Francisco isn’t the only city deserving to make the cut.
Just across the Bay Bridge, in the little unincorporated town of San Lorenzo, is a mom-and-pop burger joint worthy of a tip of the hat: Classic Burger, a San Lorenzo staple since 1995.
Fresh from advocating the great shake-up, I might sound a little hypocritical giving the nod to an eatery dishing up high-fat, high-cholesterol goodies. But secretly I crave the occasional old-fashioned hamburger just like the next person. Juicy stuffed goodness layered with fresh slices of veggies and slathered with good 'ole classic Americana—just hold the commercialized fast food chain, please.
My obsession with Classic Burger began in grade school, when a childhood friend took me on an afternoon walk to her favorite lunch spot.
Stepping inside, I was immediately attracted to the eatery’s spartan charm. Red booths and white tables topped with classic mustard and ketchup squeeze bottles, napkins, salt and pepper. There were no gimmicks, no frills—just nostalgia for the hoppin’ 1950s diner.
I ordered the regular hamburger, which was served to me with a smile on a white plastic plate.
Then it happened.
I took one bite of the charbroiled beef patty. Despite its minimalist exterior, it deserved,in big, bold letters, “Yum!” I was hooked.
For all these years, though, I was unable to pinpoint exactly what it was that kept me coming back for more.
So, inspired by the America’s Best Burger Cities poll, I headed back to Classic Burger to finally answer the question, “Why do I love this place so much?”
I stepped past Classic Burger’s all too familiar window painting of an overstuffed burger and through its front glass doors.
On the biscuit-colored wallpaper splashed with small yellow pineapples hung framed posters of popular Disney characters, a mini grandfather clock and even an informative poster of “21 Finest Reasons to Drive Sober.” A Wheel of Fortune episode was airing on the small flat screen TV. Everything, including the open kitchen, seating area and outdated cash register, was laid out before me, a hypnotic dream.
Eclecticism does hold a certain charm.
One could simply argue that some of the best bites are from hole-in-the-wall cafes, grab-and-go food carts and, yes, even far-flung strip malls.
One could also argue that Classic Burger’s popularity is a matter of simplicity. Fewer menu options yield an all-hands-on-deck effort to produce quality, not quantity. Add the simple pairing of fries and onion rings, wash it down with an ice-cold soda or milkshake, and you’ve got a surefire winner.
Upon closer inspection of the menu, I was pleased that Classic Burger did indeed throw a few curve balls, little homemade surprises that deviated from the simple beef-and-bread combo.
Iconic sandwiches like the Philly cheesesteak and a New York steak sandwich graced the menu, in addition to Classic Burger’s holy grail, the Classic Burger, a complex but manageable mélange of pastrami, cheese, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce, onion and, of course, beef charbroiled to perfection.
As I was poised to order my usual plain hamburger and side of crinkle fries, the reason for my Classic Burger predilections finally surfaced. Aha!
A middle-aged man in a black leather jacket entered the restaurant, toting a dainty but impressive bouquet of purple and white flowers. He handed it to the petite woman who stood taking orders behind the counter.
“They’re from my girlfriend,” the man said with a smile. “She picked them from her garden.”
The friendly-faced woman smiled back, uttering a million “thank yous” as she took deep breaths of the bouquet’s aroma.
The woman was the owner who, together with her husband, has been serving loyal followers such as this man for 16 years.
In this moment, the San Lorenzo burger joint wasn’t just any restaurant where good food, simplicity and eclecticism collide, but a destination with character, charisma and a genuine beating heart.
If this episode wasn’t enough to convince me that I had solved the riddle of the great Classic Burger enigma, a few simple words from the charming owner did:
“Everyone here at Classic Burger is like our family.”
Classic Burger, 15927 Hesperian Blvd., 510-278-3333. Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.