By the time I had settled in at Bob's Hamburg in Akron, it was already 2 in the afternoon. Given the late lunch hour, the small room was largely empty but for one couple in a booth and a single at the counter. But when I looked over at the griddle, it was filled to capacity with burgers, and the young cook manning it was working at a frenzied clip just to keep pace. Gosh, I thought to myself, I hope they aren't precooking burgers.
Silly me. Soon enough folks began streaming through the door for their take-out orders. And they never stopped — nor did the phone — until I departed, full, fat and happy, an hour or so later.
In August, Bob's Hamburg will turn 86 years old, making it Akron's oldest continuously operating restaurant by more than a few years. Since 1931, this legendary establishment has been cooking up burgers at the same location, in the same building and — get this — on the very same griddle. The menu is largely the same too, save for some newer menu items that were added along the way.
How do you make it to the ripe, old age of 86? You focus on a few things, you make them from scratch, and you deliver on them each and every at bat.
"Every morning I go to the butcher shop to buy fresh ground beef, we hand-cut our fries, hand-dip our onion rings, and make our soups and cakes from scratch," says owner Aimee Buckeye.
Each day, Bob's flies through approximately 240 quarter-pound patties, which get gobbled up as singles ($3.60), doubles ($4.40), triples ($5.10) and even quads ($6.25). The burgers are laid to rest on that ancient coal-black griddle behind the counter, where they luxuriate in a shallow pool of sizzling fat. Each patty is smooshed flatter and flatter with a wide, sturdy spatula until it is thin and ringed with a lacey, crisp edge. No seasoning — not salt, not pepper, not Bob's magic dust — goes on the meat whatsoever.
"Because that's the original grill, it's got so much seasoning on it that we don't have to put salt and pepper on the burgers," Buckeye explains. "Plus, we cook bacon and sausage on the grill every morning. Most people don't even bother adding salt or pepper."
What they do add is cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and Bob's Special Sauce, a smoky tomato-based elixir. After ordering onion for my burger, I was asked if I preferred raw sliced or the house onions, which are dehydrated onions that are allowed to soak in water overnight until they plump up. A half dozen specialty burgers (all $4.95) range from a burger topped with cheese, bacon and barbecue sauce to a double-capped with lettuce, pickles, onions and tartar sauce.
My double with cheese, lettuce, raw onion and mayo was burger bliss. The perfectly cooked patties went straight from the griddle into a fresh, toasted bun slathered with mayo. Without excessive seasoning, it's the pure flavor of the beef that shines through. The onion rings ($2.25) at Bob's, delivered in a small paper tray, are the kind you fondly recall from your youth. Batter-dipped thick-sliced onions are flash fried until they are golden brown and crackling crisp. If I happened to live nearby, I too would be placing regular take-out orders.
Bob's Hamburg may have been featured on countless local and regional television shows — and has even been the site of a wedding or two, if you can believe it — but its fate is hardly certain. In fact, it was perilously close to shuttering when Buckeye took it over about six years ago.
"I had been working there for a few years when the owner's husband passed away," says Buckeye, the sixth owner. "She had no interest in running it so I bought it. I was diagnosed with cancer around that time and, to be honest, it's what pushed me through, as cliche as that sounds."
Summer is the time for spontaneous road trips, and I can't imagine a better destination than Bob's Hamburg. I, for one, have had this place on my burger bucket list for more than a decade and would have been crushed if I never got to experience it.
"We're a dying breed," Buckeye admits. "It's not an easy job; everybody thinks just because we're so little that it is. They don't understand the amount of time and work you need to put into an 85-year-old building, into an 85-year-old restaurant."
Dying breed, indeed.