In July, Mike Mariola jumped into the increasingly crowded gourmet burger bar market. The chef and owner of two popular Wooster restaurants — South Market Bistro and City Square Steakhouse — obviously did things right: Located in a new exterior section of Akron's Summit Mall, the Rail is one of the most appealing adaptations of the genre to hit Northeast Ohio.
Stockyard-chic, the Rail features gleaming-white subway tiles that conjure up images of the neighborhood butcher shop. The shotgun-style room is flanked on one side by cozy, private booths and on the other by a lengthy concrete bar. Suspended above the bar is the "rail," a long metal bar festooned with meat hooks. Fortunately for guests, there are no quarters of swinging beef dangling in the dining room.
At the far end of the restaurant is the open kitchen, and in the middle are standard tables and a welcoming communal bench, perfect for scoring a couple of seats in a jiff. Oddly, all stools — at both the bar and communal table — seem to be installed a few inches too far from the counter, requiring an awkward posture.
Like the room, the menu is delightfully uncomplicated. Here, the focus is squarely on the burgers and beer — precisely where it should be. Those major players are supported by a cast of crunchy starters and sides, creamy hand-dipped milkshakes, and a trio of salads. At joints like this, creativity is ditched in favor of quality, and that's fine by me.
Interestingly, each of the blockbuster burger bars to open in recent years and months — Michael Symon's B Spots, Shawn Monday's Flip Side, and Mariola's Rail — proffer unique meat methodologies. Symon dispenses six-ounce patties custom-blended by New York's Pat LaFrieda, Monday cooks up seven ounces of grass-fed Ohio bliss, and Mariola offers eight ounces of local, grain-fed goodness. The Rail is the only one to grill its burgers over an open flame, which trades that griddle-fried crust for flame-kissed lovin'. Both approaches have their rightful fans.
Since opening, Rail burgers have gained weight, up from an original six ounces. Not only is a bigger burger a better value, but they are easier to cook properly. Wimpy burgers always seem to leave the kitchen raw or burnt. Not so here, where patties ordered medium-rare and medium arrived with textbook interiors. As for the flavor, I'd bill it as mildly beefy: not exceptionally intense or minerally. The upshot is a patty that is easy to eat and to enjoy.
Diners can select from a dozen signature burgers, with names ranging from "Crouching Burger, Hidden Bacon" to "Greenwich Pig," which curiously lacks any pork. Of course, there's one with bacon, cheese, and a suitably runny fried egg, here called the "Local Yokel" and priced at $9.75.
What's nuts is that hungry diners can order a double "classic" burger — lettuce, tomato, and a full pound of meat! — for just $9.
Custom add-ons include slow-roasted Ohio pork, avocado spread, and tobacco onions, which thankfully are named for their shaggy, shredded-tobacco appearance and not any real nicotine. Prices range from fifty cents to $3.50.
Blue cheese chips — the usual platter of good-quality housemade potato chips topped with creamy blue cheese dressing — are neither novel nor exceptional. But thanks to thin, great-tasting dills and an ultra-crunchy exterior, the fried pickles outshine the majority of the versions out there.
If you like your onion rings as wide and fat as whitewall tires, you'll dig the ones served here. (I prefer mine on the svelte side, with thinner rings and finer breading.) But it would be difficult to improve upon the Rail's truffle fries: thin and salty shoestrings seasoned with grated cheese, blessed with truffle oil, and delivered in a stainless milkshake cup.
For beverages, there is the usual roundup of hoppy craft beers — including a nice selection of local suds — along with thick, creamy milkshakes, or even a combination of the two. The Guinness float pairs Ohio ice cream with Irish suds for an adults-only treat that falls somewhere between happy hour and dessert.
Let's just call it "happy dessert" and leave it at that.