The Burger Bar has had a few owners over the years, and even a few names, but today Joe and Kayla Deel proudly own the historic little eatery near State Street in Bristol, Virginia. You almost have to squeeze your way past the front door, worming your way through the small floor space and past a long row of loyal, daily customers. But it’s well worth the effort to get inside: the burgers are more than just delicious, they are practically historic. With names for burgers like the Plain Jane Burger, I Can’t Get You Off My Mind, and Howlin’ at the Moon, you are not just eating food, you’re meeting a character.
The Burger Bar has a long history, first opening as the Snack King in 1942. For nearly 20 years, it was owned and operated by Sean Howlin and his mother, serving delicious hamburgers, hotdogs, and floats. But the real history for Joe Deel begins when Ben Zandy, owner of The Troutdale Dining Room, bought the Burger Bar.
During this time, Joe found himself working for Ben Zandy. Joe is not your typical cook, and he’s not your typical owner, either. He was a typical military brat who moved to a new town every two years throughout most of his childhood. He eventually returned to the area to complete a culinary degree from Virginia Intermont College, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s just a guy with a college degree. “A culinary degree is only part of the formula; you must have ambition and love,” Joe tells me while standing at the grill flipping burgers. He’s the perfect amalgamation of owner and chef. After working as a chef for twelve years, Joe bought the Burger Bar, redecorated the interior, and opened on January 1, 2013.
THE BURGER BAR IS LITERALLY A HOLE IN THE WALL after Joe bought the space next door, opened a hole in the wall, and added additional seating. The main portion of the restaurant has a beautiful bar with chrome trim and nostalgic plush, round stools so about ten people can sit. A couple of tables provide seating for another 15-20 people, so the larger space next door provides an opportunity to entertain large groups or busy dinner hours.
Old photos and newspaper articles hang on the walls, the seats are made of plush material and comfortable to use, and the low chatter of conversation make this place feel cozy. It’s small, but big on heart. A few additional tables outside give some added seating during peak hours, but also gives you a chance to watch traffic slowly pass on nearby State Street. Whether you sit inside or out, the atmosphere is comfortable, especially when you will most likely be greeted by either Joe or Kayla as soon as you walk inside.
THE MENU READS LIKE A PLAYBILL for a theatrical performance starring Hank Williams. All the burgers on the menu are named after Williams’ songs, giving them a sort of characterization of their own. In addition to the burgers, you can also order french toast, eggs and sausage, pancakes, hot dogs, a slew of side items, and finish it off with a milkshake or float. It’s enough to keep anyone’s stomach satisfied, and also enough to keep you coming back time and again.
Although Joe works hard on the menu for his restaurant, he also changes it from time to time. He will add soups for the winter season, take less popular items off the menu, and add new creations. But the biggest secret about his menu is not really a secret at all, especially for regulars who return daily: Joe will make just about anything you want, as long as he has the ingredients. He’s been known to make french toast for lunch, create a whole new burger, or entertain a Tastes of the Town Walking Tour with something entirely new.
The Howlin’ at the Moon is the most popular burger on his menu. Pictured above, the burger is loaded with chili, grilled onions, and cheese and is absolutely delicious. But when you look at the menu, you’ll quickly realize the same thing I did: this place has more unique burgers than any fast food chain could match. You could try the Oh My Cheese! burger: two grilled cheese sandwiches with a burger patty in the middle (yes, you read that correctly, and it is ginormous). You might also want to try the Big Mic: 3 buns, 2 patties, loaded with lettuce, onion, pickles, and homemade 1,000 Islands sauce. It’s his version of the Big Mac, and his is the better version.
I tried one of his daily specials when I visited: the Buffalo Bleu Cheese Burger. It’s a small burger loaded with bleu cheese he sliced himself from large chunks, sitting on the softest buns I’ve ever eaten. The bleu cheese was melted perfectly and gave the burger a different taste than the usual cheddar or American cheese topping. Almost every plate comes with a load of fries, but they are very lightly salted, thick cut, and soft. After the burger practically melted in my mouth, I was treated to a savoring after taste of ever-so-slightly spicy meat and delicious cheese, quickly finished off with a couple of those fries. It was a great meal, but all of you know what I’m going for during my next visit: The Fire God, made with ground Habaneros, Jalapeno peppers, jack cheese, and Tabasco onion straws. My mouth just watered.
But if you’re not into burgers loaded with chili, grilled cheese sandwiches, or so big you have to cut it into pieces, you could also try the Plain Jane Burger, the Burger Bar Famous Reuben, or just grab a hot dog. With a breakfast menu, kids’ menu, and a slew of side items, you are sure to find something everyone can enjoy.
Joe’s restaurant is also a part of Rooted in Appalachia, a movement for restaurant owners and chefs to use as much local produce as possible. Joe keeps it local when he can, buying produce from nearby J.R.’s Produce and The Garden Spot. He even specifically requested locally-grown produce through his food distributor, keeping as much of the business as he can in Virginia.