Johnny’s Bar-B-Q and The Collegiate Grill, Gainesville GA

Well, here’s a trip that did not go as planned at all. Somewhat off my radar – as he’s not an Urbanspoon blogger yet – is a very good barbecue writer named Buster Evans. A few weeks ago, I found his blog and read an entry, from February, about a restaurant in Gainesville called 3 Li’l Pigs. They serve chicken mull! Marie and I had not been through Gainesville in a very long time, and our baby had not met our friends Matt and Kelley, so I suggested we meet up there for lunch a couple of Saturdays ago.

There in the parking lot, we could see the disagreeable sign “NEW HOURS.” This place is no longer open on Saturdays. I’d like to think it’s because the proprietors are out working the competition circuit, and not because they opened right across the street from the phenomenally popular Johnny’s Bar-B-Q, which has been open for decades and really packs in a huge and loyal crowd on Saturdays. Our original plans stymied, we went across the street, arriving around 11:20, and the dining room was not too crowded, but by the time we left an hour later, most of the place was taken and there was a small mob by the counter waiting for their orders. I don’t blame them; nothing here really made me pop in shock, but it was a solid meal, with very moist and smoky pork, served promptly at very nice prices. A lunch plate with chopped pork, slaw, fries and a drink only comes to $6.40.

Marie had that lunch special, and I just had a sandwich with a cup of stew. The stew recipe here calls for lots of meat and very few apparent veggies. The stew is dark brown and soupy, very thick and meaty. There were three table sauces – again, not thinking, we didn’t order our food dry – and I think that Marie enjoyed the sweet brown sauce most. My sandwich was too laden with the sauce to really get a sample of the other tastes.

I had actually eaten at Johnny’s once before, in the late nineties when Neal was briefly living in town. At that time, it was my daughter who was the infant in the baby seat. I remember then thinking that it was pretty good if not jawdropping, and that’s what I think today. If you’re in the area, this is a very solid choice for a meal, but possibly not demanding of a very long drive.

Johnny’s has only been around for about twenty years as far as I know, but they look like a much older place, thanks to their interesting interior design. It is full of old photos and local memorabilia, including a late ’60s letter from then-President Johnson to Gainesville’s mayor, mixed in with the expected and welcome Lewis Grizzard and Bulldogs memorabilia. We sat underneath an autographed photo of Coach Dooley and didn’t even notice it for a few minutes, lost as it was among all the other things on the wall.

But while Johnny’s evokes a past that it didn’t really experience as a business, the Collegiate Grill has been serving up burgers and shakes since 1947 and tries its best to look just like a diner from the pre-rock ‘n roll days. It’s on Main Street on the side of Gainesville’s downtown, which is not as sleepy as I would have guessed, and it’s a great destination for a dessert treat.

I’m not sure whether the Collegiate Grill was set up to cater to students at Brenau University or to locals nostalgic for their own college days, but this place really did give me a grin with its checkerboard floor and neon sign. This should be on the radar for anybody who likes roadfood. It was closed for a few years, but reopened in 2008 when Jeff Worley, who actually started working here at the ripe old age of twelve, bought the place, shined the floors and began grilling the burgers himself.

In 2010, The USA Today named the burgers here the best in Georgia, proving to anybody who lives in Atlanta that the newspaper clearly did not visit any place inside our perimeter. Better than The Vortex, Farm Burger or Ann’s Snack Bar? Hardly. These are about as good as Varsity burgers, which is to say not bad, but not amazing. I had a single patty with slaw and cheese and it was perfectly good, but the experience itself was more rewarding. Watching the constant buzzing activity of the nearly dozen servers, and the frantic rush to get everybody’s order of hand-mixed milkshakes finished, was a treat. This is a justifiably popular place, and certainly worth a visit. Just understand that the burger is a little hyped.

I’ll try to get back to Gainesville and try the chicken mull at 3 Li’l Pigs some other time. I spotted a few other places around that sparked my curiosity. Dahlonega’s Yonah Burger is opening a location on Thompson Bridge Road, and there’s a hot dog place downtown that gave me a moment’s pause. Shame it will have to be a weekday, really.

Other blog posts about the Collegiate Grill:

Atlanta Food Critic (Oct. 23 2010)
A Hamburger Today (Dec. 21 2010)

Other blog posts about Johnny’s:

Buster’s Blogs (Aug. 21 2011)


3 thoughts on “Johnny’s Bar-B-Q and The Collegiate Grill, Gainesville GA

  1. Your Atlanta bias is showing. Sometimes simple is better, and I find the burgers at the places you mentioned to be overdone and pretentious. Maybe USA today felt the same way.

    1. I’m fairly confident that it’s a “really good burger” bias as opposed to a regional one, but thank you for the comment all the same. Read along in the Gainesville tag for more about what good food can be found in Hall County.

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