For the last stop on our first day of traveling, we visited the incredibly neat twin cities of Bristol, where the state line runs right down the center of the main street. On the Virginia side, there’s a diner that’s been open since 1942 and serves a far better burger than you’d expect to get in a greasy spoon like it.
After our snack at Blue Circle, we drove to Bristol’s State Street and walked around. Vendors were getting set up for an evening event, and we lucked into a great parking place right in the thick of things. On the Virginia side, a classic car show was just getting started.
On the Tennessee side, there’s an absolutely beautiful old theater called the Paramount. I’d love to come see a show here one day.
And back on the Virginia side of the street, not only is there a chocolate shop called the Southern Churn that sells bulk candies and fudge, but also one of those quirky Quaker State and Lube restaurants that have really, really good wings, and there’s also the Burger Bar. It’s the sort of place that looks very much like it would serve a sloppy diner burger that makes you glad you came for the classic, vintage atmosphere. It does not. It serves a genuinely excellent burger, and the trapped-in-amber building is a bonus treat.
Joe and Kayla Deel are the latest of several owners of the Burger Bar. They purchased the business in 2011 and immediately found the reason why so many people have had trouble running the place: it was too small for a good meal. Table turnover was far too slow. If you’re flipping frozen patties, you can move guests through quickly, but when you’ve only room for about twenty people and a really great burger takes a good while to prepare right, you can’t turn a profit. Something had to give, and in the Burger Bar’s place, it was the wall separating them from an insurance agency.
Tripled in size, the expanded Burger Bar reopened in 2012 and the Deels reemphasized their catering options, and turned the business around. A new crush of tourists started coming to try a meal that “best burgers” listicles at places like Thrillist started championing. This made a slight change from the usual tourists, many of whom were following Hank Williams’ last ride.
It would be silly not to mention Hank Williams; it’s part of the restaurant’s legend and they devote some wall space to some old memorabilia and newspaper clippings. Williams died in the back seat of a car on a long overnight ride from Knoxville to Canton OH via Charleston WV. A concert in Charleston had been scheduled, but Williams and his manager had canceled it at the last minute. In those pre-interstate days, I’m not sure that there was a quicker route through the Appalachian mountains to Canton, particularly not for an inexperienced seventeen year-old driver. That kid, Charles Carr, stopped for a bite long after dark at a restaurant that was most probably the Burger Bar and Williams said “no,” he didn’t want anything. Writing in 2003, Peter Cooper made the revisionist claim that it was more likely a place called Thayer’s, but Cooper also claimed that the Burger Bar did not exist yet when it was actually a decade old. It’s a curious claim to fame: Hank Williams didn’t have a last meal here, but he may have uttered his last word on the street outside.
The power of the legend has meant that many people have named other possible restaurants, including their own, as the site, just in case it ever turns out that it wasn’t the Burger Bar. Cooper found a waitress at a soda fountain in Mount Hope WV who made the bold claim that she sent a lemon sour to Williams, dying in the back seat of his Cadillac. I’m sure we’d all like to have sent the poor fellow something to drink before he went.
As for Thrillist and their like, well, our Virginia coverage is darn near non-existent, and so I’m not sure how our dinner compares with other burgers in the state, but I’ll tell you for free that our meal was fantastic. They have the requisite dozens of varieties available, or you can build your own. I went with my usual (lettuce, tomato, mayo) and it was delicious. It’s really good meat and vegetables. No, this isn’t a basic diner burger; this was among the best we’ve had in quite some time.
We’ve always felt that it doesn’t make any sense to bury a burger as good as this with silly toppings and lots of cheese. They make them here with locally-raised, grass-fed beef, and you can taste the difference. Go simple here, and maybe have some loaded fries or an over-the-top milkshake, but keep the burger simple. It’s too good to bury.
8 Piedmont Ave
Bristol, VA 24201
You can see all the restaurants that we have visited for our blog on this map, with links back to the original blog posts. It’s a terrific resource for anybody planning a road trip through the southeast!