We had very simple expectations when we stopped by this 1960s-era survivor: just basic burgers, fries, and a milkshake under an old canopy. This place shattered them.
For the last few months, we’ve been sticking with some local favorites. We haven’t traveled much or gone exploring, although we do have some promising trips penciled in for early 2019. We’ve either been eating at home or revisiting some terrific places like Zarzour’s or Mojo Burrito, and getting ice cream from Clumpies. I’m still quite aggravated with Mojo, no matter how much I love their salsa and their terrific employees, because they opened a fourth location in Ooltewah and then closed the one nearest to our house, but I’m a forgiving soul.
This weekend, we took a much-delayed trip up to the small community of Riceville, which is not quite halfway to Knoxville, for our son to visit a corn maze. No idea where he got the idea, but you need to plan special things for your kid. I picked a place called Guthrie Farms, and then went looking for some lunch. The town of Athens is about eight miles further up the road. In the summer, the place to try is apparently the Dairy Barn, but it’s only open for half the year and we missed the season. That led me to the second choice, a 58 year-old canopied drive-in called Small’s.
It appears that the restaurant has gone through many changes over the years. For a long time, it was known, perhaps more informally than through signage, as “Small’s Cajun Man Drive-In,” and there were things like shrimp po-boys on the menu. Russ and Pam Burdette bought the restaurant a few years ago and have slowly phased out most of the Louisiana-themed items, although they’ve kept the popular cajun burger.
Now, let’s get serious a second. Nobody pulls into old places like this expecting excellence. They go expecting tradition, fun, community, and comfort food. I was expecting – and would have been perfectly happy with – a simple fast food burger, probably one squashed nearly flat. For a good visual of what I mean – I don’t wish to confuse anybody who Googles here and quickly scans this story without reading it by posting the picture here – check out our 2013 story about Martin’s Drive-In, a popular old place in Austell GA.
You want to talk about a pleasant surprise? Check out this bad boy they brought me:
It turns out none of the burgers here are frozen. The fries are, but the burgers are made to order. They take a while, so locals seem to know to call ahead. But whether you’re hanging out in your car under the canopy or eating in their small dining room, they are absolutely worth the wait. This burger was better than almost every one that we’ve had in Chattanooga. It’s honest-to-heaven Zarzour’s-level good, incredibly juicy and completely delicious.
I can’t speak to the rest of the menu. Marie and our son also ordered burgers and they were also crazy about them. Marie was particularly pleased with the fresh tomato. Our kid couldn’t even finish his, it was so huge.
They’re doing road construction right in front of Small’s at this time, turning a two-lane into a four-lane and disrupting the flow of customers to all the businesses. It’s also meant that a simple little sign for the drive-in is lying on the ground behind and to the side of the place. Based on the mob that pulled in behind us yesterday afternoon, it hasn’t meant that Small’s is suffering too much from interruption, which makes me optimistic that they’ll stick around a good, long time. Guests fifty-eight years from now should get to experience burgers this good.
802 S White St
Athens, TN 37303