Bruce Garner knew a good thing when he saw it. In 1959 he erected an essentially square cinder block building with a distinctive over-sized corrugated structure above. It was patterned on the first drive in in Raleigh: The Charcoal Grill. The building was not the only similarity—he chose to name his fledgling business Char-Grill, a name so similar to his direct competitor that these days would have elicited a lawsuit or two and began serving char-burgers, shakes, and fries.
While Garner may not have been the originator of the concept, Char-Grill survived its competitor, which has been reduced to a historical footnote. In 1975 Mahlon Aycock and Ryon Wilder purchased the building and have been running Char-Grill ever since, adding several locations in the Raleigh/Durham area and recently adding their first franchised location.
But to those who grew up on it or those seeking timeless pieces of Americana, the original Hillsborough Street location is the one to visit.
The distinctive building dates back to 1959.
Ordering, now as then, is accomplished by filling out a paper slip and depositing it into a slot. The paper travels down a slide and ends up next to the grill. Locals will advise you to write your name at the top of the paper rather than trying to remembering the printed number on the top.
The menu is appropriately spartan—burgers, dogs, and fries, with shakes and Pepsi to wash it down—considering the motto printed at the bottom of the order form: "Simpler times, simpler choices." The menu is not so simple that it doesn't have room for two distinct types of burgers: a hamburger steak offered in 1/2-and 1/4-pound sizes, and Char-Burgersoffered with 3-ounce patties. Both burgers are made from fresh Angus chuck. You can add lettuce, tomato and onion—all reportedly sourced from local farmers—to the hamburger steaks, but the Char-Burgers are only offered with chili, coleslaw, or bacon as additions.
Avail yourself of one or more of them—the plain single needs a bit of help. The beef has a pronounced smokiness from the roaring grill and some crunchy grill marks, but as the patties are cooked all the way through they're not the most juicy burgers. Also, the single is a bit lost in the bun.
But doubled up with some cheese and slaw on top and the burger attains a wonderful synergy—the sum being truly greater than its parts. The soft, airy bun holds the smoky double stack perfectly, the viscous cheese and snappy slaw adding the perfect amounts of creaminess and crunch.
The french fries are equally terrific—crisp and golden. For dessert the dense, creamy shakes make a fine compliment to the burgers, but don't miss the throw-back deep fried apple pies. In fact, combining the two is not a bad idea.
Char-Grill is an important part of our hamburger history. It has remained untouched by modern trends—even the prices seem to be a throwback, and the distinctive building is a stark contrast to the gleaming, modern edifices that are sprouting up all over downtown Raleigh. While I assume that all the Char-Grill locations offer essentially similar food, you can't beat the original for the nostalgia.
618 Hillsborough Street, Raleigh NC 27603