Burger meister: Cheeburger Cheeburger harks back to 'Happy Days'
What's the half-life of a pop culture catchphrase?
The restaurant chain Cheeburger Cheeburger clearly means to evoke a running joke from "Saturday Night Live" back in the John Belushi era. A recurring sketch depicted a Greek-owned diner whose repertoire was limited to "cheeburger." Did you want a side with that? "No fries -- cheeps!" How about a soft drink? "No Coke -- Pepsi!"
It's hard to imagine that today's diners would be hooked by a late-night routine from more than two decades ago. Still, when my family and I visited the original Cheeburger Cheeburger restaurant on a visit to Sanibel, Fla., in the early 1990s, the sketch was part of the draw. It must be said, however, that they don't yell "Cheeburger, Cheeburger," and that they serve Coke not Pepsi and offer several sides other than chips.
In fact, Cheeburger Cheeburger's vibe is much more "Happy Days" than "Saturday Night Live," as it goes for 1950s-style nostalgia along the lines of uncountable other pseudo-retro diners nationwide. Cheeburger Cheeburger has staked out franchises in Roswell and Duluth, and if they're not as slick as, say, Johnny Rockets, they're less sterile and impersonal, too, offering hearty portions and cheerful service.
The dining rooms have plenty of the predictable frills of the period, including Ike-era counters, chrome-colored fixtures and a length of pink neon running along the top of the walls. Songs like "I Like Bread 'n' Butter" and "For Your Love" fill the air and images of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe are hard to miss. The most appealing touch, however, may be the laminated Trivial Pursuit game cards at every table, which provide good conversation pieces.
The five cheeseburger sizes range from a quarter-pound "Classic" ($4.25) to a 20-ounce "Famous Pounder" ($9.95). Brave souls who order the latter get their Polaroids posted on each restaurant's wall of fame. The Classic may be the smallest on the menu, but it's perfectly adequate for an average-sized lunch. As a testament to the way the food is cooked to order, mine arrived so hot, juicy and fresh from the grill that on first bite, nearly scalding liquid leaked onto my hand (which is ultimately a reflection of quality).
Tasting a bit more carefully, I found the patty to be thick and lean, while the texture of the toasted kaiser bun (topped with a whole olive speared on a toothpick) made a refreshing change from the usual ho-hum sesame seed bun. Topping choices include jalapeno, provolone, bleu and mozzarella in addition to the typical Swiss, American and cheddar. The cheese itself was expertly allowed to melt across the patty's surface, like a second skin.
Cheeburger Cheeburger's menu proves a bit more versatile than its "Saturday Night Life" counterpart, but not wildly so, with no hot dogs to be had. The grilled chicken breast sandwich ($5.50) features a moist bit of white meat that's not too chewy, but overall a bit bland, needing something to jazz it up besides the option of cheese. BLTs, portabella mushroom sandwiches and salads are also available.
Cut and cooked daily, the french fries (with prices ranging from $1.85 to $3.75) retain the potato skin, giving them a bit more character, though they weren't especially crisp. Opt for the crunchy onion rings, cooked in peanut oil to an appealing goldenrod color. They are strikingly plentiful -- a $2.95 half-loaf is more than enough for two people. The indecisive can order the cutesy-named "Frings," which are a basket of both.
Most drinks (including authentic cherry Cokes) arrive in glass jars, with the shakes arriving in old-fashioned tins. Of the various flavors, including Kiwi Strawberry, Caramel Apple and Peanut Butter Cup, I sampled a tame chocolate shake ($2.25 for a half, $3.50 for regular), which proved thick, dark and mouth-wateringly redolent of chocolate ice cream, and didn't last long. (The Roswell restaurant also serves beer and wine.)
Cheeburger Cheeburger has a family- friendly attitude, with kids' meals coming in cardboard Cadillacs. Overall it's not so much a hangout for today's teenagers as for diners who were teens in the 1950s-'70s. To reach the younger market, maybe they should start a franchise with a more contemporary catchphrase, like, say, "Piece Out! Pizzeria" or "Piggy Gettin' Jiggy Barbecue."
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