Corbett’s Burger & Soda Bar (Cary, NC)

It seems there’s been a proliferation of burger options around the Triangle in the past few years, so much so that one couldn’t possibly try them all. Many of these have been of the gussied-up variety, offering exotic and/or decadent toppings, putting a premium on the components and ingredients used (a welcome trend, admittedly), and, in some cases, charging you a pretty penny for something you can probably make pretty well at home. But the era of the straightforward burger has certainly not ended – just witness the growth of Five Guys, a chain that does a respectable job with the no-frills variety. Now, I’m a fan of both the high brow burger and the basic burger, and among the best I’ve tried in the latter category here in the Triangle is found at Corbett’s Burger & Soda Bar in Cary.

Some may construe the 240+ sodas available here as a gimmick, and there are some weird options (chocolate covered maple bacon, cucumber, or espresso, anyone?), but I’m here for the food. Corbett’s is located in the remote corner of a semi-forsaken strip mall in Cary. Let’s hope the location doesn’t doom their prospects. It’s clearly a family-run establishment, and an easy place to bring your kids. As for decor, it’s pretty sparse, with an old-fashioned bar lined with stools, some plain wooden tables, and an open kitchen right behind the cash register. The menu is not complicated – burgers, hot dogs, etc – but it is difficult to decipher on the jam-packed board hanging overhead. You can customize your burger or dog in many different ways, or choose one of their specialty options.

I’ve eaten at Corbett’s three times and tried burgers each time. A ¼ lb burger starts at just $3.59, but you’ll add a little bit if you want a “premium” cheese and/or toppings. Impressively, many of these are house-made, like the pimiento cheese, buttermilk slaw, and virtually all of the sauces. A bag of fries (waffle style, seasoned or plain) tacks on another $1.99. The burgers are beautifully seasoned and come on a nicely grilled bun. It’s not fancy, to be sure, but it’s spot on. The fries are also nicely seasoned and cooked, and (for better or worse) you don’t get 50 lbs of them like you do at Five Guy’s. Corbett’s also does a variety of milkshakes, including flavors like root beer-banana and dulce de leche. Although I’ve yet to try one, these are an excellent deal at just $2.69/$3.35.

When you want a classic burger and fries (and your choice of a billion sodas), head over to Corbett’s. This place does it better than Char-Grill, Cook Out, or Five Guys, to name just a few.

Char-Grill (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of flickr

If it’s true that some things never change, then that has to be a big part of why the Char-Grill on Hillsborough St. in Raleigh continues to thrive, having unwavered in its devotion to deliver that most quintessential of American meals – a burger, fries, and a shake –  since 1959.  The large sign out front says all you need to know about the place, and, for over 50 years, there have been no frills and probably no surprises to the steady stream of customers: Char-Grill maintains its commitment to the classicly simple even into this age of gourmet burgers, extravagant toppings, and duck-fat fries.  Place your order on a slip of paper, slide down a little metal chute, wait for the flames to erupt on the grill, and, a few minutes, later, your name is called.  There’s no ambience except the nostalgia of an institution, and there’s hardly anywhere to sit, but where else can you have the exact same experience that your parents, and maybe their parents, did?

As for the food itself, it’s cheap and reliable, even if the burgers and hot crispy fries aren’t much better than average.  For this style of burger and fries, Five Guys does it better, and Only Burger easily surpasses them both, especially with it’s commitment to sustainable beef and the offering of occasional specials.

Over the years, the restaurant has expanded to a handful of locations across the Triangle.  But the atmosphere and history of the Hillsborough St. one lends it a distinct charm.  And that makes Char-Grill something to hold on to in Raleigh.  So here’s hoping that some things never change.