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Top Picks: Iconic Tennessee Burgers

Written by Chris Chamberlain
Top Picks: Iconic Tennessee Burgers
TOPS Bar-B-Q; Photo credit: Jay Adkins

In these divisive times, if there’s one thing that can bring all people together, it’s a great hamburger. (Unless you don’t eat meat, then that’s cool! But stop reading now.) Fortunately, Tennessee is blessed with an abundance of iconic burger joints across the state.

So if you’ve got a craving for something beefy, we’ve got some meaty advice for you!

THE VOICE -- Season: 17 -- Pictured: Kelly Clarkson -- (Photo by: Art Streiber/NBC)

Photo courtesy of Dyer's Burgers

Dyer's Burgers - Memphis

The “Big Pal” burger with cheese and bacon; Photo Credit: Pal’s Sudden Service

Photo Credit: Pal’s Sudden Service

Pal’s Sudden Service - Various locations

Photo courtesy of Urban Stack

Photo courtesy of Urban Stack

Urban Stack - Chattanooga

Main Street Meats; Photo credit: Heather Anne Thomas

Photo credit: Heather Anne Thomas

Main Street Meats - Chattanooga

TOPS Bar-B-Q; Photo credit: Jay Adkins

Photo credit: Jay Adkins

TOPS Bar-B-Q - Memphis

TOPS Bar-B-Q; Photo credit: Jay Adkins

Courtesy of Johnny's Big Burger

Johnny's Big Burger - Clarksville, TN

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Nashville

Music City could be called Moo-sic City when it comes to fantastic spots for a good ole greasy burger. Sure, there are plenty of $15+ options in town, and if you’re looking for a boujee burger, there are plenty of lists of the most expensive patties. This is not one of them.

Instead, we want to point you to the places that locals seek out when they want a bite of history between two buns. First in many diners’ hearts is Brown’s Diner, the proud possessor of Nashville’s oldest license to sell beer. The dimly-lit tavern was originally a tiny trolley car that was repurposed to sling bottles of beer across a bar, and an expansion to include a dining room and kitchen thankfully did nothing to elevate the ambiance. Their cheeseburger has fed generations of Vanderbilt student, starving songwriters and neighborhood residents within walking distance. Cooked on an appropriately greasy flat top grill, it’s a quintessential bar burger.

Rotier’s Restaurant is another Vandy stalwart, best known for two things: their burger served on French bread and the jokingly surly service that fans have come to expect. They’re only open for lunch and parking is pretty much non-existent, but that’s part of the charm.

Dino’s is proud to be one of East Nashville’s oldest and most beloved dive bars. Their long neck beers are ice cold, and one of their cheeseburgers is the perfect sponge to soak up all those lagers. They’re open late, so Dino’s is a popular last stop of the night for the party people.

The folks at Gabby’s Burgers and Fries have been ahead of the curve for years. They served their juicy “smashburgers” straight off the griddle long before chains like Shake Shack made this the most popular method for cooking a patty, and Gabby’s was the main reason to travel to Wedgewood-Houston to eat back before the neighborhood sprang into the local dining consciousness. They even have a secret menu, but in case you’re not in the know, their regular offering of burgers, fries and shakes is more than adequate.

Memphis

The Soul Burger at Earnestine & Hazel’s is steeped in lore, partially thanks to the history of the building that houses the juke joint. First of all, the former bordello is allegedly haunted as heck, and the jukebox is famous for spontaneously playing songs that are eerily prescient or strangely appropriate for whatever is happening in the bar. Their Soul Burger is simple and perfect, a bun, patty, onions, cheese, pickle and the kitchen’s proprietary “Soul Sauce.”  It’s scary good!

Don’t expect to keep your New Year’s resolutions if you dine at Dyer’s Burgers, where they pretty much deep-fry their meat in the same grease that they used when they opened in 1912. In fact, through several moves to new locations in the Bluff City, Dyer’s actually contracted armored cars and police exports to transport that precious cooking grease from place to place. There’s a little bit of Memphis history in every decadent bite.

In a town as famous for their barbecue as Memphis, Tops Bar-B-Q doesn’t necessarily stand out for their smoked meats. Sure, it’s fine in a pinch, but locals are hip to the fact that a Tops burger is the perfect basic quarter pounder whenever they’re fed up with barbecue. (As if that happens often…)

Huey’s frequently tops those “Best Burgers in Memphis” lists, in no small part thanks to the fact that they’ve been serving beer and burgers since Nixon was president. Familiarity breeds respect in this case, and the original location has spread to a chain of eight locations around the region. Every one of them serves the World Famous Huey Burger, six ounces of Certified Angus Beef cooked to a perfect medium pink. You’ll need an extra napkin for that one.

Knoxville

Litton’s Market has been a Knoxville institution since it opened as a tiny grocery and service station in 1946. When a deli counter was added in 1962, the Litton Burger was served for the first time, but didn’t become a staple until the early ‘80’s. Now that half-pounder on a homemade roll is a can’t-miss culinary experience for any visitor.

There are many University of Tennessee graduates who don’t remember anything from their freshman year history class, but they can recount every burger they ever ate at Sam & Andy’s. Their Vol Burger topped with gooey American cheese is the base for many variations that include extra toppings like BBQ sauce, smoky bacon, grilled jalapeños or even pizza sauce. All of them are fantastic, but start with the original.

Chattanooga

Chattanooga has more modern burger joints than old reliables, but the whole city has experienced a bit of a culinary renaissance of late, so that makes sense. Urban Stack is a great example of a newer restaurant, founded in 2010. Located just a few blocks from the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo, Urban Stack specializes in delightfully over-the-top custom burgers accompanied by one of the city’s best cocktail, beer and spirits lists. Try one of their “Specialty Stacks” for a gourmet treat!

Local 191 offers a lovely view of the Tennessee River flowing past downtown from their expansive patio, and it’s dog-friendly so you can bring your best friend along. Treat Rufus to a little bite of your Double Stack Diner Burger with two house blended beef patties, American cheese, applewood bacon and  over-easy egg, and he’ll love you forever. Good boy!

You can’t get a fresher burger than at a butcher shop, so Main Street Meats has you covered. Working directly with local farmers to source the best available beef, MSM uses craft butchering techniques to provide steaks and other cuts to restaurants and neighbors. That also means they have a lot of premium beef to grind for burgers, and their single burger option is a stunner! They top it with house-made pickles, mustard, mayo, caramelized onions, bacon and Gruyere cheese to make for one of the best burgers in the state.

Wild Cards

If you find yourself traveling between the big cities of the state and a hankering hits for a good burger, you’re not totally out of luck. Honey’s Restaurant in Fayetteville is known for their “slawburger,” the sort of burger you’d expect to enjoy in the back of a pool hall (which is exactly what Honey’s used to be.) The town throws an annual festival dedicated to the slawburger, so you know they’re deadly serious about the town specialty.

It’s tough to top an old school soda shop counter burger, and Tinsley-Bible Drug Store & Soda Fountain in Jefferson City serves up one of the best in the state. The bun may be a little smushed and that huge hunk of raw onion may preclude romance later in the evening, but that’s exactly how it should be! Enjoy a Bible Burger and a milkshake for a quasi-religious experience.

We intentionally haven’t mentioned any fast food on this list yet, but Pal’s Sudden Service is the fastest of the fast, so it’s worthy of inclusion. This Tri-Cities-based chainlet of burger, hot dog and sandwich shops is fanatical about quality and service, so when you pull up to the small restaurants designed to look like replicas of the food they serve, you’re certain to be through the drive-through line in a jiffy. Their burgers are great and whatever they add to their sweet tea to make it so addictive should be illegal.

Anyone who lives within a half hour drive of Clarksville knows all about Johnny’s Big Burger, a nondescript little strip mall burger joint with some legendary food. Bring cash, though, because Johnny doesn’t cotton to credit cards. Order up a double bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg on top, but please make sure to leave room for their most famous dessert, a grilled honey bun topped with vanilla ice cream.