Back in the ’70s, when I was just a kid, my parents would take my brothers and me to a small diner on the edge of town. The Hillcrest Soda Spa – decked out in original booths and stools from the 1950s – features fresh burgers, fries, milkshakes and root beer. Good root beer. The kind you’d spend $10 in gas for just to get a $1.50 draft.
Since those family trips, cheeseburgers have always been one of my favorite foods. Between summertime cookouts, camping with the scouts, birthday parties and holidays, when isn’t there a good time for a cheeseburger? I’m not sure if there is an answer to that question. Heck, I even had a cheeseburger while my wife was in labor with our second child – with her permission of course.
My passion for burgers has spurred my decision to go on a quest, a quest to find the best patties around. Here’s what I discovered on my journey.
The burger joint has to be a local, family-owned establishment. No big chain restaurants or fast food restaurants – only small, mom-and-pop restaurants or pubs – and the patties have to be fresh ground burger. No frozen burgers allowed.
Good service is an important part of any dining experience. What fun would it be to order and eat a delicious cheeseburger only to have it brought to the table by the Wicked Witch of the West? A fun and friendly wait staff is essential.
Dining out next to a highway of loud, rattling trucks blazing past every second or a room full of rowdy drunks may be fun for some, but this is not on my list of favorites. There is a time and place for everything, just not during a cheeseburger experience.
HOLMES’ PLATE 54 IN CORNING
Brendan Holmes and his wife Kim opened Holmes’ Plate 54 in 2007. Located at 54 West Market Street in the Gaffer District of downtown Corning, the atmosphere is inviting with open air seating in front of the restaurant. The large front windows slide open during warm weather, creating a great alfresco dining experience. With 25 different versions of burgers to choose from, I decided to keep all the reviews consistent and go with the traditional hamburger – eight ounces of fresh ground beef grilled to perfection, topped with lettuce and tomato, and served with chips, a pickle spear and German-style coleslaw.
Even after I upgraded to fresh-cut fries for $1, the whole meal only cost $8.54. The burger was grilled to perfection – juicy and pink in the center. When the juice threatens to stain your shirt, then the burger is done perfectly, and that is exactly what you get here. Make sure to wear a bib!
Well-cooked and served with a freshly baked roll, crisp fries and cold beer – the restaurant offers the largest selection of craft and microbrew beer in the area – Holmes’ Plate 54 takes an ordinary burger and makes it delicious.
Open Monday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. For more information, please call 607-377-5500, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit
MOM’S SAVONA DINER IN SAVONA
Located at 82 Main St. in the small town of Savona, Mom’s Savona Diner has been serving great food since the early 1900s. Near Waneta, Lamoka and Keuka lakes, this is a popular stop for fishermen coming home from mornings spent on the water.
The ding of the bell rings upon entering, and the friendly staff is quick to say hello. Customers dining give out a smile – everyone seems to know everyone at Mom’s. Owner Diane Friscoe touts her mother’s recipes and experience in the diner business as one of the keys to their happy customers. She has been cooking up delicious burgers – about 10 pounds of them a day – since 1996.
Take a spin on one of the many stools at the counter to watch her cook the burgers right in front of you, or choose a cozy spot in the back dining room. Whichever you choose, the food won’t disappoint.
For $3.95, burgers come dressed with tomato, lettuce, mayo, a pile of chips and a pickle spear. The old-fashioned taste of a burger cooked on a hot griddle is hard to beat. Again, I opted to add fresh cut fries for an additional $1.50. You can’t go wrong with this combo – your doctor may disagree, however.
The burgers here are so good, that I’m tempted to order a second just as I finish the last juicy bite of the one in my hands. My waistline was happy I didn’t.
Make it a point to stop in Savona and enjoy a flashback dining experience at Mom’s. And don’t forget to follow that burger up with some dessert – try their giant pies!
Open Sunday to Saturday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, please call 607-583-7830.
THE STONE CAT CAFÉ IN HECTOR
Nestled along the picturesque hillside of Seneca Lake at 5315 Route 414 in Hector, the Stone Cat Café, owned by Scott and Jessica Giles Singnori, is unlike any other dining experience around. They specialize in organic, locally grown produce and meats. Everything about the Stone Cat is special – the décor, the wait staff, the view and the flavors all create a wonderful burger-chomping atmosphere.
My wife and I took the short drive from Corning to experience one of Stone Cats’ New York State Grass Fed Burgers. The weather was ideal, so we decided to perch on the patio overlooking Seneca Lake. In keeping with the uniqueness of all their menu items, the patties here are made from hormone-free and antibiotic-free locally raised beef. The burger is topped with a selection of local “Flower Power” mixed greens from Trumansburg, cheddar cheese made in Cuba, New York, house-made roasted garlic mayo, all on a sesame seed bun. The pickle spear is from Cortland Produce, and the hand-cut fries are from locally grown organic potatoes.
All of these fresh and local ingredients are available for just $12 per burger. If you’re thinking that’s pricey, wait until you take a bite. Any ills you may have had about parting with your hard-earned George Washingtons will soon fade when you grab this tasty treat and munch on the culinary splendor! The Sesame seed bun holds together well, and absorbs the burger juices without falling apart in your hands. The fries are crisp and salty, and the mixed greens compliment the burger nicely. Every bite is, honestly, delicious. The Stone Cat also has a great selection of local craft beer on tap, so don’t forget to order a frosty brew.
It is quickly obvious from the moment you walk in the door at the Stone Cat that everyone really cares about you, and hope to make your meal a pleasant experience. The staff is friendly, the food is wonderful and the view is fantastic. Do yourself a favor and plan an afternoon drive to the Stone Cat Café. Taste a couple local wines along the way. You won’t be disappointed.
Open April to December. Lunch Wednesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner Wednesday to Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday Jazz Brunch is from 12:30 to 3 p.m. For more information, please call 607-546-5000 or visit www.stonecatcafe.com.
Traveling through the Finger Lakes provides seemingly limitless breathtaking views and fantastic dining experiences. There are so many places to eat at, shop and visit. Deciding on these three places was fairly simple once I tasted the burgers, and I’m sure there are many more equally enjoyable burger joints around.
Whether you enjoy the hustle and bustle of downtown Corning, the historic feeling of the classic diner experience, or the cool fresh breeze along Seneca Lake, get your hands around a juicy cheeseburger and enjoy the ride.
by Tom Heffernan