Hamburger History

Beyond nostalgia, Bearden's remains relevant — and good

Having never before eaten at Bearden's — which has been in existence longer than the state of Israel — I can guarantee that this review is 100-percent nostalgia-free. That's an important point, since vintage spots like this often get by on fond memories alone.

And why not? Since 1948, the casual diner has been a part of West Side life: so long that most residents can't recall a time when it wasn't dishing up burgers, onion rings, and milkshakes. Like Corky & Lenny's Deli is to East-Siders, Bearden's is that bona fide neighborhood haunt filled not so much with regulars but members of an extended family.

That's why the restaurant's closure at the end of 2010 felt a bit like a death to those in Rocky River and points west. Despite surviving decades of highs and lows, Bearden's ultimately succumbed to three years of punishing road construction outside its front door.

It was thanks to lifelong fan Jim Griffiths, who partnered up with longtime owner/operator Joe Orange, that Bearden's was brought back to life less than one year later. Turning lemons into lemonade, the team used the downtime to renovate the entire space, resulting in a fresh, vintage-tinged design that neatly fits with the retro menu. And yes, the model train that circumnavigates the upper reaches of the room is back where it always has been.

But today's Bearden's is more than just a trip down Memory Lane. Thanks to bargain-basement pricing and first-rate preparation, Bearden's is as relevant today as it was when it was a drive-in serving 50-cent steakburgers. The steakburgers are still around, although they've inched up to $3.50. The menu also features something called a Peanutburger, a peanut butter-slathered hamburger that has been around since the beginning. I'm told it tastes better than it sounds.

I could make a habit of Bearden's for a single dish: fried clams. Meaty, sweet, briny, and fried golden brown, the strips are like summer in a red plastic basket. They are served two ways here: heaped into a basket with skinny fries, slaw, and tartar sauce, or piled onto buttered split-top buns with lettuce, tomato, and tartar. I only wish they were served with lemon so I wouldn't be forced to pilfer wedges from the iced-tea station.

At the heart of a knife-and-fork chili dog is a snappy quarter-pound all-beef wiener. But neither it nor the chili it hides beneath is meant for weenies. Chunky and thick with meat, the chili is boldly spiced, making it a great partner for the beefy dog.

Bearden's serves old-school, diner-style burgers. That means thin patties cooked on a flat top, then nestled into soft buns with fresh toppings. At just north of three ounces, each patty is petite and not altogether bursting with meaty flavor. But these sandwiches are a "sum of all parts" experience: bun, meat, tomato, lettuce, and thin-sliced onion coming together in perfect harmony. Upgrade to the Beardenburger and you'll get two patties. The Triple provides a three-deep stackup. (Toppings are sold separately, from 10-cent lettuce to 90-cent bacon.)

You won't likely find a better version of onion rings than the ones served up at Bearden's. Dipped in a housemade batter and fried to a perfect copper hue, these shockingly crisp rings are the gold standard of fried sides. Gilding the lily, the rings come with a choice of dips like dill-spiked ranch, honey mustard, or barbecue.

Available in flavors like cotton candy, Oreo, and strawberry, hand-dipped milkshakes pop up on practically every table — and for good reason.

First-timers should note that orders are placed and paid for at the counter before taking one's seat in the bright and cheerful dining room. Meals are brought out to the table in about 10 minutes, but soft drinks are self-serve.

During the diner boom of the 1950s, Bearden's grew to a chain of four West Side locations before shrinking back to this single store. Had it not been for Griffiths — raised on Bearden's burgers, fries, and shakes — this location would have been history too.

In this instance, hanging on to history has never tasted so good.