Burger Masters

For all-American dining, Bearden's can't be beat.

Bearden's 19985 Lake Road, Rocky River Hours, 11a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 440-331-7850
Joe Orange, with a large order of Bearden's wonderful beer-battered onion - rings. - WALTER  NOVAK
Joe Orange, with a large order of Bearden's wonderful beer-battered onion rings.
Burger lovers fall into two categories: those who like them fat and meaty, full of juices, hot off the charcoal grill, and shouting of smoke and fire; and those who like their patties slim, poked and prodded on a sizzling griddle with a wide metal spatula, until they're soft, sweet, and infused with the essence of all the other burgers and onions that have fried before them. For those in the first group, there are backyard barbecues and funky gourmet burger houses. But for those in the second group, there is Bearden's.

If someone enclosed a nifty '50s drive-in, it would approach the ambiance of this Rocky River institution. This is definitely no-frills dining, with paper napkins, Formica, and heavy melamine dishware. Undressed tabletops are set with salt, pepper, and a bottle of ketchup. Salad dressings come in single-serving pouches. Still, the unassuming little shoebox of a dining room, which has been totally nonsmoking since summer, is kept scrupulously clean, with tidy carpeted floors, curtained windows, and a gallery of framed American-primitive prints brightening the walls. A whimsical toy train -- a fixture since the 1930s, when the restaurant was known as Jackson's -- chugs along tracks near the ceiling. The waitresses are friendly and maternal.

Bearden's menu is small and simple -- primarily burgers, sandwiches, and the traditional go-withs -- and much of the food is frozen or prepared off-site. Prepackaged chunky smoked-chicken salad, with a surprising but not unpleasant hint of barbecue, is presented with wedges of hard-boiled egg, tomato slices, and cellophane-wrapped crackers. A decent beef stew, with cubes of tender, well-trimmed meat, comes out of a can. However, several daily soup selections and a mild Midwestern-style chili (ground beef, kidney beans, onions, and tomato, with a whiff of pepper and a sprinkling of shredded cheese) are set on the stove to simmer each morning by owner Joe Orange. Both the stew and the chili can be had by the bowl or -- better -- heaped steaming hot into hollowed-out loaves of soft, chewy-crusted bread for a meal of satisfying heft. Rounding out the offerings are a collection of classic diner sandwiches: grilled cheese, BLTs, and tuna salad on white bread -- plain, straightforward, and without pretense.

But the burgers are the real reason to visit Bearden's. Assembled from "the best ground beef we can buy," fried up in mere seconds on a well-seasoned griddle, and wrapped in paper à la the neighborhood drive-in, they may well be the prototype of their kind. For a taste of burger heaven, choose the double-patty Bearden Burger, on a pliable toasted bun, dripping with melted American cheese and slathered with grilled onions so deeply seared, they nearly melt in your mouth. Forget the unimpressive deep-fried cheese sticks or the frozen french fries (unless you plan to order them topped with Orange's chili and shredded cheese, for a comforting confluence of childish tastes and textures). Go instead with an order or two of big, thick beer-battered onion rings -- golden homemade hoops of flavor, infused with a sweet saltiness and a satisfying crunch. Throw in a little plastic cup of finely diced homemade cole slaw and a creamy chocolate shake, and you've got yourself a meal as nostalgically American as a turquoise Ford Galaxie with tail fins and a hardtop.

Not that there's anything wrong with the bacon-cheeseburger or the mushroom-Swiss burger, both smothered as they are with tasty toppings. And the peanut-butter-slicked Peanut Burger -- think Indonesian beef satay or cream of peanut soup, as gustatory guideposts -- is much better-tasting than it might seem upon initial consideration. Owner Orange says the Peanut Burger is the stuff of local urban legend, with many customers claiming to have been The One who first requested the unusual pairing. But Orange is inclined to believe the burger first surfaced in a long-gone Bearden's location on Rocky River Drive. "My wife, Gina, likes them with sweet pickles," muses the tolerant restaurateur. "Personally, I've started lots of them, but never finished one."

Peanut Burgers notwithstanding, the restaurant does big business with penny-pinching diners of all ages, attracting office workers and hard hats at lunch, as well as seniors, midlifers, and families with young children during the evening hours. While it could be argued that the kitchen's entire output borders on nursery food (those items that food writers Jane and Michael Stern describe as cozy, warm, and reassuring, as opposed to "ghastly grown-up food like fish with their heads on or pâtés made of nameless entrails and viscera"), there is nevertheless a kids' menu for children 10 and under, with items like chicken fingers, pizza, or a hot dog, served with fries and a milk shake for $4.50. For the adults, there's a small list of domestic and imported bottled beers, in addition to the usual fountain drinks, iced tea, and strong coffee poured into classic white mugs. Dessert options center around an assortment of pies. ("The fruit pies are commercial," confided our waitress, "but the cream pies are homemade.") The filling in a slice of pumpkin pie was fragrant and firm; a well-crafted coconut cream filling was rich and judiciously sweetened. However, neither pie's crust was a blue-ribbon winner.

Still, Bearden's homey charm extends beyond the food and the simple decor. It's a friendly place, where folks at neighboring tables wave and chat, and waitresses report the game score each time they fill your coffee cup. A standard-issue television sits in the corner -- no raucous big-screened number here -- and during early October, it seemed to be constantly tuned to Indians games. Nearly all eyes were glued to the set one balmy Saturday afternoon, and audible gasps turned into cheerful chuckles as diners watched the Indians beat the stuffing out of the Mariners in the third game of the American League Division Series at the Jake. Of course, as we all know, the Indians ended their season with a loss in Seattle the following Monday, and fans still have to hark back to 1948 (coincidentally, the very same year that Bearden's took its present name) to claim a World Series victory for Cleveland.

Well, there's always next year. There aren't too many things that can survive the vicissitudes of 54 years. Bodies sag, foundations falter, and even rivers change their course. But a devoted baseball fan and a good burger? Now you're talking staying power.

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