'Closed for the long weekend," reads the sign on the door of Moderne Burger, a retro shrine to the juicy classic of American cuisine.
The entire long weekend?
"You've got to be good to your employees," owner Peter Kokinis later explains. How fittingly old-fashioned.
Well, we've already had to wait out 15 months of renovations. (The newly expanded Kitsilano diner reopened at the end of June, after a fire razed the building last year.) And this gives us the perfect excuse to visit the legendary Tomahawk Restaurant, a North Shore institution since 1926, on our quest for a great home-style hamburger. The original Tomahawk Barbecue, located where Norgate Plaza now stands, was North Vancouver's first drive-in restaurant. The diner moved across the street in 1960 and hasn't changed much since.
The creaky A-frame bungalow, flanked by towering totem poles, truly is a sight to behold. Inside, the lobby and dining room are crammed with West Coast native artifacts that founder Chick Chamberlain began collecting during the Great Depression.
There are wooden carvings lined up behind the counter, cooking utensils hanging from the ceiling, masks all over the walls, and drums piled in every nook. The overall effect is kind of dark and dingy (the place smells likes an ashtray that hasn't been cleaned for decades), but that's just part of its quirky charm.
The family business is now run by Mr. Chamberlain's son Chuck and grandson Chaz. The latter, an aspiring actor, is the epitome of graciousness. I was smitten from the first "Good evening, madam."
The Tomahawk's hamburgers are almost as popular as its mammoth bacon-and-egg breakfast plates. The five-ounce patties, made with certified organic ground beef from Blue Goose Cattle Co., are hand-shaped slabs of greasy goodness cooked on a flat grill - "the only way to do it," according to Chuck.
We go for the Skookum Chief burger ($11.65, with fries), a menu favourite since the Tomahawk started serving burgers in the mid-forties. The monster burger, loaded with a fried egg, bacon, all-beef wiener slices, tomato, raw onion and mounds of shredded lettuce, is almost too big to fit in my mouth.
I prefer - no, scratch that, I love - the $10.65 Chief Simon Baker burger (they're all named for first nation chiefs who were friends with Chick). It's still a hefty handful, but small enough to allow its three outstanding toppings to shine: fresh mushrooms sautéed with butter and heaps of garlic; a sharp slice of really good aged cheddar; and crispy Yukon bacon, double-smoked in an old-style wooden smokehouse by a secret small supplier that the Tomahawk has been using for 45 years.
This is the best darn hamburger I've ever had the pleasure of devouring. The kaiser bun is specially baked for the restaurant. The golden fries are hand cut from Oregon potatoes with the skin on. Skip the gravy (it tastes powder-based), but do leave room for a homemade dessert ($4.65). The banana cream pie, frothed high with real whipped cream, looks like something you always wished mom would make.
With memories of warm beef juice dripping from finger to elbow, I must concede that a flat grill does seem the best way to go. Why let all that tasty fat burn up in flames?
On the other side of town, Moderne Burger's Mr. Kokinis begs to disagree. The passionate burger aficionado is a former electronics salesman who says he opened his restaurant in 2001 because "no one else could get it right."
To grill his classic steak burgers, made from Alberta AAA beef delivered daily, he uses a custom charbroiler with elements on top and bottom that cook both sides simultaneously while locking in moisture at temperatures close to 1,000 F.
Mr. Kokinis is a purist who refuses to season his meat or use "taste bud- numbing" condiments such as mustard or pickles. A light garnish of lettuce, tomato, onion and a thin smear of mayonnaise is placed underneath the patty, which is somehow supposed to make the burger easier to eat the "proper way," upside down.
My classic steak burger ($10.95 with fries) certainly was tasty, though I still think a dash of salt would only enhance the pure all-beef flavour. Unfortunately, I didn't rotate my toasted bun the "proper way" or place it down on the "correct" angle, because the juices pooled on the plate and the bun fell apart.
The fries, pale but crunchy, are surprisingly good for local potatoes. They are cut to order and cooked in olive oil. Malted vanilla milkshakes ($4.95), served thick and creamy with a canister of seconds on the side, are superb.
And the mint-hued room is a lovely, streamlined ode to art moderne design. With simple horizontal lines, gentle curves and chrome-plated "speed whiskers" racing along the walls, it feels as sleek and clean as the Tomahawk is cluttered.
Alas, in the end, the crucial burger toppings didn't quite cut the proverbial mustard. The maple-cured bacon was fatty. The fresh mushrooms, lightly tossed on the flat grill, were bland and watery. And at $1.25 each, the price of a burger quickly added up.
For me, Moderne Burger didn't quite live up to the Tomahawk, but that's a tall order to fill. Moderne certainly does serve a seriously good burger that is moist and juicy, and tastes like real beef. Barring any more fires, I have a hunch this is a place that will endure and only get better with time.
Moderne Burger: 2507 West Broadway; 604-739-0005; Tomahawk Restaurant: 1550 Philip Ave., North Vancouver; 604-988-2612.