Taking our first reader recommendation, we at Burger Quest visited Casey's Tavern in Ann Arbor, joining the lunch crowd on a Thursday around noon, pulling up on the outskirts of downtown to an actual mechanical parking meter. (Take that, Ferndale!)
The joint has been there since 1986, and the interior boasts a lot of Ann Arbor-themed art that helps solidify its identity as a Treetown institution. It's a tasteful room. The TVs are so unobtrusive you could dine there without realizing there are six flatscreens tucked almost out of view. The antique bar piece from the U.P. and the beadboard wainscoting lend a warm, clubby feel. Adding to the townie charm, the train station is just across the street. (Sidetrack, another great burger joint in Ypsi, also has trains running by it. A Washtenaw County burger joint thing?)
The lunch crowd on this summer weekday was probably a little older than usual, yet a Beavis & Butt-Head-themed sign seemed the lone nod to Gen Xers. In a similar vein, the prices reflect the affluence of the mature, as the burgers are $10.25 with fries.
It's kinda worth it, though. It's very friendly and welcoming. We got a crash course on Casey's history courtesy a wonderful waitress named Suzanne. She's the kind of charming, chatty, literate server whose demeanor practically screams "living wage." She told us the building used to be part of a lumberyard, and pointed to the wide plank floors that testify to the building's former life. As she tells it, Casey's is founded on repeat customers and longtime employees — and she's been there since the beginning. Her service was excellent.
As the menu explains, your standard burger at Casey's comes with three toppings, but since we're exploring a classic burger experience, we got the "lettuce, tomato, onion" option only, which just counts as one topping. And since we've been getting guff for ordering "hockey pucks" — medium-well and well-done burgers — when many burger mavens argue that this cooks the flavor out of the beef, we concede that we ordered this specimen "medium" on purpose.
The pièce de résistance arrived reasonably quickly, flanked with crispy-soft steak fries and a pickle spear: a 7-ounce patty with romaine lettuce, a pale tomato slice, and red onion, all on an onion roll.
Now, we at Burger Quest have a thing about buns. We like them too small rather than too big. And the rolls used at Casey's have a bit of an overhang. That said, it makes sense. When you can load on three toppings for the standard price, you might need that bread to work with melted cheeses ranging from Tillamook cheddar to smoked mozzarella, or such challenging toppings as green or ripe olives, grilled mushrooms, guacamole, chili, grilled peppers, or even jalapeño chutney. For classicists such as us, though, it's just extra bread, though it did soak up the juice from our "medium" nicely.
Ultimately, it was probably our stubborn insistence on getting a "classic" burger that really robbed us here. The great thing, we think, about Casey's is that you can load up on toppings. Even if you find the patty perfunctory, when you're offered all these special condiments, that hunk of protein simply has to be a suitable foundation for your own personal flavor-poem.
And, you can get it in beef, turkey, or veggie. In that hospitable Ann Arbor style, you can sit down with a red meat-eater, a calorie-counter, and a hippie, and everybody's happy. And that's probably where Casey's really shines. Maybe we should have done like our co-diner, who got grilled mushroom and Swiss. Perhaps you should too.— mt