According to some long-forgotten wag, the three most important things for a business are location, location, and location. If so, the exception that proves the rule is Marcus Burger, a small diner and hamburger joint across the street from Federal Pipe & Supply Company on a sleepy stretch of East McNichols Road. Of course, we don’t doubt that, once upon a time, the greasy spoon used to pack ’em in when this industrial part of Detroit was running full-tilt, but — how times change.
Marcus Burger has been in business for an astonishing 85 years, having opened in 1929.
What accounts for this joint's staying power?
Hamburgers shaped like rectangles.
Yes, they make their patties so they fit neatly into a puffy hot dog bun. (Oddly, the old back-lit sign in the restaurant shows a typical hamburger, round bun and patty.) It's a gimmick they attribute to one fabled day when somebody bought the wrong kind of buns, causing the cook to improvise. Whether it's true or an old wives' tale is open to speculation, but it still brings them in.
That said, Marcus Burger is justifiably proud of their patties. They grind their own beef, and the waitress stressed that they remove much of the fat. The patties seem to be cooked in a vat, then the grease is pressed out, thanks to a little deft use of a spatula. The oblong patty is couched in a steamed hot dog bun, plated, and delivered to diners at the counter, where standard condiments include ketchup, mustard, a dish of relish, and a dish of diced white onions.
For the purposes of Burger Quest, we try to have as standard a burger as possible, without cheese or exotic toppings, so we had ours medium-well sans cheese. That said, they do amazing things with humble American cheese. Our co-diner had a cheeseburger and it looked squirted with squeeze-cheese, but we learned they apply the cheese, then put the whole burger into the steamer, where the cheese melts and runs a bit wild. It looked quite good.
But, forgoing those pleasures, we topped ours with ketchup, mustard, and diced onion, and downed two in that fashion. One would have sufficed; the unusual shape of the burger can trick you into thinking that one is anything less than a meal in itself.
When the fries arrived, yellow but not golden, we almost wished we had asked for them well-done, but Marcus Burger's fries are deceptive, fried long enough to give them a good crunch but not long enough to brown. We finished the whole plate, surprised at the ordinary done well.
Of course, there's much more than burgers at Marcus Burger (though everybody must try the house novelty at least once). The menu encompasses sandwiches, salads, and such dinners as meat loaf, roast beef, veal cutlets, and more, including breakfast all day. The chili is very good, with real beef, red beans, and an almost gravy-like richness. Good enough to save the oyster crackers for later, anyway.
The ambience is old-timey and appealing, with such features as old fans, ancient stools, and a blue counter that surrounds the cooking area in an unusual way, swooping out in semicircles to accommodate even more diners. When we arrived, the lunch crowd seemed sparse. It could probably fit 100 diners in, though, so most of the time it looks emptier than it should.
On the day we came, a diverse crowd dropped in, some waiting for takeout, some gathered at the counter to discuss the flooding on the east side. We even saw one very old woman being squired to a seat by a middle-aged couple, perhaps an old diner from the 20th century looking for a taste of the past?
She definitely came to the right place.