A recent poll declaring Dick’s the city’s best burger divided us into two camps: Those who love it, and those who cannot even begin to understand the appeal. Our homegrown food writer explains.
Last week, a legally binding, 100-percent-scientific Seattle Times poll settled it, once and for all: Dick’s Drive-In makes Seattle’s best hamburger. First, every citizen with teeth taste-tested every hamburger available within city limits. Then Nate Silver consulted on a meddling-proof online platform (we’ll be sharing this technology with the U.S. government). Voting was compulsory, with noncompliance resulting in never getting to eat a hamburger again. And voilà: Dick’s — or Ricardo’s, as we locals like to call it when we’re feeling fancy — was declared, incontrovertibly, the best burger in all the land.
OK, so that didn’t happen. The poll was bracket-style, and it only included burger joints, which is why your favorite burger from [insert non-burger-joint restaurant here] was not an option. And while my colleague Tan Vinh and I ate and judged the Final Four — just for fun and because we love burgers — we refrained from taking responsibility for the controversial burger-joint-selection and subsequent burger-bracket-building. We know a people-are-going-to-yell-at-you-on-social-media scenario when we see one.
Of the Final Four — Dick’s, Li’l Woody’s, Red Mill and Uneeda Burger — Tan and I loved, loved, LOVED Uneeda Burger the most. It’s the only one cooked to order (ours was the platonic ideal of medium-rare); it’s made with Painted Hills beef. It was stacked tall, juicy and meaty, fresh-tasting and glorious. And the basic quarter-pounder cheeseburger is a bargain at $6, tasting like a fine steakhouse one at almost fast-food prices.
But we — just the two of us, like-minded in almost all matters of taste — could not actually agree on which burger was “best.” The notion of a group of people selecting the best, whether it be a hamburger or a candidate for office, is clearly rife with flaws, logistical and otherwise. The moment a team is crowned the champion, as they spray each other with Champagne, the likelihood of retaining the title begins to recede. Likewise, a “best” award for an actor, writer and so on is a fleeting, temporal thing (though it does introduce the possibility of eventual induction into the canon — no pressure! Also, by then, they’re dead).
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My mom’s rhubarb pie is, in fact, the best. The rhubarb flourishes in prehistoric proportions in her garden; the filling is a sticky, sweet-tart masterpiece that caramelizes where it bubbles up at the edge of the crust; and the crust itself is perfect. Would the rhubarb pie made by a pastry chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant be better? To you, probably. My best is not your best. Best is deeply personal; best is absolutely subjective. The best, at its best, is about familiarity — when you’re lucky enough to have something marvelous, over and over, over the years. It’s about loyalty, and about pride. The best is love.
This is what newcomers and naysayers can learn about the people of Seattle from the choice of Dick’s as our city’s best burger: We’re voting with our hearts, not our minds. Nor, some would say, our taste buds — and we can admit that a flat, dryish Dick’s burger bears very, very little resemblance to the plump, beautiful Uneeda burger described above. (Another issue with proclaiming the “best” is this kind of cross-category comparison: Cannot fast-food Dick’s, slightly less fast-food Burgermaster, and chef-driven/approaching-upscale Uneeda all be fantastic, in their own way? Not to mention the madly magical high-end-restaurant hamburger at Bateau. But onward!)
Those of us who grew up with Dick’s know our order, and its proper parlance, by heart. Mine’s “Cheese, fries, two tartars, two ketchups, please.” (If you’re a hamburger or cheeseburger person, instead of a Special or Deluxe person, you know to get extra condiments — 5 cents each — to combat the dryness factor.) I’ve said this hundreds of times in my life, and what I get makes me happy every time. My first visit was during a grade-school sleepover: a pinnacle of fun. In high school, we’d race in somebody’s car from Garfield over to Dick’s on Broadway for lunch multiple times a week — the Dick’s price point is a teenager’s friend. And a friend back then worked at Dick’s on 45th, and after school, or after parties, or any aimless time, we’d go see if he was there.
A job at Dick’s has always been a respectable one, because Dick’s treats its workers with respect. Owner Dick Spady — who opened the original Dick’s in 1954, the one on 45th in Wallingford — took pride in offering the highest pay in the industry, and in providing 100-percent-paid health-insurance coverage, and in giving more than $1 million in scholarships to employees. Dick Spady departed this Earth in 2016; his heirs spoke out against $15-an-hour in 2014 and, more recently, the proposed Seattle head tax. The new minimum wage doesn’t seem to have hampered the company — planned expansion north and south continues, with a seventh Dick’s on the way in Kent.
Whether you want your burger with or without politics, Dick’s is a part of the culture of Seattle. It’s been celebrated by artists such as Sir Mix-A-Lot, Macklemore and Blue Scholars. It’s part of prom nights and wedding parties. Piles of its burgers sometimes show up as the catering at theaters and galleries. Its low prices — cheeseburger: $1.90 — keep it egalitarian in a city that’s less and less so. You can get Dick’s delivered by DoorDash now, but the orange-and-blue color scheme, cursive logo and retro aesthetic have wisely, beautifully stayed the same.
Does In-N-Out/Shake Shack/insert-your-faraway-favorite-here taste better? We who love Dick’s can admit that’s entirely possible — probable, even. Would we eat a burger from one of those places right now? Yes, we totally would — and some of us will line up for Shake Shack when it opens in South Lake Union. Can we still be friends? Yes! Of course! Tan thinks Dick’s is terrible, and I can absolutely accept his wrongness.
Dick’s is Seattle’s hometown hero. Dick’s means something to us, and in a world of homogenized, global chains, it means even more. Do we eat at Dick’s all the time? No, but we know Dick’s is there for us, true-orange-and-blue. I wasn’t joking when I said that the sight of a crow picking at the instantly recognizable Dick’s cheeseburger wrapper makes me want one immediately (a Dick’s cheeseburger, not a crow). The words “Changing a twenty!” make people like me hungry, as does that big, weird painting of a cow that looks like it’s standing in a bed of French fries (I think it’s supposed to be hay?). A Dick’s hot-fudge sundae with peppermint-stick ice cream is not organic or artisanal or any of that; it is, factually, the best, when you’re eating it.
Dick’s might not be, objectively, great. But it is perfect.