Thanks to Thrillist, a beloved Seattle dive bar became an overnight smash hit. What happens when a tiny neighborhood place makes a big nationwide “best” list? And do those lists even mean anything?
LORETTA’S NORTHWESTERNER in South Park was very surprised to find out that it serves the fourth-best hamburger in the United States of America. Loretta’s is a modest, cozy, beloved little dive bar; South Park is a Seattle neighborhood that’s still described as “gritty,” one that’s stayed that way in part because of a bridge over the polluted Duwamish River that closed and stayed closed for several years due to lack of sufficient civic impetus to fix it. (A new bridge finally opened two years ago.) If you’re a newcomer to the city, you may have never heard of South Park — some of the Seattle burger-hunters showing up at Loretta’s are admitting they hadn’t. But it goes far beyond that, with hamburger fans from as far away as South Africa now arriving on Loretta’s doorstep.
Chef/manager Steve Timlin says they had no idea that Thrillist’s “The 100 Best Burgers in America” was happening until the hamburger-seeking hordes descended. “It’s been a little hectic, I can’t lie,” he says. “We’re busy as hell.” They’ve more than doubled the amount of hamburger they sell.
Timlin calls the first frenzied weekend after the article went up online “kind of a perfect storm.” Expecting it to be slow for Memorial Day, the staff was reduced to a skeleton crew. Then, after interminable months of rain, suddenly nice weather put Loretta’s patio back in play, doubling capacity. And most suppliers were closed. “We ran out of things that we haven’t run out of in six years,” Timlin says — paper and ink for the kitchen’s order-printer, napkins. “We were kind of decimated after that weekend.” They had to stop taking to-go orders right away, and they won’t start again until further notice; they just couldn’t keep up.
8617 14th Ave. S., Seattle; 206-327-9649; on Facebook; Kitchen open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight, Sunday-Monday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; 21-and-over only; Tavern Burger also available at Star Brass Works Lounge in Georgetown (also 21+)
“I’m definitely starting to see how fast food evolved,” Timlin adds. “I’m not cutting any corners, but I can see how [the volume of] people change[s] you.” They’re still hand-cutting all their French fries, even though using frozen “would save a ton of time,” he says, a little ruefully.
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“Another drawback of the article is that it never really mentioned that we’re a bar,” Timlin notes. “We’ve been getting families rolling in with kids — ‘Sorry, we’re 21 and up.’” He feels bad, but with an operation this small, what can he do?
THE #4 BURGER IN THE COUNTRY is on the petite side, and it comes wrapped in brown paper. It’s called the Tavern Burger. It costs just $4.50. Timlin has been at Loretta’s from the beginning, when owner Scott Horrell opened it 10 years ago; the place is named after Horrell’s mother. In an era of huge, dripping, “indulgent” hamburgers, Timlin set out to capture a more unassuming archetype. “I modeled it off of what I remember as a kid in the ’70s — the kind of drive-in burger you’d get at A&W or Dairy Queen,” he recalls. “Nobody was really doing that.” The patty is on the thin side, while the bun’s a toasted white one. The Tavern Burger hits the spot in a very specific way: the char taste of the meat, bits of onion for sharpness, a little sweetness from the special sauce, pickles for tang, the particular creaminess of melty American cheese. Like Loretta’s itself — a paragon of a neighborhood bar, it’s low-ceilinged and wood-paneled, like being inside a cabin or a cigar box — it’s arguably perfect, in its own old-fashioned way.
Your mileage, of course, may vary. One friend who’s frequented Loretta’s for years calls the Tavern Burger “nothing special.” Another guy I know who lives in the neighborhood loves it in a way you’d have to call rabid. Any list of the “best” of anything is, obviously, to be regarded with skepticism. By their nature, they’re entirely arbitrary. Thrillist writer Kevin Alexander understands that; while his burger quest engulfed 330 burgers in 30 cities, he notes that he skipped whole states, and he plans yearly updates. If it helps you calibrate, the other three local places that made his top 100 are Josh Henderson’s Great State Burger, at #90; Scott Staples’ Uneeda Burger, at #67; and old-school Belltown hangout the Two Bells Tavern, at #46. (Alexander emailed me when he was on his way here for his laborious research, and one of my fancier local favorites, the burger at Renee Erickson’s Bateau, made his Seattle-specific list.) It’s worth noting that the #4 Loretta’s burger is also available at Star Brass Works Lounge in Georgetown, run by the same owner (and, also worth noting, 21-and-over as well — sorry, kids).
LAST SUNDAY AFTERNOON at Loretta’s, there was a lull in the hamburger madness. A handful of guys drank and watched baseball at the bar, hiding from the sun. Out back, members of the Loretta’s-sponsored softball team, the South Park River Ratz, relaxed in mismatched patio chairs after their athletic exertions, their gales of laughter getting a little louder with each round. Nearby, next to the permanently moored, somewhat dirty silver Airstream, some guys discussed their band, then, less happily, presidential politics. A trio of cyclists training to bike across Lithuania had stopped in for a beer; beer-drinking, they said, would be part of the trip, so they wanted to keep their preparatory rides realistic. A tranquil-looking man wore a T-shirt reading “I LOVE MY BAD ASS ATTITUDE.” The crowd was notably diverse, with more than one language other than English being spoken. None of them seemed like burger-hunters. No one took photos of their food.
But back inside, as the dinner hour approached, it began again. An older couple came in with their teenage-looking daughter, blinking in the dimness; asked for I.D., they said, “She forgot hers,” then inquired about takeout, which they were not unkindly refused.
“It’s like Dick’s in here, just pumping out burgers,” one regular said, as the interlopers departed.
“Thank god it’s my Friday,” one of the women working said, wryly. “It’s not a bar, it’s a burger hut!”
Out front, a gentleman in a red plaid shirt using a walker paused to squint at Loretta’s sandwich-board sign. “No minors please!!” it read in a chalk-scrawl. “Valid I.D. only.”
“I was born before they had I.D.,” he said, laughing, and made his way inside.