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[whitespace] Man At Burger Bar
Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

The Last Burger Bar

By Eric A. Carlson

I have dined at 21 in New York, Casa Botin in Madrid--where Hemingway celebrated the roast suckling pig, Ernie's in San Francisco and the swank spots of San Jose. There is no better food anywhere--anywhere--than that served up at the Burger Bar.

--David Hickey, Rhodes scholar and gastronome

SHOWCASE DOWNTOWN SAN JOSE reflected opulently in my rear-view mirror as I motored south on Market Street toward the last remaining Burger Bar. Market Street dovetails into First Street before crossing under Highway 280, close to baleful arms-crossed Dealin' Dollar Dan, into immaculately preserved 1950s San Jose-old Goose Town. I mushed in, past liquor stores as faded as marsh reeds, past The 5-Spot Drive-In, past motels unpainted for 50 years--the Tiki Lei Suite surviving ghostlike on a faded billboard. Past tavern and gas station and gray men. And then ... at the schizophrenic intersection of First and Second and Keyes and Goodyear (look at a map, it's true)--The Burger Bar--"Buyem by the Bagful"--beautiful Burger Bar.

On Friday the 13th, March 1953, Albert A. Berger (1917-1998) opened for business at 1101 First St. with the heartfelt desire to sell good food at a reasonable price. Over the millennia, thousands of San Jose State students, truckers (a whopping-big parking lot for manly big-rigs) and hardscrabble folks from the neighborhood have sated themselves with Albert's "buyem" deals. "Burgers--10 for $1.00" was the original lure. It still attracts at five for $3.65. By 1985, Albert ruled an empire of five Burger Bars and 25 Burger Pits, scattered over the valley floor like precious gems. Now, only the hallowed fire-engine-red Burger Bar on First and the Burger Pit at the corner of Kooser and Blossom Hill remain. Paul Berger, Albert's son, has managed the family business since 1986.

I joined Paul, his brother Alan, and Alan's son Albie at one of the umbrella-topped blue tables lining the fashionable alfresco sidewalk section of the Burger Bar. The tables are rooted in cement--primarily due to a nasty incident that occurred in 1963 when a car caromed out of control and into the Burger Bar, costing a woman her legs. "One of the reasons my dad put in the tables was to block the cars from coming into the building," Paul noted. "I would say that there is at least one traffic accident a day at this intersection."

As a Kawasaki blurred down First Street, Paul and Alan revealed pertinent details of the neighborhood. "The brick building you see on Keyes was Gustin Motors--a Packard dealership," Paul mused, "and the bar across the street, The Place, was once a set for a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg--as a biker." (Must catch that one some time.) Alan added, "The Pizza Hut over there used to be a Winchell's Donut House that every cop in San Jose used to hang out at."

Opposite the Burger Bar, on the final filament of Second Street, a bulldozer pushed mounds of what used to be the Park View Motel into a really big mound of old motel parts. I suspect one of the finest signs in San Jose may be at the bottom of the heap--the splendiferous Park View diving-dame neon sign. A Wyndam Hotel will emerge, supporting the theory that "all change is for the worse."

I asked Paul why the Burger Bar was painted rooster-red. "My dad painted it that color because if you're driving down the street you see it a mile away." And you do.

I have dined at Vahl's in Alviso, Original Joe's where the service is stylishly rude, and The Fountain Restaurant in the great and grand Fairmont Hotel, and you will not find a better bang for the buck than the Burger Bar. Though be forewarned: Paul informed me that every item on the menu will be going up--a benefit of rising PG&E costs. I did not detect love in Paul's voice when he said "PG&E."

Final Note No. 1: Graciela says she never eats at the Burger Pit because "Pit" doesn't sound appetizing.

Final Note No. 2: When Albert Berger opened the Burger Bar in 1953, the population of San Jose was 77,000.

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From the February 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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