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Photograph by Rory McNamara

Top Dog: David Osbourne, manager at Taylor's Refresher, slings the classic fare like a pro.

Automatic for the People

Taylor's Automatic Refresher, an oasis of burgerdom

By Sara Bir

In its former incarnation, Taylor's Refresher might have been the sort of place Jonathan Richman would write a song about. And it still is that kind of place--20th-century Americana, alive and kicking.

"Is it common for places like this to be called a 'refresher?'" asked Mr. Bir du Jour as he regarded his chicken club, which had somehow managed to perform a sandwich landslide, its contents slipping out from between the two slices of sourdough precariously holding it together. I didn't know. But it's great how the place is called Taylor's Automatic Refresher. It rings of speedy, sanitary service, modern and efficient and proletarian.

Taylor's Refresher has been around for 54 years. Lloyd Taylor opened up the place in 1949. Back then, small-town hamburger stands had no nostalgic appeal because they were very much of their time, and therefore people went there on the basis of wanting burgers, not trips down a reconstructed memory lane. Decades ago, in the days when Napa Valley wines were widely thought of as crappy, kids could head down to Taylor's for burgers that cost 24 cents.

Zoom ahead a few decades to 1999, when winemaker Joel Gott and his brother Duncan bought Taylor's and gave it an extensive facelift and expansion, adding a wine bar, moss-toned, poured-concrete counters, and very fancy canvas umbrellas over the picnic tables. There's something very tailored about Taylor's; it would not be out of place in a lavishly photographed guide book or full-color glossy magazine spread. All of its classic American pop-culture elements add up to a mini Disneyland.

Famous people eat at Taylor's, though it can't be any revelation that famous people like good fast food. In 1999 famous person and wine critic Robert Parker named Taylor's Refresher one of his most memorable meals of 1999, and soon people from all over were calling to make reservations (which, being a hamburger stand, Taylor's doesn't take).

And, despite such red flags, Taylor's Refresher is not as expensive as I had anticipated. Typically, I will avoid as much press about a restaurant as I can before eating there to keep my mind clear of intrusive notions. But I screwed up and looked at some website where a guy was yipping how he spent a 20-spot at Taylor's buying a hamburger, fries, and a milkshake.

A hamburger ($4.50), fries ($1.99), and a milkshake ($4.59)--plus a regular soda ($1.39)--is only $12.47. That's about double the price of a full dinner at the overrated In-N-Out Burger--but why would you choose In-N-Out over Taylor's? Apparently this guy hadn't gone to Wine Country; he had gone to Whine Country.

Taylor's looks so welcoming from the road, its simple white facade an oasis for weary travelers who can't stomach another acclaimed star-chef showcase restaurant and who'll puke if they swish yet another gutsy Cab in yet another monied tasting room. Accordingly, Taylor's mix of clientele is entertaining. You see well-heeled day trippers, young local kids, everyday families, and important-looking wine types. And everyone waits in line just like everyone else.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I pulled into Taylor's parking lot and noticed a tour bus had beat me to the punch. The line to the order window was painfully long, affording ample time to eavesdrop on tourist chatter. Some dude in a Hawaiian shirt stood in front of me, debating with his lady friend whether they should order wine or a milkshake. (One thing's for sure: You can't do both.)

The menu is either refreshingly eclectic or weirdly schizophrenic, depending on your mood. But overall, it's a diner with an upscale slant (the fish in the fish and chips is mahi mahi). Burgers, sandwiches, tacos, hot dogs, and "more" (the "more" being calamari, fish and chips, and chicken fingers) are at your fingertips.

When a customer's order comes up, a "bing-bing" blares over a loudspeaker like at a car wash. "Bing-bing! Sara, your shake is ready." It was a peach milkshake ($4.99, 30 cents more than a regular shake because it was a special shake, but whatever.) And mmm, it was good, frothy and not too thick, but not thin and skimpy, either. Chunks of peach kept on clogging up my straw.

The French fries came in iconic little red-and-white checkered cardboard holders, and the hamburger was wrapped in plain white paper, just so. All burgers are cooked medium-well, with a thin strata of pinkness inside the patty and the requisite amount of greasy juice.

This burger is their money shot for sure; it's a burger of a burger. The bun was a yellow-golden eggy thing, a sweet cross between Wonder Bread and brioche. Crisp pickle slices, super-fresh lettuce, tomato slices, and a creamy pink-orange "secret sauce" top the thing off. The sauce had a nice kick to it and made the burger.

The fries were good too, thinner than a pinkie finger, their skins still on, salty and very crisp.

Mr. Bir du Jour came along a few weekends later, very excited and wanting a hamburger, since I had told him in very graphic detail how wonderful they were. But the rules of restaurant reviewing preclude such decadent doubling-up, so he got the aforementioned grilled chicken club sandwich ($7.99), with Swiss cheese, bacon, romaine lettuce, tomato, and pesto mayonnaise on slices of grilled sourdough.

It's hard to eat such a sandwich, because grilled sourdough can tear up your mouth badly. He said it was "good, like a regular chicken sandwich, though the pesto mayo is nice. I wish I could have had a hamburger." Indeed. For some reason, even an exceptional chicken sandwich is nothing more than just a chicken sandwich.

A true sport, Mr. Bir du Jour was also denied fries and made do with a chopped wedge salad ($3.99), which, despite the promising Better Homes and Gardens-cookbook-circa-1952 name, was just a bunch of chopped iceberg lettuce with grated carrots and cherry tomatoes. The Thousand Island dressing was great, though. "It's spicy," Mr. Bir du Jour noted. We then made the exciting discovery that the hamburger "secret sauce" and the Thousand Island dressing were one in the same.

We split an order of onion rings ($2.99), just to squeeze in a little fried food. The puffy batter was swollen and golden, greasy and deliciously evil.

I ordered the ahi burger and the gazpacho. I almost opted for the special instead--fried cornmeal-breaded catfish with chili-dusted sweet potato fries ($7.99)--but decided to keep the deep-fry intake to a minimum.

Smart move. The ahi burger ($9.99) is served rare on the same egg bun as the regular burgers, with ginger wasabi mayonnaise and an Asian slaw. The wasabi mayo and the slaw wound up melding into a single entity, adding a heat/crunch element to the coolness of the ahi's rare center. The end result, effectively a sushi sandwich, took upscale elements and managed to stay true to a burger's roots. Burgers can be gourmet, sure, but they should always be messy and junky.

As for the gazpacho, it goes surprisingly well with fast food, and soothes under the glaring Napa Valley sun. For $4.99, you get a pint, enough to share. Taylor's version has not only cucumber, red bell pepper, red onion, and parsley in a tomato base, but also kernels of grilled corn. In the midst of onion rings and mayonnaise galore, the gazpacho's clean, chilled liquid-crunch was most welcome--though I'm not too sure how well it pairs with the Asian flavors of the ahi burger.

All over, people milled around, chomping down on burgers or sucking down those fine-ass milkshakes. It was very difficult not to order a milkshake of our own, but by the time we had finished with our real food, we were far too full. On the back lawn--which is massive, bigger than most people's yards--we had a whole picnic table to ourselves, as well as a small cluster of hangers-on bees.

Taylor's Refresher has just opened up a branch in the fancy new Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco. That's cool, I guess, though there is something comforting in the notion that Taylor's Refresher is a uniquely St. Helena experience. And it still is, if you go to the one in St. Helena, where an ahi burger reeks of sellout but tastes good enough that the point is moot.


Taylor's Automatic Refresher. 933 Main St. (Hwy. 29), St. Helena. 707.963.3486. Open daily, 11am-9pm. www.taylorsrefresher.com.

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From the July 3-9, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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