Gridiron Burgers

Here's one burger joint where the Vol décor doesn't overwhelm the food

Locally-owned Gridiron Burgers has been open in two locations (Turkey Creek and Clinton Highway) for a while, but neither location is convenient for me—and I'm not a football fan, and I don't eat burgers very often. What got my attention was the recent announcement that Gridiron will be opening next to the Regal Riviera Cinema on Gay Street. The buzz accompanying that news motivated me head to Turkey Creek to check it out.

Expecting an orange-filled Vol-driven décor, I was pleasantly surprised at how tastefully the gridiron theme was expressed. Large sepia-toned photographs of great moments in UT football, toffee-colored leather upholstery, dark brown stained concrete floors, tan walls, and chocolate brown wooden tables and chairs give warmth to the casual dining room. There's an orange stripe across a timeline depicting highlights from 1926-2006, but otherwise, it's all neutrals and earth tones and flat-screen TVs.

The theme is carried over to the menu, which lists burgers with names such as "The Option" and "The Hand-Off." Side items are called "Audibles"; burger toppings are called "Extra Points"; beverages, including beer, are listed in a section called "Water Break." I haven't seen this many cutesy names since Hawkeye's Corner closed. There's an Angus beef hot dog (‘The Pigskin") and a chicken sandwich ("Personal Fowl"), but the restaurant's focus is burgers, including a turkey burger ("Pass Interference") and mini-burgers ("The Rookie").

I stuck with burgers on my two visits, figuring the test of a place is how well it does with its specialty. On our first visit we ordered "The Gridiron Classic" (a cheeseburger topped with fried onion rings and "signature Gridiron sauce") and "The Special Play," the weekly burger special, which was a veggie burger when we visited. We shared orders of onion rings and French fries. I found out later you can get a half-and-half order, which is a great way for two people to share both without totaling pigging out.

You order at the counter, but the food is brought to the table. I considered the slight wait for the food a good sign. Cooking food to order takes longer than grabbing it from a heat tray. Besides, waiting for our baskets gave me time to count the televisions, spot the apostrophe error in the timeline, and inspect the private party room with football-shaped table dubbed (of course) "The Sky Box."

The Gridiron Classic ($5.49) was a basic cheeseburger on a multi-grain bun with most of the flavor coming from the sauce, a slightly chunky concoction with a hint of vinegar, and some from the sharp cheddar. The thick veggie burger ($5.79) was so moist it fell apart. A veggie burger with the perfect ratio of moistness and firmness is tricky business. With flecks of carrots, yellow squash, zucchini, onions, and red bell pepper, this burger had some texture, but it was a little mushy inside.

The French fries were hot and salty, thin and crispy, with visible peel and no grease. The thin, mild onion rings were perfectly battered—light and crunchy. I boosted the flavor by dipping them in the gridiron sauce.

I went back intending to try the "Hail Mary" ($5.99), with sauteed onions, mushrooms, Sweetwater Valley Cheese, and bacon, but I couldn't resist the burger special: chipotle mayonnaise, bacon, onion, lettuce, tomato, and topped with a sauce of cream cheese and roasted jalapeños. When I bit into it, there was a spurt of juice and an explosion of flavor—not an intense burn, but a smoky, peppery wave of pleasure. I don't know if specials are repeated, but I'm hoping so since I'd like to have that one again.

With prices on all items in the $4-6 range and "fast casual service," Gridiron Burgers should be a welcome addition to the growing restaurant mix downtown. It seems likely to appeal to families and to those looking for a quick meal that's higher quality than standard fast food fare. Football fans will enjoy the atmosphere and the sports coverage, and I'll be keeping my eye on the weekly specials. m