We sit at the far side of the L-shaped bar in the Stumbling Goat Bistro. The dining room gleams with polished wood and silverware, light hits sparkling glassware. The ocean sounds of conversation ebb and flow. Couples lean toward each other over their plates. Groups of girlfriends laugh and toss their heads. Rain streaks the windows, but it is cozy in our corner.
We peruse the menu, looking for the Mini Grass-Fed Beef Burgers. We’ve come here with one purpose in mind—the end of the Hamburger Trail. We don’t see what we are looking for on the menu, so we ask.
“Oh sure, we’ve still got the sliders,” the bartender says. “They just aren’t on the menu anymore.”
While we sip glasses of beer and wait for our sliders, we indulge in my favorite restaurant game– making up back stories for other patrons. As we elaborate on the life story of a silver-haired gentleman eating dinner across the bar from us (widower, retired from running his own mid-sized manufacturing business, kids live far away, time hanging heavily on his hands), our food arrives.
We take the first few bites in silence.
“What do you think?” Michael asks.
“They’re good!” I reply. “I was skeptical about the onion jam after that whole bacon jam thing at Skillet, but I like these!”
Last summer, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, well known for its “Best Of” lists, ran a story called 13 Juicy Yummy downright awesome burgers that will change your life. I preemptively crossed a few off the list: Teddy’s Bigger Burgers (Woodinville is too far to go for a Hawaiian burger!), 22 Doors (Veggie burger), and Café Campagne (too chi-chi), but that still left ten stops on the burger express. We enthusiastically jumped aboard the burger train.
For the first few months, at every burger joint, we’d hear people behind us in line or at the nearby tables, talking about the hamburger trail. Fellow travelers were easy to identify. Their conversations took the same path: “Do you think this one is better than Jak’s? What about Two Bells?” “These fries aren’t as good as at Palace Kitchen.” Patrons would lean over from the next table and put in their two cents: “Have you been to Zippy’s yet? It’s awesome!” “Where have you been so far?”
It was a moveable feast indeed, a loosely knit club of fellow aficionados. But like Frodo and Sam, we’ve left our companions behind along the way, and we’re alone now at the end of our quest.
As we nibble our teensy grass-fed burgers, we reminisce about the other burgers we’ve eaten over the last few months. They were all great burgers, but some just stood out more than others.
“Jaks, Palace Kitchen, Voila Bistrot, they were all really good,” Michael said. “But I can’t remember anything special about them now.”
“Burgermaster, Red Mill—everyone knows those are just classic Seattle fast food.”
“I think Zippy’s is still my favorite.”
“That was a damn good burger.”
“And Two Bells was awesome.”
“I’d go back there any day.”
“The only one I didn’t like was Skillet. It would have been great burger, except for that Bacon Jam. The sweetness permeated the whole burger and coated my tongue. Yuck!”
“It was fun to chase Skillet down, though!” (Skillet is a mobile restaurant in an Airstream trailer that moves every day)
“It goes without saying that Spring Hill was my favorite.” Ahh, Spring Hill. I drift into a fond flashback about the best burger and fries I’ve ever eaten, or ever hope to eat. In fact, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, period. It was worth the hassle of driving to West Seattle, worth the $17 price tag. The fries were cooked in beef fat. The burger was a half pound of fresh-ground grass fed beef surrounded by two kinds of cheese, bacon, aioli…but none of these details really explain the perfect composition, the salty, drippy piece of heaven that was the transcendent Spring Hill Burger. All I can say is that it was life changing. I went from traveler to pilgrim that day, and I worship at the shrine of Spring Hill now.
With difficulty, I wrench myself back to the present.
We finish off our sliders, scrub our greasy fingers with napkins, and drain our beer glasses. As we pull on our coats, silver-hair is working on his second glass of red wine and chatting amiably with the bartender. I mentally add to his story: he’s a regular at the Stumbling Goat, knows all of the wait staff. He eats his lonely dinner at the bar here most nights, before walking back to his home on nearby Phinney Ridge, where his Corgi, Alice, eagerly awaits his return, and will curl up at his feet when he settles, with a sigh, into his favorite armchair in a pool of lamplight with a crossword puzzle, his reading glasses, and a glass of scotch.
We link arms, step out into the night, duck our heads against the wind, and dash back to the car.