Burger wars in Virginia-Highland

Settling the beef between feuding neighborhood joints

Almost 20 years ago, Tom Murphy moved his very popular but out-of-sight deli to its present front-and-center location at the corner of North Highland and Virginia avenues. It's hard to describe the brouhaha that erupted when Murphy's moved.

There was the shock at the fancy new ambiance and complaints that the restaurant's sheer appearance overwhelmed its funky neighbors such as Taco Mac and Capo's (R.I.P.). Above all, there were huge conflicts with the neighborhood association about parking. Eventually, it all calmed down. But the restaurant signaled a milestone in the gentrification of a formerly somewhat bohemian intown 'hood.

Now there's something of a repetition of that time with the occupation of the facing corner by Yeah! Burger (1017 N. Highland Ave., 404-437-7845). It's the second restaurant in Shaun Doty's new chain of gourmet burgers featuring grass-fed beef. It does provide some parking out front but its instant popularity has certainly helped fill up available spaces in the area.

It has, like Murphy's, also produced some resentment. Most famously, the 60-year-old Moe's & Joe's (1033 N. Highland Ave., 404-873-6090) installed a snarky banner in November that asked, "What's Next — Applebee's?" It bears mention that Moe's & Joe's is itself part of a trendy chain, although it has maintained its slightly shabby ambiance and cluster of red-eyed daytime drinkers.

I lived in Virginia-Highland off and on for about eight years. Even though the burger craze annoys me at this point, I thought it would be fun to revisit the corner there and check out the burgers. Of course, I started with Yeah! Burger, whose original location has made a mediocre impression on me. The first night we visited the newer location, we had to leave. It was so crowded that there was a 45-minute wait for food after it was ordered.

When we returned a few days later we had no wait. (I should mention we arrived eight minutes before closing.) I ordered a grass-fed burger with bacon and cheddar. I must say it tasted a lot better than those I've sampled at the other location. That was probably helped by the fact that I didn't dump any of the custom sauces on it. They are mainly too strong for the subtle flavor.

Wayne ordered a Buffalo burger, covered in one of the custom sauces, and made happy faces. Fries were regrettably limp. I also ordered an overpriced ($5.49) "concrete" — a cup of soft-serve ice cream blended with Heath bars. It was delicious but I get the same thing, basically, at Zesto for just more than $2.

After our first visit to Yeah! Burger, we walked over to George's Restaurant and Bar (1041 N. Highland Ave., 404-892-3648). George Najour opened the bar, also a deli then, in 1961. It did not begin serving food until 1983 and the original George's Burger became a neighborhood favorite.

During our visit last week, I ordered the Angus burger with Canadian bacon and Swiss cheese. I have to say, it instantly reminded me that conventionally raised beef — as awful as its origins are now — has a much stronger flavor than the grass-fed variety. The burger here was, to my taste, superior to Yeah! Burger's, as were the fries. Wayne, who ordered the burger with blue cheese, bacon and Buffalo sauce, agreed. (I did not like the taste of the sauce myself.)

Next up: Lunch at Moe's & Joe's, the scene of some of my more picturesque drinking back in the '80s. I sat in a booth directly beneath a photograph of Virginia-Highland by Panorama Ray, the infamous Cabbagetown photographer of a few decades back. I was drowning in nostalgia.

I ordered the Highland burger with pimento cheese, bacon and chopped jalapeños. (The kitchen here obviously has a taste for spicy food; chipotle and Buffalo sauces are also available.) The burger was flavorful but the bun didn't hold up. This was all the more annoying since I was given no silverware and didn't see any in the service area. So, I scooped up the messy, falling-apart last quarter of the burger with my fingers.

My final visit to the corner was to try the burger at Highland Tap (1026 N. Highland Ave., 404-875-3673), which opened in 1989 in a subterranean space with an entrance stairway that makes handicapped access difficult. But worse than that, when you open the door you will be hit in the face by an overwhelming cloud of smoke billowing about the bar. I had to sit in the very back of the restaurant — as far from the bar as possible — to breathe, but my eyes still watered and my nose ran.

My burger, however, was good. For the sake of comparison to Moe's & Joe's, I ordered one of the 10-ounce steak burgers with pimento cheese and bacon. The plate included the exceptional condiment of sweet roasted onions. The meat was hickory-grilled and I'd say the burger was my favorite except for one problem: It had way too much pimento cheese on it. It squirted out the sides with every bite. There was so much on the plate, I could have used it as a dip for the decent fries, cooked with the skin left on the potatoes.

The No. 1 burger at the corner? It was George's. But Yeah! Burger, like Murphy's, will no doubt become an institution itself.

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