Regional food specialties
-The Old School Burgers of Detroit, Michigan
The stories and pictures of Detroit that those outside of there see remain ones of abandoned buildings, crime and bankruptcy. However those that have followed my posts here (check part one of this series HERE and part two HERE ) know that those stories are only half of it. The other is the places and people that remain. We know about the Motor City's deep affection for Coney Dogs but there's another love and it's as much about the buildings as the food. In a city where architecture is strong, the slider shops stand out. Beautiful white enamel buildings sitting in the same place, most for over 50 years, nothing except maybe the prices have changed. "Sliders" are what locals they call the burgers that these spots put out, many do so 24 hours a day. Not as small as a White Castle slider nor steamed these are more like your typical 1930's style smashed burger with grilled onions, the type you used to find everywhere. The style McDonalad's has made billions on. This is actually a couple years worth of round-ups but I'm confident in saying not much if anything has changed at these places. There's a reason they've survived time. For many they bring back memories of better times. Plus the greasy burgers are good.
I cant figure out when Sonny's got it's start but there are two locations and this one is within city limits on Schoolcraft road. In an area where not much else remains, this beautiful building still stands and the local folks still flood the place. Great atmosphere inside here, as good as any I stopped in at. I didn't get a snap of their longtime grill but it sits right behind the counter by the register and must be 5x5 feet at max. I witnessed a funny exchange between a mother and her child who was impatient with the wait. "I'm gonna eat your sliders" if you don't start behaving. She hushed up real quick. I'm usually a no ketchup on my burger guy but sometimes forget to mention it as I did here but I actually kind of liked it on there. I could see myself eating these at later hours, theyre open 24/7. I walked out with a t-shirt that cost me a buck less than my six pack of cheeseburgers ($6).
Cheeseburgers from Sonny's______________________________________________
This classic grease pit is one of the only spots on this round-up that sports a coca-caola sign, the rest prefer Pepsi. They've been around since 1944 and have another location in Madison Heights. It's an all night diner but the coffee and dirt cheap mini burgers are their most popular items. An article from The Metro Times circa 2002 says the building itself has been around for 78 years which would mean it's pushing 90 these days but that seems a little old for this style. There's only about eight seats inside, none of these spots have tables, most of the business comes from the take out window on the other side of the entrance.
All the spots featured offer bags of burgers which must of been the preferred way of ordering them back when lunch time hit at the factories. These days it's still a popular spot and two guesses for why would be it's still a spot where one can fill up with just a few bucks and also there must be quite a few who grew up on them. Because they weren't my favorite. Mushy is the best way to describe them. Not inedible but definitely different. I guess I could see enjoying them if they brought back pleasant memories of better days in Detroit.
Over by the river in Southwest Detroit is one of the cities longest tenured burger makers. Motz's Burgers has been around since 1929 and with the exception of price they haven't changed a thing. Same customers, same service. These burgers are bigger than all the rest featured on here. Not large but definitely not small balls of beef are smashed on their longtime griddle with the smell of the onions being abundant inside and out. Common trend from all these spots is the use of cheap picnic buns which I don't really mind because the beef shines. Motz's is often mentioned on "best burgers in America" lists and while I've always said those are impossible, there's a reason they've been around for over eight decades and get mentions, its really good.
Cheeseburger from Motz's______________________________________________
You'll find Elmer's off the beaten path located deep on the cities west side. Located in an area where there used to be seven steel plants within a couple miles. The only other business still around is a nite-club and I'm sure most everyone from there goes to Elmer's when last call is over. It’s been open 24/7 for the last 50 years. Originally there were two but nowadays just this one. Its run by a couple and their kids who took it over from their grandparents. The one thing that has changed here I read, is the bulletproof glass as robberies got all too common in the 70's. Judging by the "systems" text on the outside I'm guessing Elmer took this place over from one of the many White Castle spawns that came around when it was taking the country by storm. I didn't sample these burgers all one by one within a small time frame but I remember Elmer's as much as any other. Another thing all these spots have in common is grease at the bottom of the brown bag they come in, not to mention the covered walls at all. Elmer's makes a fresh but certainly not lean hand smashed patty that comes with an extra black pepper kick, grilled onions and pickles. Old school doesn't get much better, both in taste and atmosphere.
Elmer's Extra Peppery Cheeseburger______________________________________________
This beautiful structure in downtown Hamtramck was originally a White Tower. One of the many who tried to claim White Castles crown they were founded in Milwaukee in 1926 according to Wikipedia. It also mentions that In 1929, White Tower put 30 locations in Detroit alone. So it's possible this structure goes back to then. At their high point White Tower had 230 locations in a handful of states. I learned the last of the White Towers is in Toledo (Ohio) but there's still a handful of buildings up including this one which I believe is still 24 hours. Your odds of having a normal experience at these places aren't as high as your average fast food joint because of this. Of course I had an interesting incident here. Menu was widespread and I noticed they had "sliders" listed on top of the cheeseburgers which came with a nice heaping helping of rehydrated onions ala WC. Both under the cheese and at the bottom of the bun. Anyone that appreciates the old school 30's style burger documented HERE by Sky Full of Bacon will appreciate most of these spots, the fresh but never lean beef spots anyway. Campau included.
Campau Tower Cheeseburger______________________________________________
The Giant System
Dearborn Heights, MI
Unfortunately this spot has been under renovation on my last two attempts to visit. But gotta look at the good and at least it's not being torn down. Some stuff on the web seems to trace this spot back to somewhere around 1950. There's not much more on it out there.
Lincoln Park, MI
This beautiful building and the Carter's name have been around for over 50 years. As was the case here you can expect the employees to be long time workers at most everyone of these spots. Also the case for all, whoever lives nearby is a regular. Many of these places are social gathering spots as much as they are eating establishments.
a peak inside
The burger here comes pre-formed but it is a fresh patty used. When they throw them them on the griddle they really sizzle. Something unique I noticed here compared to others was that they toast the bottom part of the bun. Their menu is large and Thursday is Coney day (.99). All their soups, chili and cakes are homemade.
Cheeseburger from Carter's______________________________________________
Hunter House Hamburgers
Hunter House Hamburgers was established in 1952. They've been going strong ever since. You know you're near when the grilled onion smell is in the air. It's probably the most well known resident in Birmingham, a suburb where many of Detroit's best athletes live. You can still catch some top notch car shows and eat their famous "sliders" inside their beautiful porcelain diner.
a peak inside
Meat is coming from the same local butcher as the current owners parents used back when they got started. Who knows how many pounds of onions they've smashed into that beef but it must be in the millions because these are some really wonderful burgers in that change nothing type of way. The folks working the grill here were way younger than any of the other spots, it must be a popular high school summertime gig, but they did a great job with the burgers. The thick kosher deli sliced pickles were best of the bunch.
Hunter House Cheeseburgers______________________________________________
They've been going strong here since 1959. Like Hunter House the inside here was really well kept and every stool was taken during my visit. I found it best to get them from the pick-up window and eat but Bate's had a sign saying that's a no-no. I rebelled. All good, these style of burgers go down quick.
Cheeseburger from Bate's Burgers______________________________________________
The Greene's name has been around since the late 1950's. There were a few around the Detroit area for a while but just this one in Farmington remains. You know the drill by now, fresh beef with tons of onions smashed into them.
They probably handled the onions here better than anyone else, I don't know if it's because they load them on or their using a specific type, Spanish seemed to be preferred at most spots, but these were some potent burgers. Locals were sitting at the stools ordering them up like they were beer "I'll take another when you get a chance hun"
20001 Schoolcraft Rd
Detroit, MI 48223
6820 Michigan Ave
Detroit, MI 48210
7208 W Fort St
Detroit, MI 48209
8515 W Chicago
Detroit, MI 48204
10337 Joseph Campau Avenue
Hamtramck, MI 48212
21944 Van Born Rd
Dearborn Heights, MI 48125
2908 Fort St
Lincoln Park, MI 48146
Hunter House Hamburgers
35075 Woodward Ave
Birmingham, MI 48009
33406 5 Mile Rd
Livonia, MI 48154
24155 Orchard Lake Rd
Farmington, MI 48336
Wow, I had no idea that Detroit was such a repository not only of old burger joints-- that I could have guessed-- but so many surviving examples of the architecture from this or that "system" for making burgers.
You've been to Power's in Fort Wayne, right? We went there on a recent trip and my younger son LOVED it, seriously suggests that we take a road trip there for lunch (don't think he comprehends quite how far it was). I think it's not just the burger but his Lego-fueled mind loves the idea of basically a burger-machine building, so engineered and precise. We will have to check some of these out.
Thanks for checking. Powers is great, theirs are more like sliders than all of these which are basically the size of McD's burgers. Def in the 30's style, all these buildings are amazing, hopefully they stay up forever.
bates and greenes are institutions. you've struck gold.......enoy
I had no idea there were so many of these burger joints anywhere, and it is nice to see a different side of Detroit than we usually see on the news.
Thank you so much for spending the time to share them with us- I'm adding a bunch of burger shaped pins to my Retro Roadmap list of places to check out when we're in your neck of the woods!
A correction: The Carter's Hamburgers pictured in the article is in Dearborn on the corner of Outer Drive and Southfield Freeway.
My Wife is a native of Birmingham/Southfield and we made it to Hunter House on our last visit ( I had never been!! ). Definitely worth the trip.
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