by Jim Ridley
Since it opened last month across from Whole Foods in Green Hills, I’ve been to Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries three times now. That’s more times than I’ve ordered a burger from McDonald’s—or any other nationwide fast-food chain—in the past 15 years. Life is too short, and arteries too narrow, to shave precious minutes from your existence with a fat-soaked beer coaster on a bun. After years of close encounters with Big Macs and (shudder) Krystal’s, you sometimes forget what a thing of unadorned wonder a humble cheeseburger can be.
Five Guys, though, is the closest thing I’ve ever had at a restaurant to a home-cooked burger—or more to the point, to the ideal of a home-cooked burger that I can never quite measure up to. The thing I like most about it is its Spartan simplicity. They serve burgers. Period. Well, OK, hot dogs—but there are no ill-advised attempts at chicken-parm sandwiches or pita pockets or wraps or what have you. They zero in on doing one thing extremely well, rather than attempt many things poorly.
Five Guys is pretty much the opposite of Red Robin, the busy chain (with a menu to match) that’s been packing the joint in Murfreesboro. Red Robin is the California Pizza Kitchen of ground beef: pick a food trend or national cuisine, and it’s bound to have a fill-in-the-blank burger that corresponds. (I don’t remember seeing pomegranate, but I’m sure it occurred to somebody.) At Five Guys, the biggest novelty is grilled onions and mushrooms among the free fixin’s. The rest is as low-tech and no-frills as the room’s Circuit City pick-up-counter ambience. Your choice, basically, is how big do you want that burger.
Not as big as the regular, I’d recommend—and I say that as an unabashed glutton. The tinfoil-wrapped regular is two patties deep, delicious but unwieldy, and it left me uncomfortably stuffed. Especially since a “small” order of (excellent) fries looks like somebody opened up a chute from a French-fry silo over the serving cup. I picked almost as many more out of the grease-soaked brown paper sack that is the joint’s trademark. (On another visit, a single large order fed my entire family of four and then some.) The “little” bacon cheeseburger was both cheaper (at $4.29 as opposed to $5.39) and less daunting, and it let me enjoy all the components—chiefly crisp, fresh breakfast-suitable bacon and a patty literally dripping with flavor—without any sense of diminishing pleasure.
The pail of peanuts on every table was a huge hit with my kids, although throughout the room you could see people worrying what to do with the shells. (Put them on the floor? What is this, Antioch?) Which points out my one problem with Five Guys: the faint whiff of institutional fun that hangs over the place, starting with the forced “automatic” greeting every time someone enters—a bellow from the front counter that immediately made me think I was getting collared for shoplifting. Like the bar-code minimalist décor, it tries so hard to establish a mood of no pretense that it comes off as slightly pretentious, or at least awkward.
Five Guys should just let the burgers set the mood. Happy people serving and eating well-prepared food will create the proper ambience. And while I agree that the last thing Nashville needs is another chain—for burgers on the fly, we’ve already got local hero Fat Mo’s, whose peppery patties easily surpass their bigfoot competitors—I think I’m on my way to becoming a sixth guy.