Tuna tartare $11
Fried oysters $8
Organic chicken wings $8
In hindsight, it all seems so simple — the formula for an energetic, family-friendly neighborhood restaurant, that is. First, you need an energetic neighborhood. Then you need a friendly family. Throw in a roster of favorite foods made from a larder of local ingredients. Serve it in a bustling, sunlit room, on handmade wooden tables, with menus pasted inside children's books and cocktails mixed with seasonal produce. Voilà! A recipe that has everyone asking, "What took you so long?"
In the case of the long-awaited Burger Up, the energetic neighborhood is 12South, the friendly family is Miranda Whitcomb Pontes and Mike Pontes, and the menu is a succinct, eclectic list anchored by burgers made with Triple L Ranch beef.
The Williamson County cattle farm owned by three generations of the Lee family was the catalyst for Burger Up. After opening Frothy Monkey coffeehouse on 12th Avenue South in 2004, Whitcomb Pontes started thinking about a restaurant featuring grass-fed beef, lamb and chicken sourced from around Nashville. In November 2008, she signed a lease in the 12th & Paris building, which was under development, and she got a small loan to start on the burger business.
For every beef bull, there is a bear market, and no sooner had word gotten out about the restaurant than the economy went south and funding dried up. For the next year, the Burger Up plan quieted down, but Whitcomb Pontes carried on building a network of local suppliers, including Avalon Acres in Hohenwald, which supplies eggs; Peaceful Pastures in Hickman, which supplies lamb; and Wedge Oak Farm in Lebanon, which supplies chicken. Meanwhile, she strategized with DAAD architects, who designed 12th & Paris, to create a modern-rustic aesthetic of exposed brick, concrete and wood cladding, with finishes from (n)habit, the eco-friendly design store up the street. (The room is furnished with tables and stools made by her husband from wood recovered from her grandfather's barn in Louisiana. One exception is the table near the window by the patio. That long wooden piece came from the Ponteses' home kitchen, and on our visit it still hid some of their knickknacks in the drawers.)
The long wait to the launch only seemed to whet the appetite of the neighborhood, and by the time the Ponteses unveiled their casual corner restaurant in May, 12Southers and the locavore community in general were standing in line salivating. In the first month, the buzz hasn't died down. At lunch, cars line the intersection that was once a nondescript crossroads, and a steady stream of pedestrians stroll between Burger Up and neighbors Las Paletas and Green Light Organic Grocery. The dinner crowd starts showing up early, with many a 12South toddler arriving by jog-stroller to flip through Where the Wild Things Are and chew on chicken fingers while Mommy and Daddy sip mojitos and beer. As the witching hour gives way to pajama time, strollers disembark, and the kitchen churns out more cocktails and crab cakes than grilled cheeses and PB&Js. (Burger Up was the first restaurant to seat my family of ankle-biters at a communal table next to a kid-free twosome on date night. The seating arrangement worked great for us. I can only hope it worked as well for the romantic couple.)
In the first few weeks, we heard repeatedly that the restaurant was so busy the kitchen and service had trouble keeping up. That's a commonplace criticism for a new eatery. What's uncommon is how many of those people we heard complaining were also quick to return. Apparently, diners are willing to forgive a few opening missteps when everything else — from food quality to atmosphere — is so unusually good.
As the restaurant's name implies, chef Chris Hyler & Co. do indeed elevate the beef and bun — and everything in between. Sam Tucker, an alumnus of Watermark and F. Scott's, arrives daily to make the bread. Based on a classic brioche recipe, the fluffy bap is sturdy enough to hold up to the toppings and sauces, such as cherry-sage aioli and cilantro-lime crème fraîche, while not overwhelming the juicy beef, lamb or turkey. If you're wondering what gives Burger Up burgers such a light — dare we say "airy" — texture, it's a paddle mixer, which folds air into the ground meat, making it positively fluffy. In our experience, the lamb burger (with peppermint Dijon, wilted arugula and Boursin) and the Woodstock (beef patty topped with bacon from Viola, Tenn., smoked by Benton's Hams) were the most intriguing burgers. Meanwhile, the quinoa-and-black bean patty disappointed, with a mushy texture like thick hummus on a bun. Perhaps a little more time on the grill would have crisped the exterior for a more toothsome bite. All burgers come with French fries, but it's worth the extra dollar to upgrade to sweet potato fries, whose papery crisp skins give way to a texture of orange custard.
One diner who works around the corner confessed that he has already been to Burger Up so many times that he's had to restrict himself to salads and lighter meals. Fortunately, that leaves plenty of selection. Fives salads, including Caesar, baby spinach, roasted beet and a wedge, can be upgraded with grilled shrimp, seared tuna or chicken, and the toppings on the salads read like a shopping list of local delicacies: Tennessee Sweetwater cheddar, Benton's bacon balsamic vinaigrette and fried Noble Springs goat cheese croquette.
Add those elements to the accoutrements on the burgers and appetizers and the ingredients in the cocktails, and you've got an edible inventory of Middle Tennessee flavors, including Jack Daniel's maple ketchup, Hatcher Farms ranch dressing, Olive & Sinclair peanut butter brownies, Yazoo beer gelato and strawberry-watermelon coolers with Corsair vanilla bean vodka.
If frequent trips to Burger Up leave you temporarily burgered out, take a detour to the appetizer menu, which introduces non-local delicacies such as fried oysters, prawns poached in ale, and spicy crab-and-fontina fondue. The highlight of the non-burger repertoire was the tuna tartare, with cubes of tender purple fish tossed lightly in a creamy scallion aioli, drizzled with soy-ginger vinaigrette, topped with microgreens and served with house-baked ciabatta.
Equally unexpected at a burger joint was the pairing of seared scallops and foie gras, plated with orange-ginger balsamic vinaigrette. The decadent duo might sound more at home in a white-tablecloth eatery than a burger joint with communal tables with backless stools, but Burger Up flips that kind of entrenched dining protocol on its end — then grills it to perfection and serves it on a fresh bun loaded with local ingredients.
Burger up serves lunch and dinner daily.