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Burger Friday: Convention Grill

Posted by: Rick Nelson under Restaurant reviews Updated: May 31, 2013 - 6:41 AM

 

 

The burger: During the past decade, the runaway embrace of the burger as a menu item has been a welcome phenomenon for burger lovers, but the increased competition has been a not-so-great development for burger joints like the Convention Grill. Still, even if the foodiscenti have moved on to buzzier newcomers, this 79-year-old Edina landmark continues to crank out a no-frills classic.

 

 

It's simplicity itself, just a rough-hewn, clearly hand-formed patty, gently seasoned and fried until the center is barely pink but each bite oozes sizzling juiciness. The soft bun bears trace toastiness elements, and the only garnish -- next to a few so-so chip-cut pickles -- is white onion, either raw or fried (get the latter). If you're looking for a trendy house-made ketchup, you've come to the wrong place. It's Heinz, all the way. Truly, this is a burger for the history books.

Price: $5.95; cheese add 95 cents; Plazaburger (see below) add 75 cents. The thick, sweaty slab of smokey Cheddar -- and it's obviously logged some serious time in the smokehouse -- is a must. 

Fries: Extra ($3.95 and $5.50). Hand-cut, skin-on, crispy and golden- to dark golden-brown. Portions are ridiculously generous; any reasonable person would consider the "half" size  a "regular" size. Two criticisms: Not enough salt, and even the smaller of the two baskets doesn't take long to slide into soggy territory.

 

 

Don't miss: The first-rate malts ($4.95 and $5.95). They're served the way they should be -- with the frosty can -- and they're as old-fashioned (in a good way) as the burgers; no embellishments, no fancy-schmancy ice creams, no grass-fed farmstead milks, just old-school soda fountain craftsmanship. I find the chocolate and vanilla versions a little dull, but the more complex variations -- hot fudge, coffee, butterscotch and honey -- are fairly close to magnificent; blending in a fresh banana only improves them.

 

 

History buff: Owner John Rimarcik (the indefatigable force behind the Monte Carlo and Rachel's) loves to talk about the restaurant's fascinating past. It opened in 1934, a prototype sideline for a local heating fabrication business. "They thought they could build all the sheet metal units for any subsequent franchises," he said.

The menu wasn't so different than today's -- burgers, fries, malts -- but after two money-losing months (original burger price: 10 cents), the company got out of the restaurant trade, selling the Convention to Greek immigrant Peter Santrizos, who ran it for the next four decades.

Rimarcik said that the unconventional Convention name was chosen because it signified a gathering and meeting place. "But Peter thought it should have been called the Cemetery Grill, because the place was dead," he said with a laugh.

In 1974, Rimarcik, who by then had already owned a half-dozen restaurants, was driving through the neighborhood and was immediately smitten with the building. He bought it, and has been its steward for the past 39 years. (Rimarcik still has Santrizos' spatula, its edges worn down from decades of burger flipping).

Within a decade, Rimarcik expanded the dining room into the adjacent barber shop, then took over the beauty shop next door, but wisely has never altered the original diner's Depression-era aura. He also didn't fiddle around with the menu, sticking fairly close to its burgers-fries-malts format. Here's how the Convention rates on the Beloved Fixture scale: It was the 2012 recipient of the Edina Heritage Award.

Sibling story: Rimarcik's Annie's Parlour shares many traits with the Convention, including its B-F-M menu and its sense of history. The first Annie's (now closed) opened on the West Bank's Cedar Avenue in 1975, and the Dinkytown version followed about five years later, although it was originally known as Greenstreets.

"And we lost our shirt," said Rimarcik. "Our banker said, 'If you'd called it Annie's, they'd be standing in line.' He was right."

In a pair of taste tests, I found subtle differences between the Convention burger and its Annie's counterpart; a thicker patty at the latter, a more robust char on the former, but otherwise, they're very nearly twins.

 

 

Fun fact: When Rimarcik was getting ready to open the first Annie's, he got a call from comedy king Dudley Riggs, who suggested that Rimarcik borrow the idea of a fantastic burger he'd had in Madison, Wis., called the Plazaburger. He described it to Rimarcik. "It sounded god-awful," Rimarcik said with a laugh. "But we went ahead with it."

The Plazaburger -- a burger served on a dark bun and garnished with sour cream and chopped onions (pictured, above, from Annie's Parlour) --became the best-selling item at both restaurants, a happy development since its existence is a fluke.

"The actual burger is nothing like that," said Rimarcik. "About 20 years later I went to Madison and had one. It was mayonnaise and minced celery, and it was on a terrible bun."

Address book: Convention Grill, 3912 Sunnyside Rd., Edina, 952-920-6881. Annie's Parlour: 313 14th Av. SE., Mpls., 612-379-0744.

Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at rick.nelson@startribune.com.

 

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