The perfect burger, two ways: Plain beef around melting cheese (bottom left, our Gold Nugget) and well-done beef with bread crumbs and egg for moisture (top right, our Classic).
Osborn has done everything he can to preserve the restaurant and its burgers. He has even kept the original placard on the pie case that reads, "Take one of our world famous home made pies home for that special occasion or just when you want to live it up." Friends sometimes razz him for that decades-old "world famous" claim, but as Osborn puts it, "When you start making changes, it's a slippery slope. One thing is different, then 10 things are different."
Difference is the very point at the Counter, a midcentury-style build-your-own burgery in Santa Monica. John T. Edge sees a certain freedom in not fussing with special orders and instead surrendering to "the prevailing burger gestalt" at a given establishment. But here that gestalt is all about surrendering to yourself.
The Counter's universe of possibilities is exhilarating. You check off preferences on a sheet that offers nearly as many choices as California's recall ballot: 10 cheeses, 26 toppings, and 17 sauces. It's positively algebraic.
If the Counter represents a creative collaboration between cook and customer, two other Santa Monica eateries are clearly more chef-driven. Father's Office is renowned for chef Sang Yoon's burger combining Gruyère, Maytag blue cheese, and smoked bacon-caramelized onion compote, as well as its most un-Counter-like resistance to diverging from Sang Yoon's design. That extends to a notorious refusal to provide ketchup.
West of the Apple Pan on Pico, Josie Le Balch of Josie restaurant serves up one of the area's grandest burgers: a $28 epic starring ground buffalo sirloin filled with Gruyère and topped with caramelized onions and foie gras on a brioche bun made by her in-house baker, Jonna J. Jensen. Le Balch grew up in Chatsworth, California, the daughter of French-born parents. For her, burgers, if not exactly a forbidden pleasure, certainly represent something uniquely American. And extravagant as hers is, it's more traditional than it initially appears.
"I'm into classic burgers, and I wanted this to be a true burger," Le Balch says. "It has to have a great bun. And if you do seasonings and onions, then it becomes a meat loaf. But I like grilled onions, and I also wanted something far-fetched, like foie gras. I like ketchup too. When I wanted to upset my dad, I would put ketchup on omelets."
Burgers invariably spark memories of family or of neighborhood. L.A. isn't a very traditional place, of course, but you could almost organize it into districts by burger joint. For example, I lived for a while in, let's call it La Zona Irv's, the burger-sphere of the little shack off Crescent Heights that nearly fell victim to a Peet's Coffee. Then I moved to the Arrondissement Apple Pan. So when I smell that hickory burger, I not only am anticipating a damn fine meal, I'm also coming back home. Sherman and Gamble seem to get that. The Apple Pan's motto is "Quality Forever," and I'm a believer.
"It stays the same," says Sherman. "What else stays the same in this town?"
Gamble mulls it over, then smiles. "I don't know. I really can't think of anything else."