Burger bash: The Korner quietly serves up a crosstown rivalry

The Korner has been serving up classic burgers since the 1950s. Photo: Martyn Kyle The Korner has been serving up classic burgers since the 1950s. Photo: Martyn Kyle

Almost nothing upsets me more than a poorly constructed sandwich. I’m not kidding. This may show my crazy a bit more than is appropriate for general audiences, but I have literally coldcocked a sandwich for falling apart in my hands. Yep. Dropped it on the plate, and decked it.

If you’re anything like me (God help you), please heed this warning when you try the burger at the Korner: Do not put it down. As soon as you bite into it, it will release its inner greatness in liquid form all over the very small plate it’s served on. Do not subject that bun to suicide by its own avarice.

Not that holding onto the Korner burger until it’s gone is a bad thing. This is one delicious sandwich. With hand-formed patties pressed to crusty on a hot griddle topped with American cheese that melts in an instant, L&T, and the dressing of your choice, it’s a no-nonsense take on the most American of sammies.

If the Korner burger sounds familiar to fans of Riverside Lunch across town, it’s for good reason. The two restaurants buy their beef fresh every day from the same vendor, and Korner owner Phillip Templeton manned the grill at Riverside for several years before taking over his family’s greasy spoon in 1983.

Indeed, the Korner and Riverside burgers are really only different in one way. Where Riverside balls its meat and presses it into patties right on the griddle, the Korner patties the meat first before finishing the press on the flattop. Hard to say whether this results in much difference in the final product—I haven’t picked up on much of anything—but perhaps it’s one of the reasons Riverside manages to garner top-burger accolades while the Korner is typically forgotten.

Templeton has another idea. Selling a near identical burger that actually costs less than Riverside’s, he figures the lack of exposure is mostly due to diners’ and wrongheaded journalists’ habits.

“It’s in your head,” he said. “The Riverside could do whatever they wanted and still sell their burger.”

Templeton admits the two restaurants attract slightly different clientele, with the Korner, at 415 9th Street SW, catering mostly to people on their lunch breaks, and Riverside attracting families in addition to the working people by staying open at night and offering beer and wine. As for atmosphere, if Riverside has one frill, the Korner is in debt by a few frills. This is a lunch counter, plain and simple. And as with anything, there are pluses and minuses to that fact. While you might not be hitting the Kor-
ner for a filling meal before a night out, you’ll feel right at home straggling in there in your sweats the morning after a night out on the Corner. While you might not want to hit the Korner with coworkers you don’t know all that well, it’s the perfect place to down a milkshake along with your burger and fries at 11:30am without fearing your health-conscious neighbors might show up.

To Templeton’s chagrin, all this amounts to the fact that you’re just about guaranteed a seat at the diner any time you come in these days. The restaurant opened in 1950 as the Kustard Korner but dropped the custard physically and in name in the mid-70s. By the 90s, the Korner had a consistent line out the door during lunch hours. Templeton thinks dine-in traffic has tapered since then due to several factors: a lot of local commerce has moved east along Main Street, the area around the Korner hasn’t been developed properly, and the 2008 recession lingers. The one thing that Templeton doesn’t seem worried about is the new wave of upscale burger joints whisking away his business.

“They talk about the gourmet burger, but this is still just a good old plain burger,” he said.

Which is not to say the Korner hasn’t adapted with the times. Seeing his dining room slowly grow emptier, Templeton has turned his family’s restaurant into a go-to catering provider. He bought a meat smoker years ago to crank out large cuts of pork and beef, and he’s landed customers like UVA and Martha Jefferson Hospital with his inexpensive bulk barbecue and handmade salads.

The dine-in customers benefit from the change too, as the Korner offers the barbecue pork sandwich on its regular menu. Templeton is quick to point out it’s nothing fancy—not like “that place down in Gordonsville,” he said—but it’s solid, with well-sauced, finely shredded smoked pork (add some Texas Pete for a kick) topped with the Korner’s own coleslaw (ask for extra).

As for maintaining the integrity of the barbecue sandwich as you munch through it, I have no advice. There is no keeping it together. Just take a deep breath and remember that eater-on-sandwich violence is never the answer.

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