Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

honorable mention

When I was 18, my uncle took me for my first trip to the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. We spent all day gawking at, discussing, and fantasizing about, muscle cars and concept cars. He spent 30 years as an employee of Ford Motor Company. He’s retired from the company now, but to this day, he still calls it “Ford’s,” like Henry still runs the place. That, my friends, is the sign of someone with a deep respect and love for the company and the industry, so I trust nobody with information about automobiles more than I trust him.

He began developing my love for the Mustang that day (I stop and look whenever I see one), and after the show, he took me out for a ride in his Mustang. We hadn’t eaten in hours, and were looking for food. We could have eaten in Greektown, Mexicantown, Corktown, or Hamtramck, but he took me to a place in Dearborn across Michigan Avenue from a Ford dealership and a Bob Evans. When we walked in the door the the nondescript red building on a residential corner, I had no idea that my life was about to change.

We walked into Miller’s Bar, and the first thing I noticed was that there was no hostess. There was just a line. People waiting for tables to open, and three waitresses working the uncharacteristically quiet dining room and bar. Everybody was eating. I had no idea what this place served, but as soon as Chris (my uncle) told me how the place worked, I fell in love.

The “menu,” at the time, had six items on it: Hamburgers. Cheeseburgers. Fries. Onion rings. Fish sandwiches (served only on Friday during Lent, because the Detroit metro area is heavily Catholic). And then he said this:

“There’s no menu, so there’s no prices. It’s all on the honor system. You tell the bartender what you had and he tells you what you owe.”

No menu? So how do people know what they make?

“The guy who runs this place knows everybody. And if he doesn’t know somebody, he finds somebody who knows them and they tell them what’s available.”

I love it.

So we finally sat down, and Chris ordered for us. Two cheeseburgers, medium-rare. Fries. Cokes. There was a jar of pickles on the table along with the mustard and ketchup. Onion was available on the burger by request. I could smell ground beef (actually, it’s ground round) cooking ten feet away on the flattop, and almost no conversation because everybody in the entire dining room had full mouths.

My burger arrived on a sheet of wax paper and the fries came in a red-and-white-checkered paper carnival food bowl.

From bite one, I knew I’d never love another burger again the way I loved this. It was a tender, meaty, and well-seasoned half-pound patty on a plain bun, with nothing else on it. I was so hungry, I didn’t bother with mustard and pickle (the only way I eat a burger like this–I let the meat speak for itself). The grease dripped down my arm, in the best possible way, and the cheese was so melted, the only evidence that it was ever there was the unmistakable flavor of American cheese in every bite. Otherwise, it was yellow goo. Awesome yellow goo.

The fries were crispy and fresh-cut. They were salty and greasy and awesome. Bar food at its finest.

After we’d finished stuffing our faces, Chris went to the bar to tell the bartender what we had and he paid him. For two burgers, fries, and canned Cokes, he paid $8.05 for each of us. And then he dropped a ten dollar bill on the table, looked at me, and said, “I always overtip here. We don’t need this place going away.”

For every one of my dozen visits since (my hometown is an hour plus away), I’ve repeated this practice, except I’ve replaced Coke with a beer since I turned 21. I haven’t been in years, but think about the place all the time. Miller’s has become so famous, it’s been in magazines and on TV. GQ Magazine named it to its “20 Burgers You Have to Try Before You Die” list.

The menu’s expanded a little (they’ve added grilled cheese and grilled chicken sandwiches), but the honor system is still in place, and it’s still my favorite burger joint in America. I’d make the drive from Chicago, or anywhere else in this country, to Miller’s. As often as possible.

Miller’s Bar is at 23700 Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, Michigan.

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