80/20 Burger Bar: An Odds On Favorite
By Marisa Marsey
In case you missed it, the world didn’t end December 21 despite interpretations of the Mayan long-count calendar that had betting firms touting 5,000/1 odds it would. Another ratio, however, came to fruition that day with the opening of 80/20 Burger Bar in Ghent. Named for the proportion of lean to fat experts prescribe in hamburger meat (and 80 bottles of beer, 20 on tap), it underscores the attention-to-detail partners Alan Baesen, Jamie Summs and Joe Pavey, who’s also head chef, employ in their conscientious pursuit of elevating the American gastro-icon by bringing it back to its roots.
While some may puzzle over three guys slinging $11 burgers a mere block away from another number of guys (say, plus two?), this urban-hip corner perfectly suits their über-ambitious menu – much is scratch-made or regionally-produced – given its history of housing beloved, locally-grounded, sourcing-sensitive restaurants Café Rosso and The Boot, in whose footsteps 80/20 follows.
And when the question has evolved from, “Where’s the beef?” to “Where’s the hormone-free, humanely-raised beef?” the answer, you contemporary Claras, is here thanks to grass-fed, grass-finished (noteworthy, as some grass-fed herds are fattened on grain in the months before slaughter which can decrease important nutrients like Omega 3 in their tissues) Red Devon cattle, an English heritage breed, from Black Diamond Ranch near Blacksburg. In other words, these burgers are a different animal.
“People are more aware of the process of eating cleaner and better, especially in Ghent,” says Baesen. “And, gee, you’re seeing $10 burgers at other places that are just corn-fed, regular old pre-made patties.” Diners communing here – 20-40somethings, families, artsy AARP-ers – back up his words, plowing through nearly half a ton of meat in two weeks.
80/20 offers a playful roster of serious burger permutations including the Korean-canting “Hawkeye Pierce” (kimchi, sweet pickled lotus root, Asian aioli), the “Miss Thing” (pimento cheese, braised pork belly, buttermilk fried onion rings, winking in homage to Stove’s seminal chef-owner Sydney Meers) and veg-friendly picks like the “Herb” (chickpea and tofu burger, chimichurri, tomato jam).
It’s a prep-heavy menu (that kimchi and pimento cheese are homemade) meaning nearly 24/7 for the 80/20 crew, starting with the baking of buns early each morning by sous/pastry chef Chrissy Havers. “We were hoping to get that bread smell in here but since we’re opening at 5 p.m. and the bread’s already been baked, the smell’s gone,” shares Baesen. “But they cooked bacon one day at 4:30 pm and Jamie comes in and goes, ‘Guys that’s gotta be our everyday bacon cookin’ time.’”
That applewood-smoked, thick-cut pork (hormone-free and cruelty-free like all their proteins), crests the “Up and At ‘Em,” illuminated by a richly runny, sunny-side up egg and sharp cheddar cheese. Burgers will change seasonally but some will remain regulars like the “Redneck Wellington” with mushroom duxelles, bourbon mustard and herbed goat cheese swaddled in a buttery puff pastry. There are also wings, fresh cut chili fries and cheese sticks (born of house-pulled mozz), soups, salads, a few non-burgers and a kids menu.
Considering the kitchen nails degree of doneness and employs topnotch ingredients and that sandwiches include one fresh, crafty side such as sweet potato and turnip au gratin, honey soy Brussels sprouts or roasted beets, there’s value in these meals.
Coca-cola is the only high fructose corn syrup under the roof (even the ketchup is Heinz Simply), but kick Coke for one of the housemade sodas like a tingling ginger. They’re refreshing standalones or great in finely-turned out cocktails such as the Roomhound (a Greyhound riff – and anagram for cross street Omohundro – with Carolina’s Cardinal Gin and cucumber, grapefruit, rosemary soda). Beer flows with know-how at the bar, no shock given Pavey’s tenure tending at A.W. Shucks among many local kitchen stints (Chick’s Oyster Bar, Crackers, Empire) and Baesen’s having been a co-owner at the Taphouses. Warm and welcoming for watching the game or admiring the merits of a Belgian tripel or an Irish stout from down the street, they’re building to 80/20 – 80 bottles and 20 drafts. There’s a late night menu, and while live tunes won’t be a focus, rule it in given RYLO, Baesen’s bluesy rockin’ roots band including his brother Gabe, 80/20’s bar manager, and their music network.
Indeed, roots rule at 80/20. The Baesens’ dad (“Pops”) is a carpenter who pitched in with some of the woodwork (that’s his tool case up on the front wall) and the paintings by John Hickey above the bar reveal details of Norfolk form the 1920s to 1950s; a mingling that could be coined “rusti-city.”
But just how much farm-to-table cred does 80/20 deserve? “That’s Ed’s farm,” says Al, nodding to a photo on the exposed brick wall over refinished tables (it gets an A in the three Rs: nearly everything in sight has been refinished, repurposed, reused). “And that’s his tractor,” Summs points out another picture. Said Ed supplies all their peppers, grown just across the border near Great Dismal Swamp. Kitchen shelves display the ones they’ve just pickled.
What makes these digs even more indigenous is the tight-knit community embracing it. When they were slammed on their second night, Still’s Mike Farrell showed up with two of his staff after their own long night, asking: “What can we do?” Yorgo’s Greg Peterman volunteered: “I’ve got some baking pans if you need them,” and Josh Wright, formerly a Boot co-owner, is one of their wine purveyors. Heck, before Black Diamond’s rancher Steve Bartlett made his first delivery they tried to give him directions. “He’s an old Navy guy,” says Summs. He said, ‘I know exactly where you are.’”
In a time when corporate-conjured brands are gobbling up the landscape, it’s rewarding to root for a hometown team. Speaking of brands, though, they’ve got one. A branding iron that might just be a first for a restaurant. “Are you going to haze your employees?” Summs was asked when ordering it. No way. It’s used to emblazon condiment trays and saloon doors “Pops” is constructing. Besides, the courteous, casual staff shares the partners’ pride in their product.
In fact, it was one of their waitresses who told them that opening day was auspicious as not only the supposed end of the world, but also National Hamburger Day. Something celebrated here daily.
80/20 Burger Bar: 123 W. 21st St., Norfolk. Tel. No. 233-7900. Open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. nightly. Full menu ‘til 11 p.m., late night menu from 11 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Lunch coming soon. www.8020burgerbar.com.
Got restaurant, food or beverage news? Contact Marisa Marsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.