We’ve all heard about Kentucky’s four Bs—basketball, barbecue, bourbon and … BURGERS! Many Kentuckians like burgers in some fashion or form, but never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d ride my bicycle to 48 burger joints! Yet, there I was pedaling from Maysville to Tompkinsville, Manchester to Paducah, roaming Kentucky for three weeks and 740 miles in search of a burger joint experience I’d never forget. I have gained some wisdom with age, but obviously not much.
My adventure began in Maysville, a charming town of 10,000 residents on the Ohio River in Mason County. Downtown Maysville is one of my favorite places in all of Kentucky, so I was delighted when told there were two burger places I should visit.
The first, located on brick-paved Market Street, is Delite’s, which is really more of a diner than a burger joint. I sat on a counter stool, where I could closely observe the grill and visit with folks who were chatting and eager to tell me about the joys of living in Maysville. I was served a delicious Market Street Burger with cheddar cheese, bacon, onion rings and a terrific sauce on a brioche bun. It’s no accident that the burger at Delite’s has been named the best in Maysville by local newspaper readers for many years running.
My second stop in Maysville was one of the most unusual and memorable locales of those I visited. Hutchinson’s Grocery on East Second Street is a small neighborhood market. When I biked to the address, I initially thought the place was closed, perhaps even out of business, but I tried the door, and it led to a most extraordinary experience. It was more than two hours later when I walked out. Embedded within this grocery, filled to the gills with a mishmash of household and food items, was a pretty good-looking grill for making burgers. The burger there was traditional and extremely tasty, with pickles, ketchup and a slice of raw onion.
The original Hutchinson’s Grocery was opened in 1850 by Micajah Hutchinson. Places such as Hutchinson’s take me back to a country store in a tiny Iowa town where, 70 years ago, my grandfather would take my sister and me to buy crackers, soda, bread, cheese, bologna, mustard and peanuts, and where we would explore the place while he visited with friends around a potbellied stove.
This is Hutchinson’s atmosphere—a little slow, certainly old and totally inviting, and I’ll remember this place long after others are forgotten.
Also Visited: Whippy Dip Drive-In, Dry Ridge
Traveling on a bicycle has a way of magnifying my anticipation and then the enjoyment of the experience. The difference between whizzing down the road in a car and riding leisurely and attentively on a bicycle is dramatic. This is especially true when biking in a part of the state that features spectacular scenery.
I stopped at Weaver’s On 4th in London, eager to experience the wooden-seated booths and hundreds of historic photos of London and Laurel County—some dating back to the 1920s—that line Weaver’s walls. I learned upon my arrival, however, that it had burned in a 2014 fire. Ever resilient, Weaver’s relocated to Fourth Street, where it still offers the famous Kentucky Blue Burger, but the booths and photos are gone.
Twenty miles east over gentle mountains is Manchester, where I found the “world famous” Pat’s Snack Bar, a small and welcoming place. According to the guy on the stool next to me, “lots of gambling went on in there. It was a pretty interesting place.” I was told by another diner to order the “really good cheeseburger. We’ve been told it’s the best in all of Appalachia.” So I did, and it was fabulous. It was served bundled up in plain white paper with warm cheese and tasty juices oozing through the wrapper. This is maximum greasy goodness.
Western Kentucky seems to have more than its rightful share of places that serve really good burgers. Customers at each one told me it’s their favorite burger joint and the best in the world.
If you live in Hopkinsville and get your burgers at Ferrell’s, it’s possible that you’re right. In fact, I enjoyed Ferrell’s so much that I found myself returning a few days later for another visit. In my opinion, this is what God intended a burger joint to be.
First, Ferrell’s burgers are really good—1,000-plus are served up every day by the same people who have been making them for decades. Every burger has the same toppings: pickles, ketchup, lots of onions and Ferrell’s famous-but-secret seasoning. Second, Ferrell’s is a small, cozy, joyous place downtown. I’ve never been with so many happy customers. Do they walk in that way, or is it the “burger effect?” The Ferrell brothers opened their shop in 1929, and it continues to be one of the best places in Kentucky to get a simple, traditional burger.
Many miles down the road biking west on U.S. 68, I passed through Cadiz, and then the beautiful, serene 8-mile-wide Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area to Aurora. I biked over lightly traveled State Route 94 to Elm Grove and then on to Murray. One of the best-tasting burgers I had during the entire trip was at the Station Burger Company in Murray. It also was one of the finest-looking and most proudly presented. Every person working there found a way to remind me that the burger I was eating was the best ever. “If you tell us you know of a better one, we won’t believe you,” I was told.
What caught my eye, however, were the countless items displayed on Station’s walls that feature the area’s emergency first responders. The “Station” in Station Burger represents fire, police and medical personnel who work or volunteer for first-responder organizations. Equipment, uniforms, photos, memorabilia and models of various emergency vehicles are displayed, and a portion of Station’s proceeds is donated to area causes associated with emergency response and the needs of disaster victims.
After enjoying a burger on a magically delicious bun for breakfast at Sammons’ Bakery, “Home of the World’s Best Hamburger,” in Murray, I took off on a 65-mile bike ride to Paducah. A herd of deer quietly grazed in a field as I passed, not fazed at all by my pedaling. This was a scenic and blissful ride that left me happily contented … and feeling hungry.
Paducah has several terrific burger joints to choose from. Bob’s Drive-In, the oldest drive-in in Kentucky, is known for its banana milk shake and famous Fiesta Burger. Just Hamburgers, a small place with limited seating (I heard it humorously called the “just nowhere to sit” burger joint) takes making burgers seriously, and for good reason, as I loved the fabulous seasoning on my burger. Just Hamburgers has been named Paducah’s No. 1 burger joint, but Dairyette Plus on the southwest side of town is truly special. No part of the interior décor seems to match any other. Lots of photos and local memorabilia adorn the walls. Country music blares away, and owner Roy Bohannon does everything possible to make sure everyone who comes through the door is treated like his best friend. He’s been doing this since the early 1950s. “Nothing makes me happier than greeting customers and offering them the best burger they have ever had,” Roy told me.
Customers of all ages all seemed to know Roy. Nowhere during the bike ride was it demonstrated more convincingly that a burger joint is no better or worse than the warmth and sincere friendliness of those who greet you. Roy has perfected this at Dairyette.
As I biked east on U.S. 62 from Paducah, past a sign welcoming me to Possum Trot (near which was a flattened possum that apparently hadn’t trotted fast enough), the burger bug struck again. By that time, I had eaten a burger for eight consecutive meals, and I was ready for No. 9. Nearing Calvert City, I was told by a friendly trucker that the area’s best burger was served up at the nearby Calvert Outdoor Theater, where I had a double cheeseburger. What made this burger memorable, however, is that its ingredients—minus the bun—were liberally sprinkled on a pizza crust. I was eating a cheeseburger pizza! And it was so-o-o very go-o-o-d.
From there, I traveled eastward. My next stop was Princeton, and the first thing I did as I coasted into town was ask where I would find the best burger. At Heaton’s Marathon gas station, a group of ladies gathered at the curb told me. I was a little surprised by this but soon learned it was for real. One of the better burgers of the entire bike ride was prepared by someone who worked at a gas station and looked like she was still in high school.
“I’ll make you the very same burger I love to eat,” Claire Catlett told me. “What do you want on it?”
“The same toppings that you put on yours,” I told her.
The burger was fabulous—flavorful, juicy and perfectly seasoned. Especially tasty were the grilled caramelized onions that slid from the bun. They were joined by tomato slices, pickles, pepperjack cheese and garlic powder. That I’d come upon this mouth-watering, beautifully prepared burger at such an unexpected place proves that it is foolish in Kentucky to make assumptions about burgers merely by looking at the place where they are made. When I went to pay, Russell Heaton, the gruff-speaking owner, told me: “Since Claire did such a great job, your burger is on me.” Who would have guessed?
Lots of folks had told me that Owensboro has two outstanding burger joints. The Big Dipper, next to Moonlite Bar-B-Q on West Parrish Avenue, and Gary’s Drive-In on the other side of town lived up to their reputations. The Big Dipper has been in operation since 1954. Its Big Boy burger with “Through the Garden” toppings (meaning the burger is smothered with every topping ever imagined) required more napkins to clean up than I had used at any other stop.
Burgers from both places were fabulous, but Gary’s indoor seating and cheerful ambience, enhanced by a superb double cheeseburger with all the fixings, pretty much established that Gary’s Drive-In was the perfect place for me. As Gary Pickrell commented while I munched away, “We’ve worked hard for many years to make sure that our customers have a reason to keep coming back.” I can think of a lot of reasons, but mostly, it’s the burgers and Gary himself.
Also Visited: Cap’t Jim’s Grille, Cadiz, Belew’s Dairy Bar, Aurora, Duncan’s Market, Elm Grov, Parcell’s Deli + Grille, Benton, HU-B’s, Kuttawa, Dairy Freeze Island
The Bluegrass has an abundance of places that offer terrific burgers and are fun to visit, so I eagerly pedaled to that region.
Burgers & Shakes is a longtime Lexington joint on New Circle Road East. It offers the least expensive, non-franchise burger I found in Kentucky. When Burgers & Shakes opened in 1957, a burger cost 19 cents (fries were 14 cents, and a Coke was 10 cents). Until recently, a burger cost 99 cents, but it has risen to $1.23. The price is hard to miss, since it appears in huge numbers on a sign high above the shop.
While there, I spoke with a father and son who live out of state but return to Burgers & Shakes every time they are in Lexington. They were happily munching away on a bag of burgers. Every burger joint has its loyal fans, but these were beyond redemption! The burger was what one would expect at a place such as this: a thin patty on a simple bun, with the basic toppings. Simple, tasty and pleasant—Kentucky’s traditional burger at its purest for a great price.
I pedaled down Broadway, ending up at Tolly-Ho, a landmark strategically located near the University of Kentucky campus. It’s the only burger joint in the state that is busiest between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. The day I visited Tolly-Ho, 25 gregarious family members had gathered from several states to celebrate their patriarch’s 90th birthday. Everyone was having a great time reliving four generations of UK memories.
Students can be a picky bunch, so Tolly-Ho wouldn’t be in business if its burgers weren’t extraordinary. I reviewed the posted menu—the Tolly-Ho, Super Ho, Mega Ho and Big Tolly—and opted for the Tolly-Ho, a quarter-pound of flavorful beef served on a toasted sesame seed bun, with ketchup, onions, lettuce and the famous Ho sauce. Clearly, a fantastic burger is not just about the burger itself. It’s what I call the entire “burger experience,” including a personal realization that life at that moment, in that place, and with those people is truly terrific. Tolly-Ho does this to a person. It’s welcoming, noisy, fun and energizing.
It was a gorgeous afternoon in the Bluegrass, so my bike and I moved down the road to the Leestown Road-based Bad Wolf Fiercely Crafted Burgers, surely the most interesting name of any burger joint I visited. Bad Wolf is a lot more than a clever name, however. The gourmet—or sometimes called craft or artisan—burger movement is on fire in larger cities. A traditional burger is the most satisfying of all comfort foods, but a gourmet burger can be an extraordinary dining experience. Such burgers are offered at Bad Wolf.
I arrived at Bad Wolf an hour before it opened. Rather than making me wait outside, the staff invited me in, presented me with a cup of coffee, and greeted me like a long-lost family member. A menu of 14 burgers was written on a huge chalkboard above the counter. As was often the case during my burger bike ride, I asked for the burger that “you are most proud of and think is your best.” I was presented with a Spalding. Spalding’s Bakery is one of Lexington’s most popular doughnut shops, so I knew what was coming: a burger topped with an egg, bacon, cheese and all the trimmings, neatly placed between two doughnuts that served as buns. The huge burger, service that could not have been more attentive, and a full house of happy customers made Bad Wolf a memorable experience.
From Lexington, I pedaled westward on Old Frankfort Pike past horse farms, rolling hills, hand-cut stone fences and tree rows lining the roadway. Entering Frankfort from the east, I headed for downtown and Rick’s White Light Diner near the “Singing Bridge.” Opened in 1929 and alleged to be Frankfort’s oldest continuously operating restaurant, Rick’s is small and cozy. Every seat at the three tables and nine counter stools was taken but one, so I settled in at an opening at the counter to enjoy the food and atmosphere. The jovial banter that goes on at a place like Rick’s, led by owner Rick Paul’s daughter Hannah Davis on the day I was there, is something I greatly enjoy. None of it makes the world a better place, but it surely improves one’s outlook on life. As expected, my quarter-pound cheeseburger with a side of grilled garlic potatoes hit the spot. So did a piece of Rick’s pecan pie with Ghirardelli chocolate and enough bourbon to sooth a long-suffering tummy.
Also Visited: Stella’s Deli, Lexington, Freakin’ Unbelievable Burgers, Lexington, Wallace Station Deli, Midway, Cliffside Café, Frankfort, Village Inn, Burgin
Laha’s Red Castle Hamburgers in Hodgenville was one of my favorite stops. When I asked Anita Laha (Anita’s husband is the grandson of the original owners, Bill and Sally Laha, who began the business in 1934) why the place is named Red Castle, she told me it’s because the name White Castle had been taken already, and Sally loved the color red.
Laha’s is a cool place, a major gathering spot for local youth. “Students love our burgers,” Anita told me, “and we love our community’s students. Their energy and chatter bring wonderful joy to Laha’s.”
The burger I ordered was $1.50 and had a strong onion taste with lots of pepper seasoning—a flavorful and juicy burger. I eat a lot of onions but was taken aback to learn that Laha’s uses 200 pounds of onions every week. Anita’s husband is a bricklayer, so it shouldn’t have surprised me that Anita and her colleague, Mae, were preparing burgers on a cast iron grill with a bricklayer’s trowel!
Laha’s made me a happy camper, so down the road I pedaled. LaRue County is beautiful countryside, sometimes flat but mostly gently rolling hills and lots of pastureland. After pleasant biking through Marion, Boyle and Casey counties, I turned off KY 243 and found Penn’s Store a half-mile or so off the road in Gravel Switch. I wouldn’t have missed this “you’ve got to see it to believe it” store for anything! It’s open only when Jeanne Penn Lane is available to unlock and watch over the place.
Established in 1845, Penn’s General Store is said to be the nation’s oldest store in continuous ownership and operation by the same family. Jeanne is the fifth-generation owner. The small store is crammed from floor to ceiling with canned foods, groceries and household items that general stores of yesteryear were expected to carry, in addition to amusing knick-knacks.
The menu on a chalkboard is brief. Regrettably, Penn’s was out of hamburger the day I stopped by. Instead, I was offered a bologna sandwich, which consisted of two slices of plain white bread around a couple slabs of uncooked bologna topped off by yellow mustard. Simple and perfect.
I moved on southwestward over mostly flat and straight roadways bounded by lush fields, ending up at the Turkey Neck Bend Ferry in Monroe County, which took my bike and me across the Cumberland River east of Tompkinsville. As I neared town, the roads became more hilly and winding. I was glad to see Dovie’s.
Everyone who knows anything about burgers in Kentucky has heard about Dovie’s in Tompkinsville, which was founded by the Moore family shortly after World War II and is a landmark in the area. Not much at Dovie’s has changed in all those years.
When I arrived, the place was packed. There are 26 stools positioned around a horseshoe-shaped counter with a view of the holy grail of burgers: two large vats that contain soybean cooking oil in which the objects of our affection are prepared. The burgers are patted out fresh every morning and deep-fried in front of everyone as they’re ordered.
A visitor has two choices: squeezed (with the cooking oil slightly patted from the burger by pressure from a spatula) and unsqueezed. Unlike other places I visited, Dovie’s was strangely quiet. There was little talking. Customers seemed busy eating, and the ladies cooking the burgers were preoccupied with their tasks.
A special sauce (secret, of course), mustard, ketchup, and pickle juice are smeared on every bun. Upon request, raw onions and pickles are added. A burger dripping oil is taken from the vat, slapped on a pre-smeared bun, and delivered on a piece of waxed paper. There’s nothing fancy or complicated at Dovie’s—no menu, no plates, no silverware, no ordering your burger rare or medium. Every burger is deep-fried, well-done and dripping. Dovie’s serves hundreds of burgers every day; 1,000 on a busy day. The only side is a small bag of potato chips, and there is soda in cans. Every customer I talked to is absolutely certain this is the best burger in Kentucky.
Also Visited: St. Joe Grocery, Raywick, Porky Pig Diner, Pig, Bethel Dipper, Russellville
My bike and I headed for Louisville with great anticipation. As you’d expect of a city that size, there are dozens of places that serve mouthwatering burgers. Legend has it that the cheeseburger was invented at Kaelin’s Restaurant in Louisville in 1934. In the city, I stopped at 12 one-site, locally owned burger joints. Every burger, in its own way, was flavorful and enjoyable.
Bunz Burgerz is a four-table burger joint on Baxter Avenue the size of a New York City apartment. Bunz is a fun place, full of happy chatter. I ordered the Baxter Avenue burger: a quarter-pound patty topped with a runny fried egg that leaked into the sandwich, a really good beer cheese that gave the sandwich a robust kick, bacon, red onions and the famous Bunz sauce, which was described as “secret.” I like my burgers juicy and messy, so didn’t mind that I needed several paper towels to clean up. The accompanying hand-battered, crispy onion rings were the best I had tasted during the entire ride. Bunz’s friendly ambience makes this a noteworthy burger experience.
Grind Burger Kitchen on East Market Street and Shady Lane Café in the Brownsboro Shopping Center both serve up remarkable gourmet burgers. At Grind, which began as a food truck, I ordered its signature burger, the B&B. The menu describes it as thusly: “thick-crisp bacon, oozing brie cheese, spicy habanero jam, with no substitutions or additions. Trust us, it’s awesome!” It was. My burger was served on a buttery, fluffy brioche bun. Crispy slices of grilled Brussels sprouts served as an amazing side.
The local and national honors Grind Burger Kitchen has received for its hand-trimmed, in-house ground beef are richly deserved.
My visit to the Shady Lane Café, where Bill and Susi Smith create their burger art, resulted in an amazing discovery. At this small corner café, I experienced the most memorable of my 48 burger joint visits. Shady Lane is more of a café than burger place, but hamburgers outsell everything else. And it’s the first place to which I will return if I ever repeat my Burger Bike Ride.
What makes Shady Lane so memorable are the large juicy burgers and the Smiths. Susi runs the counter, while Bill quietly sticks to the grill. Susi greeted customers by name, periodically stopped to announce the day’s menu and specials, and led the place in singing “Happy Birthday” when she discovered a frequent customer had brought her friend there for a birthday lunch.
Bill told me I needed to try his Brownsboro Burger. It’s a perfectly grilled, old-fashioned burger weighing a tad more than one-third pound. Bill prepares the patties every morning, which are cooked medium on a seasoned flat grill. He makes sure their juices are not pushed out. I love toppings, so the tomato, lettuce, red onions, pickles and a smear of mayonnaise on a toasted bun hit the spot. When I told Bill I loved my burger’s zesty seasoning, he mentioned it was his secret sauce. I asked for details, but all I could catch of his mumblings was the word garlic.
Several customers raved about Shady Lane’s smoky bacon potato salad, so that was my side. I don’t normally indulge in desserts, but the homemade blueberry pie Susi had made that morning sat on the counter and winked at me. It, along with everything else at the Shady Lane Café, was irresistible.
Also Visited: Bluegrass Burgers, Burger Boy Diner, Dizzy Whizz, Game, Holy Grale, Kern’s Korner Tavern, Ollie’s Trolley and WW Cousins
Visiting all those places and consuming 1,783,691,451 calories of burgers enabled me to develop a bucket list of burger joints that every burger-loving Kentuckian should experience. There are many more worthy places, of course, but they were beyond my reach and endurance. Perhaps I’ll visit them during my next life. Forty-eight burgers were enough for this one.
Click here for the complete listing of burger joints visited by Kirk.
Kirk votes on Kentucky's best burgers! See his list of Burger Superlatives here.