With all the upscale snack-and-watering holes in the area now, it's hard to remember that Hamburger Hamlet was one of the first to capitalize on the idea of glamorizing fast food by upping its quality and price and serving it in a nifty environment with a good bar. This place was dishing out yuppie hamburgers before yuppies were invented.
What Hamburger Hamlet has in common with its newer counterparts is the pub-like environment -- dark woods, plank floors, bare tables, soft lighting -- and the menu of mainly light foods.
What sets it apart is its relative tranquility. The spiffy surroundings notwithstanding, this is basically a family-oriented restaurant, not a magnet for singles. So the rule of the day is jeans, sweaters and children rather than young professionals' noise and tension.
The food? Most of what's served is reliably good, with a few gems and a few bummers mixed in. Among the gems are the commendably fluffy omelets -- try the hangover omelet, with big chunks of smoky ham, a bit of melted cheese and a touch of jalapeno peppers. If you're in the mood for breakfast in the evening, a good plate of ham and eggs is always available, too.
Also top-notch is the chili. It's mostly meat (bean lovers will be frustrated), but the beef is lean and rough-ground and the flavor is excellent -- properly peppery and, blessedly, not sweet. The chili and some other dishes can be had with a very good cornbread, freshly made and more finely textured than most.
Another winner is the quesadillas: Flour tortillas wonderfully crisp at the edge and delicately chewy near the center, stuffed with cheese, big avocado chunks and sweet, still-crunchy onion. There's a good salsa on the side, and a generous mound of nicely garlicky guacamole. This is a real sleeper of a dish.
The mushy, flavorless onion soup, on the other hand, should be left to sleep. The lobster bisque is a decent version, but at $4.95 a bowl it seems a bit overpriced.
The green salads are attractive and fresh-tasting, and the house-made dressing is surprisingly good. When the waitress said, "creamy Italian," we expected the usual gum-thickened sludge, but it turned out to be an appealing blend of what tasted like sour cream, garlic and chives.
The frying seems to be up and down here. We've had superb, feather-light fried oysters and awful, heavy-battered fried onions, decent fried chicken and dried-out, oily french fries.
The hamburgers themselves? Generally good. The patties are thick, seared crusty outside, fairly juicy within and cooked as ordered. Strangely, they're served on those tasteless, blobby buns -- you'd think a place named after a hamburger would use something a little more special.
For dessert, you can ignore the apple pie. If you're in a sensible mood, go for the excellent rice pudding. And if you're feeling not so sensible, splurge on the outstanding fudge cake with ice cream and fudge sauce -- this is real chocolate flavor, folks, and the portion is enough for three ordinary people.