Voted North Carolina’s #1 burger by USA Today, Char-Grill indeed cooks up one of the best non-gourmet burgers we’ve ever had. Though it has now grown into a small chain of eight stores in central North Carolina, we prefer the original, walk-up location on Hillsborough Street in downtown Raleigh. The burgers are, of course, char-grilled and dressed however you like. A distinct smoky taste, reminiscent of a backyard grill, infuses the juicy meat, and adding cheese and chili or bacon seems only natural here. A single patty, the Char-Burger, comes on a traditional round bun, but the larger Hamburger Steak Sandwiches (quarter-pound or half-pound) come on sesame-seed-studded hoagie rolls.
The burgers are king here, but the hot dog should not be ignored. The weiner is steamed then bunned with mustard, chili, and a generous helping of cole slaw. The chili is a fine-grained meat sauce, boldly spiced, which complements the slaw’s cool, textural counterpoint. It’s a more traditional Southern slaw dog than the same down the road at Roast Grill, where the slaw is more coarsely cut—but no less scrumptious than its competitor. Milkshakes are very thick and impossible to slurp through a straw, hence the included spoon. French fries are pre-frozen but work well enough with this classic fare, and for dessert is a no-frills fried apple pie (the rectangular, fast-food variety).
The most charming aspect of Char-Grill is its ordering system: you fill out a food ticket with a mini-golf pencil then place it in the window slot, where it’s literally sucked into a trough (the slight vacuum is due to the kitchen’s air differential) for the cooks to fill as you watch through the window. After your name is called over the loudspeaker, you pick up your food and pay the cashier. Picnic table seating is limited outside, and on busy nights you’ll find most families munching on burgers and fries in their cars. The late hours certainly appeal to the younger crowd, especially those students up the street at North Carolina State University and Meredith College. Char-Grill is open Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m.-midnight; Thursday 10 a.m.-1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 a.m.; and Sunday 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m.