Gary’s looks and operates like a thousand other fast-food hamburger joints. Step up to the counter, read the menu posted above, place your order, and pay. A hearty meal costs well under $10. You are given a number to take to a table, to which the food will be delivered. On the way to the table, grab a straw for your drink and paper towels to use as napkins.
Once you are seated, something strange happens: you wait. The food you ordered isn’t merely being assembled. It is being cooked. It arrives like typical junk food, in plastic baskets or wrapped in paper. But a Gary’s Hamburger is different. It is a thick, hand-fashioned patty with gnarled crusty surface, and if you get it dressed all the way, it comes under a virtual bouquet of garnishes. I’m not saying that this is a gourmet burger; it’s not even one of those upscale urban burger-joint $10 burgers. No, it is quintessential drive-in fare — better than the big national chains, but in no way uppity. So if I call it an artisan fast food burger, please don’t think I am saying it is fancy. I simply mean that it is an inexpensive hamburger prepared with skill and dressed with style. When the craving for one strikes, I can’t imagine a better choice than Gary’s.
Catfish is a cut above, too, the sandy-textured fillets filled with thick ribbons of sweet, white meat. Again, it’s not deluxe, but it’s far better than the surroundings and situation suggest. Chicken tenders — moist white meat encased in crunchy crust with a good hint of tangy spice — are very well complemented by a ramekin of creamy honey-mustard sauce. I also am a fan of Gary’s chili slaw dog (aka Dixie Dog), in which no single element is in any way outstanding. It’s a blubbery frankfurter with a vaguely smoky edge topped with mild beef chili and sweet slaw, all in a soft, spongy bun. Somehow, as is true of so many excellent Dixie dogs, all those ignominious ingredients come together to sing symphonic harmony.
Nor should breakfast be dismissed. Gary’s big, creamy, crisp-edged buttermilk biscuits are made to sandwich pieces of the excellent chicken or a split and grilled smoky link. Grits that accompany egg dishes appear to be bland and ordinary. No, they aren’t deluxe creamy grits, but they are way better than they look: dense, rugged, earthy-flavored.
The Gary’s I visited is practically at the Savannah River in North Augusta. There are a few others on both sides of the river. I might never have visited this little local chain were it not for the recommendation of Roadfood’s Master of the CSRA (Central Savannah River Area), Chickenplucker. About his double cheeseburger at Gary’s, he wrote, “Whatever toppings or condiments you decide on, the flavor of the beef shines through.” Amen.