I’ve long been a believer that the best burgers are often served in places you’ve never heard of: tiny diners tucked into back alleys. Truckstops. Trailers.
So when I first began my Search for the Holy Grail of Hamburgers in Roanoke, my burger-sensing antennae pricked up at the word of a tiny riverside cafe in Salem that served a best-kept-secret burger. I’d never heard of the place, but enough of my favorite foodies had that I had to take notice.
Here’s the thing: I must have passed the River Rock Restaurant literally hundreds of times without realizing it even existed. Back when I used to commute down Riverside Drive to get to church in Salem, I’d flash by the little wood-clad building with its dark windows and gravel parking lot, and I’d assume the place was a spot for purchasing climbing gear or fishing equipment.
Nope. It’s a tiny eatery and bar, open for lunch during loose hours. And it happens to have a hamburger with a cult following.
When I stopped by yesterday, I wasn’t sure what to expect. A crowd of happy-go-lucky day drinkers had congregated outside the front door, laughing and back-slapping on their way out. Inside, the place was dark and mostly empty. I perched myself near the pine bar and waited.
In a few moments, though, a friendly gentleman with a winning smile was at my elbow, sweet-voiced and utterly accommodating. I’d come “at just the right time,” he said, since “the gang had all just left.” He ushered me to a table by the back window, where I had a view of the river slipping brown and silky over the rocks.
The dining room here is profoundly spare: a smattering of formica-topped tables and chairs of the variety you see in church fellowship halls. Two big TVs drone quietly in each corner of the back room. But, oh — that view, though. And then there’s the menu:
Of course, you already know what I ordered: a classic cheeseburger — for just $4.45 (!). It arrived in no time, piping hot and topped with ultra-melty American cheese, LTM and an onion — grilled, at my request — on a simple sesame-seed bun.
This is your typical diner-burger: no frills and no fuss; fast, flavorful and affordable. I polished it off in what felt like seconds, and I’d happily give this one another go, especially topped with bacon ($5.65). You can order it as a double, too, if you’re feeling famished. That said, this is a substantially sized sandwich for the price — and fresh-tasting, too:
While there are certainly more elegant burgers in the Roanoke Valley, there are few places where you can eat one with a riverside view and such unfailingly friendly service, all for under $5.
All that to say: I’ll be back, River Rock, whether the gang is in attendance or not. 😉
Thirteen burgers down, one to go … See you tomorrow for the last one, kids!