Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Behind the legend

Posted By on Wed, Mar 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

I wonder if anyone walking into Dick and Mac McDonald's restaurant when it opened in San Bernardino in 1940 ever thought that it would become the first link in a colossal global burger chain. Michael Ansley, the head of Diversified Restaurant Holdings that runs 11 Buffalo Wild Wings in Michigan and Florida, opened Bagger Dave's in Berkley in January as the first location in what he hopes will be a successful chain.

He certainly has made a unique start with his logo, which proclaims, tongue-in-cheek, that the "legendary" Bagger Dave's was "est. in 2006." Ansley's menu also proclaims in bold letters, "Make a Fresh Start Here!"

There are scores of chains that make similar proclamations: Have a burger "your way" or "You deserve a break today" or we deliver "what you crave." Is Bagger Dave's something new? Who is Dave? And what on earth does "bagger" mean?

Located in the former Danaher's on Coolidge between 12 Mile and Catalpa roads, Bagger Dave's, which seats 108, is more a full-service restaurant than its fast-food, drive-in and take-away competitors. That said, like Burger King and McDonald's, Dave's burgers, fries and sandwiches are delivered wrapped in paper or paper bags, albeit in more stylish deep aluminum trays. And that's where bagger comes from. As for Dave, several members of management and their children are named Dave.

In addition, unlike most burger joints, you can purchase bottled beer ($3.50-$4.75) and wine ($5-$6.50) by the pour while you enjoy the sophisticated jazz playlist. Finally, the woodsy up-north interior is not cookie-cutter, with its vintage photos of Berkley (like the Town Tavern's of Royal Oak) and a kiddy-pleasing electric train running above the two dining sections (like Woody's, also in Royal Oak).

But is this enough to create a distinctive burger experience? The thin patties start out in the open kitchen at 3.5 ounces — one costs $3.29 and two $4.29 (turkey burgers are a dollar more) and can be coddled in a plain, sesame or whole wheat roll or sourdough bread. For 75 cents you can add one of six kinds of cheese, and for $1 you can crown the patty with a "premium" topping of fries, fried egg, guacamole, bacon or turkey black bean chili. Bagger Dave's also offers 16 "meaningless free toppings" that range from ketchup and lettuce to less prosaic sautéed mushrooms, Cajun spice and green peppers.

Hand-crafted from lean ground beef that is never frozen, the burgers are all cooked medium-well. This results in a smallish, savory burger that may be slightly dry for some patrons. Indeed, the turkey burger is juicier than its beef cousin.

One remedy is to load it them up with gooey add-ons, which is the case with the seven, house-constructed signature burgers. For example, the "Train Wreck" ($6.99) piles on sharp cheddar, grilled onions, sautéed mushrooms, iceberg lettuce, mayonnaise and fries, while the "Tijuana" is laden with Cajun spice, chili, sharp cheddar, guacamole, lettuce, tomato and grilled onion.

A generous helping of hand-cut double-fried Belgian style Idaho fries is priced $2.19 a bag. According to director of operations Jeff Nickel, they are first blanch-fried at a low temperature, taken out to "sweat" for twenty minutes, and then flash-fried at a higher temperature. Although the elaborate procedure is supposed to produce fries that are crispy outside and mashed-potato-like inside, they could be a bit crisper. A better bet, at least in terms of taste if not crispiness, are the sweet-potato fries ($2.59), especially the seasoned option that features honey and cinnamon. Now that's a sweet potato. The fact that they are prepared in cholesterol-free peanut oil will please those worried about their arteries but may threaten diners allergic to peanuts, even though most of the toxins have been refined out.

The peanut-averse can select from among three salads — green, Greek and Caesar ($4.59) — which are served with a choice of house-made dressings. The Greek salad is OK, but contains limited feta and no beets.

Burgers are not all that is legendary at Bagger Dave's. You can opt for an accomplished self-proclaimed legendary turkey black bean chili or one of five legendary sandwiches, including grilled peanut butter, honey and banana, or a California BLT with guacamole the main genuflection to the West Coast.

Thick sweet shakes ($2.99), based on either vanilla yogurt or ice cream, comprise the dessert list. That list expands to 58 possibilities because of the free add-ons — chocolate syrup, Oreos, peanut butter, fresh strawberries and bananas.

And that just about covers the entire array of food available at Bagger Dave's.

Legendary it isn't — at least not yet. The burgers are decent, as are the fries, and the overall concept is just distinct enough to attract a good deal of interest, attested to by the fact that without much advertising, there has often been a wait for tables even during the week. In any event, Bagger Dave's offers an opportunity to experience what might be the next McDonald's right here in beautiful downtown Berkley.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to


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