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By Andre Teague/Bristol Herald Courier

Burger Bar is REOPEN!

May 12, 2010

By Mac McLean | Reporter / Bristol Herald Courier
Published: May 8, 2010

BRISTOL, Va. – About three dozen people have stopped by the Burger Bar to have their pictures taken with the contractors who spent the past four months cleaning its red, black and yellow tiles.

The iconic downtown restaurant’s neon sign also has been refurbished.

“The entire community has been waiting for the Burger Bar to reopen,” said Troutdale Kitchens owner Ben Zandi, who in January bought the restaurant that’s best known for a possible connection to country music legend Hank Williams’ last days.

That wait is over, said Zandi, who after giving the Burger Bar a facelift and retooling its menu will reopen the downtown eatery at 11 a.m. Monday with a special-price deal, honoring the 1950s.

Once inside, patrons will find a new ceiling and light fixtures, and increased seating capacity, to 21 guests.

“It looks awesome, doesn’t it?” Zandi asked Friday as he showed off his handiwork. He declined to disclose how much the work cost, but said: “It was twice as much as what we budgeted for the project.”

Dating to the 1940s, the Piedmont Avenue restaurant is best known for a fateful night more than 50 years ago, when some believe country music legend Hank Williams and his driver, Charles Carr, stopped by the diner.

Legend has it that Williams and Carr stopped by the Burger Bar while traveling from Montgomery, Ala., to Canton, Ohio, on Dec. 31, 1952. Carr asked Williams if he wanted anything to eat, but his passenger said “No.” The two continued on to Oak Hill, W.Va., where Carr noticed that something was wrong with his passenger. So Carr stopped at a nearby hospital, where Williams was pronounced dead Jan. 1, 1953.

Being known as the last place that Williams spoke – even though Carr later admitted his last stop might have taken place in Bluefield, W.Va., instead of Bristol – put the Burger Bar on the map for tourists who are interested in country music history.

“We get a lot of tourists who come here” for that reason, said Matt Bolas, vice president of the Bristol Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They know the story of Hank Williams and they want to know about the Burger Bar.”

But its tourist draw and a steady stream of loyal customers stopping for lunch breaks wasn’t enough to convince the restaurant’s previous owner, Sean Hyler, to keep the Burger Bar open for what could have been its 67th year. Describing the decision as “more of a necessity than a choice,” Hyler closed the restaurant Dec. 30.

Just two days before the restaurant closed, Zandi, who owns several fine-dining restaurants including the Troutdale Dining Room, met with Hyler and cut a deal to buy the Burger Bar and keep it running. Zandi announced the deal in mid-January.

When it reopens Monday, the Burger Bar menu will have a few changes: While keeping the same mixture of burgers and hot dogs named after Hank Williams’ songs that made the restaurant famous, Zandi added burgers of bison meat and Kobe beef. Most of the restaurant’s sandwiches will cost $4 to $7, except for the last two items that respectively will cost $12 and $14.

When the Burger Bar holds its reopening Monday, its first 50 customers will be able to order from a menu where everything costs 50 cents. Zandi said the deal is part of a plan to honor the 1950s and celebrate a decade when the Burger Bar and other diners like it thrived.

The restaurateur also said he plans to serve locally raised, grass-fed beef and other locally produced ingredients whenever possible at the Burger Bar.

“Our motto is going to be supporting your local farmers one bite at a time,” said Zandi, who uses the same mantra and local foods philosophy at his other restaurants, including the Troutdale Dining Room.

In the future, Zandi said, he might extend the restaurant’s hours so it serves three meals a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner – rather than the lunch and dinner service he currently plans to provide.

Previously, the Burger Bar was open only for breakfast and lunch.

“Since you have this diner feel, I think that breakfast should be on the menu,” Zandi said, adding that he’ll make this decision based on the amount of business the restaurant gets during its first month.

gmclean@bristolnews.com| (276) 645-2518