I'm in the midst of updating my Best Burgers List for 2012 and one place that has been on and off the list since its inception about five years ago has been the Green Gables at Lake Bloomington, north of Bloomington, IL, near Hudson. I've talked about Green Gables in the past, but had really never done an in-depth look at the place. While driving between St. Louis and Chicago recently, I was in the area around lunch time. I got off I-55 and drove north to the Green Gables.
Located at the corner of E. 2500 North Road and N. 1750 East Road about 15 miles from Bloomington and 6 miles from Hudson (see map), the original building that houses Green Gables was built as a gas station back in 1929 by John Hinthorn. That was the same year that the city of Bloomington built Lake Bloomington, a 635-acre reservoir to supply water to the city and surrounding communities. Over the years and through three other owners, the Green Gables expanded to include a country general store.
In 1952, Ross and Marilyn Elvidge bought the establishment and added a bar to the place. Green Gables continued to pump gas until the Elvidges took out the gas pumps in the late 70's. In the late 80's, Ross Elvidge retired and his daughter, Julie MacPherson, and her husband ran it for seven years. Another Elvidge daughter, Sandy Holder, and her husband, Mike, bought the business from her sister. They continue to run Green Gables today.
I was first turned on to the Green Gables by my buddy, Jim Kellogg, who used to live in nearby Hudson. We had gone down to Hudson to see him and his wife, Lori, one day and they took us out to Green Gables. At that time - about 13 years ago - it was one of the finest burgers I'd ever had. Subsequent visits to the place reconfirmed my belief that the burgers were still some of the best.
However, on a trip to Green Gables in 2007, there was something decidedly different about the taste of the Green Gables burger. It wasn't as good as it had been in the past. When I reported back to Kellogg that I thought the quality of the burgers had gone downhill. Thinking I was full of crap, but admitting that he hadn't been out to Green Gables for awhile, he went out there with some friends and they, too, said that the burgers weren't that good. So, here's the story of the magic grill at Green Gables.
When Ross Elvidge decided to put in a bar, he bought a small flat top grill that was used to cook hamburgers. Only cleaning off the residue meat and juice, the flat top grill got a build-up of seasoning over the years giving the Green Gables burgers a signature taste. In 1988 when Ross Elvidge was getting ready to retire, he decided he would just close up Green Gables. He had a number of offers on the grill and he ended up selling it to someone who wanted it for the years and years of seasoning it had built up on it. When his daughter, Julie, later decided to buy the business from her father and reopen Green Gables, she had to buy the grill back!
Then a number of years ago, an over-zealous worker decided to clean up around the restaurant. He cleaned the flat top grill right down to the metal taking the years and years of seasoning of the plate. After that, the burgers were pretty pedestrian - and I got one of those burgers. It took months and months for the seasoning to build back up on the flat grill. I went back in to Green Gables in 2008 and while the burger was better than the time before, it still wasn't as good as I remember it to be on my first few visits. It had been that long since I was last in Green Gables until earlier this fall and I was hoping that the burger would be back to "normal".
I was told one time that the secret to the grill was that they used to pour ketchup on the flat top and that's what seasoned the burgers. But Sandy Holder says that nothing is done to either the grill or to their burgers enhance the taste. They use no seasonings on their burgers during the cooking process - not even salt and pepper.
The interior of Green Gables is nothing fancy. The grocery store is still in operation behind the bar area with a number of tables and chair set up in there for larger parties of people. (Believe it or not, there was a marriage rehearsal lunch going on with about 16 people seated around a large table in the grocery store.) In addition to regular grocery items, Green Gables also sells beer and liquor, as well as lures and bait for fishing at nearby Lake Bloomington.
The bar area features about nine or ten stools at the bar, and little booths back in the corner. There's a pool table next to the bar. With a white ceiling and a gray/white checked tiled floor, the place is bright in the daytime.
I took a seat at the bar in front of the grill and a lady took my order for a double cheeseburger. She took a couple of small balls of ground beef - an 80/20 mix - and put them on the grill. Letting them sit for a moment, she smashed them down with a large metal spatula, spraying the juice of the meat onto the grill. This gets the burgers thin and a double burger is usually about right for most guys and some gals. As the burgers were taken off the grill, the lady cooking the burger would use the spatula to scrape excess beef bits and juice down into a metal trough on the front of the grill. And that's it - no wire brush, no cleaning cloth. They turn the grill off at night and start it up again the next morning.
The burgers come wrapped up in wax paper. Ordering "everything" gets you lettuce, tomato, onions and pickle. Ketchup is available on the counter and mustard is available upon request.
The burger patties were thin and had that wonderful sort-of-burnt-meat crust on the outside. My first bite into the first Green Gables burger I'd had in a long time told me that the grill was magical once again. The taste of the burger was exquisite. It had that nice flat top grilled taste with the meat cooking in its own juices. There was still some juiciness to the burger as each bite yielded drips down onto the wax paper. The bun was soft and added a nice overall flavor to the burger. But the meat, on its own, was the star of the burger. The Green Gables burger solidified it's lofty ranking on my Best Burgers list.
And it's a pretty good bargain, too. A double cheese burger is $3.29 and it's better than many burgers I've had at fancier places where the burgers cost three times as much as the ones at Green Gables.
Look for my Best Burger list for 2012 to come out shortly, and one burger you'll be sure to see high on the list is the one at Green Gables. The magic grill is back and hopefully will continue to get better and better as time goes on. Green Gables is definitely a destination, but damn well worth the trip.