Years ago, I used to do a "Top Ten" list for the best burgers I'd encountered. After awhile, I found these types of lists to be boring, repetitive and completely subjective. I know what I like in a burger and everyone has their own opinions. I'm just sharing mine with you. A person replied to one of my "Top Ten" lists saying that I really needed to try the burger at Paul's Tavern in Dubuque. My wife has a co-worker from Dubuque and he was telling her recently that we really needed to go to Paul's for a burger. On a recent Sunday, we took a road trip up to Dubuque to give Paul's a try.
The Paul behind Paul's Tavern is Paul Schollmeyer, just one of three owners of the place that has been in business for 68 years. He bought tavern just a year after it opened in 1947 and ran it for 45 years. One thing that Paul liked to do on his vacations in the 50's and 60's was hunt for big game. He'd bag his trophies and have them mounted to put on display at his little tavern. Many of the locals refer to the place as "Paul's Big Game Tavern".
When Tom Koch took over Paul's in 1993, regulars asked him to keep the place just the way it was with the deer heads and the bear skins and the stuffed waterfowl on display. And Koch did. Koch had been managing a McDonald's for nearly 15 years before he decided that he wanted to be his own boss. He was already working at Paul's Tavern a couple nights a week as a bartender, so it was easy for him to slip into the ownership role when Paul sold the business to him. Paul retired and would stop back into the tavern from time to time when he would get back to Dubuque from wintering in south Texas.
The bar is a throwback, a little neighborhood tavern that seats just 36 people in five booths and 16 stools at the bar. There's a large parking lot on the south side of Paul's building and we were able to park in that with no problem on a Sunday afternoon. Going into Paul's, we ended up seated at the end of the bar with Tommy the bartender holding court over a handful of regulars that day. Tommy came down to greet us and took our beer order. They had Old Style on tap and I eagerly ordered one of those. Cindy saw a Good ol' Potosi bottle in the cooler from the Potosi Brewery just up the road in Wisconsin and she took that. Tommy also got us a basket of pretty good popcorn to munch on.
One big thing that Tom Koch didn't change when he took over is the vintage Norge Broilerator that they use to cook burgers with. The Broilerator dates back to the early 30's and was touted as an economical way to cook a burger - 35% more efficiently than cooking a burger on a grill. The one that is used at Paul's is the original unit that was installed when the place originally opened in 1947. Norge went out of business in 1969 when its assets were acquired by Magic Chef - which, in turn, was acquired by Maytag in 1976 - which, in turn, was acquired by Whirlpool in 2006. So, it's a good guess that parts aren't available for a mid-40's manufactured Norge Broilerator. But the one at Paul's has cooked countless burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches and is still going strong.
OK, so we had to have the burger. There's no fryer at Paul's, so no fries or cheese balls are available, just chips if you want potatoes to go along with the burger. They source the beef locally and it's pretty lean - probably to help keep the grease from building up too much in the Broilerator. The burger is served with pickles and sliced onions on a basic bun. With cheese on top of the burger patty and served on a paper plate, it looks like the classic American cheeseburger.
And it tasted like one. It wasn't all that large, but one each was enough for my wife and me. The burger was juicy, the bun held together well, the onions were fresh, the overall taste of the burger was a B+ in my book - not the best I've ever had, but for $3.15 it tasted pretty good.
I love places like Paul's Tavern. It's a great little dive bar that has good burgers, cold beer and a little bit of history behind the place. Don't expect anything fancy if you go there. Language from the regulars can be a little salty. Tommy was fun to talk with and had a great sense of humor. (He even gave us complementary Paul's Tavern coozies!) And if you're offended by big game trophies looking at you while you have a burger, well, then just don't go. But you'll be missing out on an experience that is pretty enjoyable all the way around.