Gilley's is a Portsmouth institution that's been slinging burgers for four decades and hotdogs for nearly a centrury. The one-time mobile operation is now permanently anchored in downtown Portsmouth in a well maintained 1940s Worcester Dining Company car. The cramped environs—which were also stiflingly hot, at least on my visit—afford a view into the kitchen where burgers and burger buns griddle away with no need for timers. Ordering is from a compact wall menu focused on burgers, dogs, fries, a limited arsenal of toppings and no need for gourmet deviation from the classics. There are two dining options: the classic stool and counter setup inside or picnic tables outside. A sign warns you not to ask for water, as there's a machine out back.
The simple whitebread bun is the same time tested standard also found at McDonald's on their smaller hamburgers, cheeseburgers and doubles. Unlike McDonald's, Gilley's griddles the buns rather than toasting them.
The beef is as simple as the bun: straightforward ground chuck, again similar to McDonald's but fresher and with a seemingly higher fat content. Just as at McDonald's, the patties are griddled. The edges on my burger got a little crunchy while retaining a pink and reasonably juicy interior—a pleasant surprise given the thinness of the patty.
I'm not sure if this is a plus or a minus, but besides the cheese and bacon, they ask you whether you want ketchup, mustard, etc., and apply it for you. There are no squeeze bottles on the counter, which I would have wanted for the fries. Same with salt.
The white American cheese melted into a thick blob atop the burger. Bacon was crisp but otherwise a minor player.
Fries appear to be handcut and appear to be double fried to get some extra crisp texture without losing the fluffy interior. What I received was an upgrade from the generic fries pictured in the must-have burger book Hamburger America by George Motz. (On the downside, the Gilley's burger pictured in that book looks far more delicious than the one I received.)
The Bottom Line
Overall, the Gilley's burger didn't disappoint but didn't knock my socks off.
This is a much-written-about place whose reputation and historical context can easily overshadow the burger itself. If you go in expecting burger nirvana, you'll set yourself up for a letdown. Think McDonald's style burger, with most of the same ingredients, only made with a little more precision and care—nothing more, nothing less. Go in with that mindset and Gilley's will come through.
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