In the bag
by Bix Engels
Stepping into Bagger Dave's the first time, I felt as if I were entering a giant time-and-space blender. Take a 1950s soda fountain, add a dash of 1980s sports bar, season with local nostalgia blowups from the 1920s and 1930s, and encircle it all with a model train. The dining room has an open kitchen that gives it a fast-food feel; the bar is cozier and provides a better view of the little choo-choo, whose freight cars, emblazoned with the corporate logos of Coca-Cola, Heineken, Budweiser, and, natch, Bagger Dave's, carry a load of metaphors around the restaurant. Wherever you sit, service is very casual-the fries are served in brown paper baglets, the hamburgers in a cake tin lined with baglike brown paper.
The first Bagger Dave's made its debut in Berkley, Michigan, in January 2008, although the logo proclaims "Est. 2006." Apparently during that long gestation the restaurant anticipated an eternal narrative for its fare, as its newly minted tagline already boasts of "legendary burgers and fries." The Bagger Dave's that opened in the Colonnade shopping center August 30 is the second; both are owned by Diversified Restaurant Holdings, which also owns a number of Buffalo Wild Wings franchises.
The menu is focused almost exclusively on burgers and fries, with a few sandwiches, chili, and salads. If you don't like hamburgers, you won't like Bagger Dave's; if you're a serious avant-garde-rare-Wagyu-on-challah connoisseur, you won't like it either. But if, like me, you're somewhere in the middle, Bagger Dave's may have some appeal.
Dave's hamburg is nicely sized-bigger than a slider, smaller than a megaburger. It's filling, yet small enough that you can eat a double out of hand without utensils and without having the thing fall apart. Dave's uses a flavorful cut of fresh chuck, brought in every other day from a Grand Rapids supplier and ground daily. The meat patties are cooked on a griddle to medium and retain a good deal of juiciness. You're encouraged to
"create your own legend" from an order-form checklist starting with either a single or double patty setup, followed by four bread choices and thirty-four possible condiments, cheeses, and sauces-most free, some for an additional fee.
I started small, with a single 3.5-ounce patty on a sesame bun complemented by lettuce, tomato, pickle, and what the menu describes as "Hoffman's super sharp cheddar." Fresh off the griddle, this minimalist proletarian burger was tasty, but the cheese was so devoid of flavor I thought after the first bite the kitchen staff had forgotten it. (I looked and indeed there was something cheeselike there, but it remained undetectable in flavor.) My friend's basic double-decker was pretty much twice the same: juicy beef, respectable trimmings, and twofold flavorless cheese; thankfully, Dave's does without the padding of an extra midbun.
After much experimentation on several visits, I finally hit on my favorite build-your-own: a single with grilled onions and blue cheese on a sesame seed bun. (Of the three cheeses I tried, the blue was the only one that had any noticeable personality.) I also enjoyed the vegetarian black bean burger, lightly grill charred and with a little back-end kick from vaguely Mexican seasonings, I'd guess cumin with a touch of chilies. Turkey burgers are also available; the turkey I tried was the juiciest of the lot but also the greasiest, even in the single size (the grilled onions may have contributed to that).
Sampling among the six preset combination "signature burgers," we were derailed by the Train Wreck, whose trademarked name is a fitting description of this compilation of meat, fats, and starches: two beef patties, that same flavorless cheddar, fried onions, fried mushrooms, a fried egg, french-fried potatoes, and mayonnaise in a soft white bun. Less would be more here; the smooshed fries were excess baggage, the egg overcooked. The Blues Burger was on a more modest scale, with just two meat patties and blue cheese, but it suffered from a large dose of incongruous Cajun spicing, and the unpleasantness was compounded by a stale honey-wheat bun. (I will say that that was the sole dated bun among many fresh ones, and that generally the buns stand up well to the meat.) But we liked the bacon BBQ burger, which came together well with crispy bacon and a fine barbecue sauce.
I see very good potential in the logo's other mythic mainstay-the "legendary" french fries. Made with fresh-cut potatoes, they're blanched in hot peanut oil, allowed to rest, and then recrisped in the oil. They really are vastly better than the kind of uniform tasteless sticks that so often masquerade as pommes frites. Two quibbles: Early on, each order of fries had an overabundance of too-small, blackened potato pieces-the effect was unsatisfying, not unlike a box of movie popcorn loaded with unpopped kernels. Dave's people seemed to have improved on this score by my later visits. But they still need to work on texture-the potatoes are not always getting fully crisped on that second fry. I'd say that with a few tweaks, the fries, available in a generous single or obscene double portion, have the potential for greatness. I liked Dave's thin crispy sweet-potato chips too, although using the "signature honey mustard dipping sauce" was like dunking your chips in cinnamon-maple syrup.
The menu also includes a few salads, among which I tried the Cobb, a mix of very fresh and clean greens, crisp bacon, and a surprisingly good balsamic vinaigrette dressing, although here again there's a need for better cheese.
Although the business is geared to carryout, the headliner items did not travel well. The burgers dried up and the fries became irretrievably soggy by the time we got them home, a ten-minute drive.
Service is efficient at lunch but haphazard in the evening, when the staff started every meal with a bang only to lose focus and wander off midway through dinner. But they were always genuinely affable, and even in these early days, when slipups are bound to occur, their good natures make up for the lapses in professionalism-we saw one youthful staffer frantically running around the parking lot, looking to reunite a credit card with its lost owner.
859 West Eisenhower Parkway
(the Colonnade) 994-3283
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight, Sun. noon-11 p.m.
Hamburgers & other sandwiches $3.49-$6.99, french fries $2.29-$2.59, salads $3.29-$6.29, desserts $1.79-$3.99
Fully disability friendly
[Originally published in November, 2008.]