“I don’t know if I’d go back,” said my friend. “The burger was just ok.”
My heart sank. This was the famous Pinesburger, after all. The burger I heard older, wiser Cornellians raving about as I walked around campus. Ask a local, and chances are they’d say the Pinesburger is the best in town. The burger that would confer upon you ultimate glory if you dared to successfully eat four in the Ultimate Pinesburger Challenge. The burger that was the first thing I ate when I arrived at Cornell, and thus, had sentimental value. Plus, I thought it tasted pretty great.
After some serious deliberation, I finally convinced my same doubtful friend to return to the Glenwood Pines with me to determine if I had been over-hyping this burger, which the menu describes as “world famous.” With my inordinate love for the Pinesburger, and my friend’s more dismal perspective, I hoped we would be able to come to a more balanced conclusion.
We arrived at the Glenwood Pines after a 15-minute drive from campus. Although it’s a bit far, I would argue that the effort it takes to reach the Glenwood Pines only adds to the special destination’s atmosphere. It was a hopping Saturday night, and we were lucky to score the last table by the kitchen, from which we could hear the cooks yelling, “Need one more!” and “Order up!” over the hissing of the fryer. The last time I had eaten here was during the day, when it was possible to see sailboats and paddle boarders enjoying Cayuga Lake’s clear, glistening waters under the hot sun. At night, the only difference is that those tranquil waters aren’t as visible through the large windows, but the knowledge that we were right next to the lake was consoling nonetheless.
Filled with smiling families and Cornellians no matter what time of day, the Glenwood Pines is surely the perfect cozy hangout for lunch or dinner, no matter the season. Everyone seemed to be engrossed in conversation as they indulged in their Pinesburgers or the restaurant’s other offerings, such as coconut shrimp, hot corn chowder and fresh-off-the-fryer onion rings. There was not a phone in sight, and the soft hum of the arcade games added to the lively ambiance. Three or four servers bustled about — they seemed to be having a good time, too.
Our waiter promptly took our order, and our Pinesburgers arrived soon after, still sizzling and next to a heap of homemade French fries. The verdict? The meat, though charred, was tender and further enhanced by the ketchup, lettuce, onion and cheese. (I chose to skip the tomato, but it normally comes with the Pinesburger). There were two options for the sauce; I chose mayo, while my friend chose Thousand Island dressing. The baked French bun, which hails from Ithaca Bakery, soaked up some of the juiciness of the meat. I eagerly began to devour the deliciously messy burger. My first bite was a perfectly barely-held-together combination of hot goodness. There is an implied elegance in the simplicity of the Pinesburger — which contains all of the classic components, such as lettuce and tomato — yet the choice between dressings adds a special flair. It’s a pricier burger at $12, but it’s definitely satisfyingly filling.
Although the French bread is a signature element of the Pinesburger, it was admittedly a bit too dense and thick: too much bun, not as much meat. A golden, buttery brioche bun might have better synchronized with the meat, rather than slightly overpowering it. Taking a step back, I can agree that maybe it’s not the best burger ever (I hail from Chicago, home to Au Cheval, the restaurant that serves what the Food Network has declared to be “The Best Burger” in the United States), but that’s not the point. The point is that if the bun were to change, then the burger would be more like the Au Cheval-style double cheeseburger, and less like the institutional Pinesburger.
Maybe the best plan of action is to not mess with what’s already working, and the Pinesburger has been working since the 1970s. My friend and I can ultimately agree that we wouldn’t want our Pinesburger any other way, in any other setting, than how it is on serene Cayuga Lake and in the memories of generations of Cornellians.
Then came dessert. We chose the Kentucky Derby pie, a large and decadent warm chocolate and peanut butter medley served with a side of whipped cream and vanilla ice cream. Chocolate sauce had been artfully drizzled across the pie and ice cream as a sweet final touch. The crust was aptly light and flaky, and it was clear that the pie had just emerged from the oven. The heat from the pie combined with the cold whipped cream and vanilla ice cream transported me; I was no longer at the Glenwood Pines, but sitting on my couch at home, the fire crackling in the background. “I guess I might come back,” said my friend between mouthfuls of chocolatey goodness.
We certainly ended on a sweet note.
Serves: classic American burgers and sandwiches
Vibe: rustic and cozy