Sampler’s Pine Room Burger

Nothing ever stays the same for long and we are constantly taking stock of new developments, gauging the meaning and importance of changing situations, forever measuring the new and unknown against the ruler of memory and tradition.

In my capacity as an observer of Brown County dining, my first reaction upon hearing that the Pine Room Tavern was closing last year was, “But what about the Pine Room Burger?” I was both overjoyed and slightly reticent when I heard the Nashville institution had re-opened. What if it wasn’t as good as it was before? What if they’d unthinkingly altered the esteemed hamburger sandwich that had dominated their reputation these past few years?

I guess the Pine Room has been a fixture here my whole life, or certainly since before I could legally enter it (it dates to 1949). It relocated at some point from its traditional spot down on Van Buren Street to the Salt Creek Plaza, but the spirit of the place seemed to move with it, even the folks gathered at the bar. In the new location, the local bar gained some notoriety for its delicious hamburger, touted as “the best in the state,” along with many other traditional bar food offerings.

Fortunately, I had in hand an unimpeachable expert on the Pine Room Burger, Mrs. Sampler. Many a time, whilst sampling the fare at some other beanery or bistro, I had heard her comment, “Good, yes, but not as good as the Pine Room burger!” This became a standard around our household. So, it was a simple matter of experimentally feeding my kitchen companion the new Pine Room burger and observing the results.

We set out for the little pub located behind the Salt Creek Inn at the end of the Salt Creek Plaza strip mall in Nashville. It is now open Thursday-Sunday but you might want to call ahead for winter hours at (812) 988-0236.

I have to say the place did not appear to have changed much physically, but the menu indicated that big changes were indeed afoot back in the kitchen.

We started with a new addition to the appetizer menu, sweet potato fries. We are already big fans of this concept, having sampled them often at another local restaurant. But whereas they offer a drizzling syrup of brown sugar and maple syrup, the new Pine Room sweet potato fries come with homemade roasted garlic mayonnaise.

Instead of sweet on sweet, the garlic mayo gave a tangy contra-punctual zing to the naturally sweet fires that was truly a revelation to the taste buds. We also tried the hot wings, which were spicy, tangy, and delicious, served as they should be with celery stalks and bleu cheese dressing with a hunk of homemade bread to boot.

There are some big changes to the beer menu. You’ve got to see it to believe it. Anchor Steam, from San Francisco? They’ve got it. Harpoon IPA from Boston? Ditto. Fat Tire Amber Ale from Fort Collins, Colorado? Yes. And the list goes on and on—Bell’s Lager of the Lakes from Kalamazoo, Michigan; Stone Levitation Ale from Escondido, California; Sea Dog Blue Paw Blueberry Wheat from Portland, Maine; Clipper City Loose Cannon Hop Ale from Baltimore, Maryland; Mendocino Eye of the Hawk eight percent ABV from Saratoga Springs, New York. It’s like taking a craft brew tour of micro-breweries around the nation (and the world) without ever leaving Nashville.

I passed over the Stella Artois (Belgium) and the Tetley’s English Ale (in the 14.9 ounce pub can) and ordered the classic Guinness extra stout (Ireland).

With drinks and appetizers out of the way, it was time to get down to brass tacks on the “best hamburger in the state,” as it was formerly touted. Since I had the expert wife on hand to test the burger, many other tempting offerings whispered sweet nothings to my appetite.

There were bone-in pork chops with the house BBQ sauce, Linguini Alfredo with jumbo tiger shrimp, and penne marinara with Italian sausage. There was a breaded tenderloin, a grilled marinated chicken sandwich on a Cibatta roll, a classic Reuben made from a slow cooked brisket, and even a buffalo burger.

They’ve gone to all locally-raised beef and pork products from Fischer Farms (even the buffalo was “locally raised”), so any entrée with meat involved is probably going to be tres tasty. For the animal protein challenged, there is also a made-from-scratch veggie burger and a Caesar salad with grilled chicken or the Tiger shrimp, not to mention a large mixed greens salad and the soup of the day. I was drawn to the Pine Room Patty melt, the classic hamburger patty on Rye bread with caramelized onions and Swiss cheese. It was heavenly delicious, but I eagerly awaited the verdict on the “new” Pine Room burger.

“It’s good, but not the same,” said the expert after a few reflective bites. It is so often difficult to know just exactly what your wife means when she says certain words. The burger looked great, and she seemed to be enjoying it mightily.

How do you mean?” I asked finally.

“Well, it used to come in that little plastic basket with the waxed paper and the French fries.” was her reply. Translation: only the plate had changed, from plastic to china. The integrity of the Pine Room Burger had been preserved, improved upon, even, in its new iteration.

As we contentedly munched our burgers and sipped our beers, we reflected on the whole history of the Pine Room, and I shared many amusing anecdotes too long or salacious to bear repetition here.

“I remember when the Pine Room first got food,” said my wife out of the blue.

“It was a big deal. Food at the Pine Room! Everybody was all excited.”

“You know what it was?”

I confessed I did not.

“Tombstone pizza,” she said with a laugh. “That was the whole menu then, Tombstone Pizza, and that was considered a huge development, a major improvement.”

So, we cling to tradition, to memories, in the pitiful hope that things at the least won’t get any worse.

But so often, we forget to hope that they will actually get better. For the Pine Room burger, and the new menu as a whole, the phrase “new and improved” actually applies.

And that is enough to leave one profoundly satisfied.