Parker’s was not the plan. It was, however, the solution.
The Wife, who also serves the CFO of our operations here at Al Dente HQ, said that dinner needed to be relatively inexpensive on Friday. I thought we would try The Bucket BBQ on the outskirts of Auburn. It had opened this year to some fanfare, and friend and fellow eater Margaret McCormick gave it thumbs up on her blog, Eat First. When we pulled into the parking lot around 6 p.m., we noticed something odd.
It didn’t look open. The sign on the door welcomed customers. There seemed to be lights on inside, but the parking lot was empty.
Friday night at 6 p.m. and no one is at your restaurant? Hmm.
This scared The Wife away and, to be honest, did not instill a lot of confidence in me either. Since I wasn’t particularly committed to The Bucket, we moved on. But to where? I know Auburn about as well as I know facets of The Wife’s family: I see them occasionally, but I couldn’t actually pair their names with their faces. Al Dente knows and trusts two restaurants in Auburn. The first, Moro’s Table, doesn’t really fit in the “relatively inexpensive” range (at least not when I eat there). The second place does.
Parker’s Grille is a family-owned chain of four restaurants in the Finger Lakes (in addition to Auburn, there are locations in Geneca, Newark and Seneca Falls). It’s a neighborhood bar and grill, in the way that Hullar’s, Riley’s, Jake Hafner’s and The Retreat do their jobs in the Syracuse area: burgers, steaks, fried stuff and a good beer selection. Yes, you can get all of that at Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesday, but you know that at places like these your burger was packed by hand, the onions and tomatoes were sliced on site and the kitchen staff tries different things. You know that the wait staff believes in the menu because they make recommendations and steer you away from things without the fear of management. If I wanted a regular burger, or a burger with a bunch of stuff on it, that was formed at a processing plant, I could go to Red Robin. (I like Red Robin as far as chains go. It’s certainly better than Applebee’s.) But it’s the little things that count, and places like Parker’s do the little things.
I came to know of Parker’s through my co-worker Toni, who lived in, worked in and married a guy from Auburn. She had long raved about their honey mustard (Toni has simple needs in life. Honey mustard. Blue cheese. Rainbow cookies. Bud Light products flavored with lime.). The Wife and I first went there for dinner a few years ago while she was pregnant with The Kid. We made our return on Friday and were surprised that the wait was only 15 minutes.
The first thing that catches your attention about Parker’s is that everyone who works there is happy. From the hostess, who looked like she was going to greet us with hugs, to our waitress to the bartender…everyone was smiling. It was a little unnerving in that sense, but as The Wife pointed out, it’s possible that these people enjoy their jobs.
We spent our wait at the moderately-sized bar. It was full, but not packed and certainly not noisy. The restaurant and bar share one large space and there wasn’t a lot of spill over in between. Parker’s has an impressive draught beer selection, mixing in the big names along with choices from craft beer stalwarts like Dogfish Head, Great Lakes Brewing Company and Lagunitas.
The menu at Parker’s is exactly what one would expect. Soups, salads, and hot and cold sandwiches lead up to a choice of nine different half-pound burger varieties, including The Dewey. The house favorite is described as a beer-drinking burger and comes with bacon, grilled mushrooms, Swiss cheese and mayonnaise. Burgers and sandwiches are served with steak fries, with curly and sweet potato fries available. The menu rounds out with steaks, fried seafood and a handful of Mexican dishes.
The Wife and I started with pretzel sticks — a plate of four 8-inch soft pretzels that were oven fresh and hot. Served with foodservice nacho cheese and homemade honey mustard, they were a nice opener. The pretzels were baked to a deep brown, but not overly greasy or salty. Orange cheese from a #10 can is comforting, but disappointing from any restaurant that prides itself on homemade specialties. It’s disappointing at Boom Boom Mex Mex and was the only real disappointment at Parker’s.
I opted for one of the night’s specials, a pork burger made with meat from Bostrom Farms. Bostrom is a favorite at Al Dente and a regular at the Central New York Regional Market. The 8 oz. burger was cooked medium well, with defined grill marks on the exterior, and served with chipotle mayo, lettuce, tomato and onion. The burger was very good and only a little bit of salt kept it from being excellent. I ate it with tomatoes only. The flavor reminded me how much I like Bostrom’s pork and how different factory-processed meats taste. It was juicy and tender for a medium-well burger.
The Wife was less thrilled with her choice of a beef on a weck, but she admitted that it was her fault. “It’s not the Beef n Barrel, but it will do.” (The Beef is an Olean, N.Y. restaurant that was fine dining for St. Bonaventure students. Their specialty was thin-sliced roast beef and the beef on a weck — a regional favorite — was nothing short of an art form there. You want to order two of these at dinner — one to eat and the other to take home for later.) By all accounts, the sandwich was perfectly fine. The kimmelweck roll had a nice collection of caraway seeds and salt on top. The beef was razor thin and the horseradish was lethal. Served au jus, it was fine. It just wasn’t The Beef. The Wife later admitted that she should have known better.
All the while, drink glasses never went dry, and everyone on staff smiled and was attentive to everything. From the hostess to the busser to the wait staff, things moved with precision to turn over covers and seat new customers. The bar never got loud or rowdy and the dining room was a steady mix of families and couples.
It seems odd to drive nearly an hour to eat a hamburger, but the burger is more than just food at Parker’s. From the moment you walk in the door, you get the impression that they are working on how to get you to come back. A restaurant where good food is exceeded by excellent service. Imagine that?
Parker’s Grille is located at 129 Genesee St. in Auburn. They also have locations in Geneva, Newark and Seneca Falls. Parking is on-street only. Reservations are not accepted. Dinner, with drinks and a generous (but deserved) tip, was $47.00.