Pile on the chili and slaw—these beloved North Carolina burgers are worth the mess.
North Carolina’s small-town burger joints serve up some of the best burgers in the state with plenty of flavor with a side of tradition. Read below to get ideas of what small-town spots to make your next destination.
116 ½ N. Main St., Salisbury
The line at downtown hole-in-the-wall Hap’s starts forming mid-morning, and stretches out the door and down the sidewalk as lunchtime approaches. Inside, the tiny burger-and-dog joint keeps it simple—no seating, no fries, no ketchup. Extra-thick patties are cooked on a flattop, and smothered with homemade chili, cheese, yellow mustard and onions if you order them “all the way”, then loaded into brown paper bags that usually develop grease stains from the messy-good burgers. Option adds are bags of chips or a cold Cheerwine in a glass bottle.
1920 E. 5th St., Lumberton
Not much has changed in the nearly 60 years since this Lumberton institution served its first burger. Car hops still bring hand-pattied burgers and freshly-cut fries to vehicles parked outside. Inside,, members of the Stevens family—who founded the restaurant—still stand behind the counter and operate the flat-top. And while the Dixie’s well-worn marquee recalls another era, its fresh food prepared with care remains timeless.
505 W. Church St., Cherryville
Some places you order burgers Carolina Style (mustard, chili, coleslaw and onions), others, it’s allthe-way. But at the Shake Shop you want a Lottaburger—two patties inside a hoagie-style bun with slaw, tomato and pickle. No chili. No ketchup. No exceptions. The Shake Shop has served them that way since 1943, when textile mill workers flooded in after shifts. Locals still pack the small eatery today, washing their Lottaburgers down with their signature Cherry Lemon SunDrop—a crimson-hued concoction of SunDrop, cherry juice, candied cherries, lemon slices and lemon juice.
133 W. Broad St., Elizabethtown
Since 1938, Melvins’ has served its burgers pretty much the same way—meat ground in-house, cooked to juicy perfection on a blazing grill, topped with mustard, onion, slaw and chili. The latter two toppings are made with secret recipes, as the best chili and slaw usually are. You can add your own ketchup—if you must—but why mess with the perfection that has kept locals lining up for more than 80 years?
3706 Arendell St., Morehead City
Visiting El’s Drive-In feels a little like stepping back in time, in the best way. The restaurant, which opened in 1959, has been operated by the same family for three generations. A traditional drive-in, there’s no indoor seating—just curbside service and picnic tables shaded by towering oak trees. And the burgers are freshly made each day, with options including their massive super cheeseburger as well as coastal-inspired versions like the shrimp and oyster burgers.
Nick’s Old Fashion Hamburger House
6999 Old U.S. Hwy. 52, Lexington
While Lexington may be best known for barbecue, locals will tell you Nick’s burgers give ‘cue a run for its money. Big, juicy patties topped with melted cheese, onions, homemade chili and slaw (other toppings include pimento cheese, bacon and pickles) could be a meal themselves, but it’s hard to resist the restaurant’s crispy sweet potato fries and homemade chips, served with freshly made ranch. And save room for Nick’s thick, creamy milkshakes—the perfect accompaniment to a burger.
1520 E. 11th St., Siler City
In 1946, Claxton Johnson was just a kid when his father opened Johnson’s Drive-in, and he still oversees operation of the family restaurant that specializes in freshly-made burgers. The eatery patties hunks of grain-fed USDA choice ground beef, which sizzle on the griddle before being topped with Velveeta that melts to a satisfying goo atop the cooking burger. From there, you can choose toppings that include chili, slaw, lettuce and tomato, among others, all bought or made fresh that day. And because the burgers are made with fresh ingredients each day, it pays to get there early—the lines can be long. Once they run out of meat, that’s it for the day.