A man standing in front of a walk up burger window in San Jose
Nick Barrita, co-owner of Burger Bar in San Jose. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Burger Bar in San Jose might have been what musician Chuck Berry was thinking about when he rhapsodized in “Back in the U.S.A.”about a place where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day.”

The restaurant, founded in 1953 by Albert Berger, predates the classic song by six years and was the first of five Burger Bars, followed by 25 Burger Pits. Only this location remains — the last Burger Pit closed on April 23.

“Rumors have been going around about us,” Burger Bar co-owner Nick Barrita told San José Spotlight. “We have been getting a lot of people coming in panicked because they were afraid we were the ones shutting down.”

Burger Bar was founded in 1953 by Albert Berger. The Barrita family purchased it about a decade ago. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Happily, the concern is unfounded. Burger Bar survives and is preserved in time on South First Street like an insect trapped in amber, with its classic drive-in exterior, a marquee reading “Burgers 5 for $9.99” and the unmistakable diner fried-food aroma wafting through the ample parking lot.

“When my family bought this place 10 years ago, we didn’t know much about it at first,” Barrita said. “But if you stand at the counter, people will tell you how long they’ve been coming and their history with the place.”

The Barrita family was already in the restaurant business before buying Burger Bar, having founded La Victoria Taqueria in 1988, which has grown to six locations.

But with Burger Bar, the family quickly understood they were stewards of a beloved institution.

“We have grandparents who came here as kids bringing in their grandkids,” Barrita said. “We wanted to be sure to keep everything in line with that history.”

A big part of the history is the bag of burgers, a tradition since the place opened — when the deal was 10 burgers for a dollar. Barrita said that, on a good day, they prepare 80 or so bags — 400 burgers. More than 100 bags on a great day.

The burgers are thin — eight burgers from one pound of meat — but they’re the restaurant’s No. 1 seller. They come with mayonnaise along with relish mixed with barbecue sauce, and Barrita said they’ve been served that way for 70 years.

Burger Bar sells five burgers for $9.99. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Longtime customer Lorenzo Jamal said he has been coming to Burger Bar since at least 1996 when he was a child. He orders the same thing every time: a bag of burgers and a soda.

“The relish makes them different from other burgers like McDonald’s, and I think the price is great,” he told San José Spotlight.

Burger Bar offers more conventional burgers, such as the second-most popular item: the steak sandwich, which sells in almost the same numbers as the bag of burgers. It’s a quarter-pound burger served on a steak roll with barbecue sauce. There is also the quarter-pound deluxe burger, which comes with lettuce, onion, mayo and relish, and the half-pound colossal burger, with lettuce, red onion, pickles, tomato and cheese.

A hot dog, shrimp and fries, cheeseburger, deluxe burger and steak sandwich from Burger Bar. Photo by Robert Eliason.

One change the Barrita family made was to start cooking burgers to order instead of ahead of time. That includes the fried half-chicken — which in-the-know customers order by phone to avoid the 20-minute cooking time — and the french fries, which are hand-cut every day and seasoned with a little salt.

While burgers make up the lion’s share of orders, the menu also includes popcorn shrimp, fish and chips, chicken sandwiches, burritos and a killer chili. For dessert, there are apple turnovers, churros and a variety of milkshakes, including a rich strawberry shake.

Apple turnover and strawberry shake from Burger Bar in San Jose
Burger Bar’s dessert options include apple turnovers and milkshakes. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Burger Bar served most of its existing menu items long before Barrita took over, and he does not feel a need to alter what has been a successful formula.

“Anybody who is hungry is going to find something there to make them happy,” he told San José Spotlight. “The food is good and always affordable. You can’t beat it.”

Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know of a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected].

Burger Bar

Located at 1101 S. First St. in San Jose

(408) 293-0900

Open daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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