Eater photographer Robert Donovan took an assignment to shoot the cheeseburger at Old Village institution H&R Sweet Shop and came back with a great story to pair with the images. Here, Donovan recounts his inaugural trip to the unassuming eatery.
The address is an old shotgun-style building with the sweet shop on the left and a hat shop on the right. I went at 4 p.m., and when I walked in, there was only one customer picking up a to-go order. Once he left, I was the only customer for the reminder of my visit. The chairs were up on the tables, and the only lights flipped on were at the far end of the long room, at the service counter.
The place doesn't look like it's had any work done to it in 20 years. There was an old Christmas tree at the far end, past the counter, and some fliers for events long over tacked up in a few places. Saying the decorations are sparse doesn't quite get the feel. The only pictures on the walls were a photo of a young Muhammad Ali and the front page of a newspaper framed from the day James Brown died. Over the dark service area there is a sign that says "Live the Dream."
The man running the place that day, Mr. Coffee, looks to be in his 60's, skinny, wearing a small turban, earrings, and the vest of a 1960's soda jerk. He reminded me a little of the great jazz-funk organist Lonnie Smith. A very nice, but very serious man who went about his business while changing the music on his small CD player every song. From Barbara Streisand to Louis Armstrong to Al Green, singing along with each one.
The menu has everything: cheeseburgers ($4.75), dollar hotdogs, a pork chop sandwich ($4.50), a fried-fish sandwich ($4.95), fish, pork chop, or chicken dinners ($8.00-$10.00) and wings with sides like fries, fired okra, and onion rings. They have a special each day such as baked turkey wings with rice and green beans, pork chops with lima beans and rice, and various combinations of the fried options. It looks like the menus on the wall have been there for a long time, and they've just taped over the prices or hand-written them in when they needed to be raised.
I ordered the cheeseburger with fries, and Mr. Coffee went off to the back to prepare it. He set me up with a couple of paper towels, packets of mustard, mayo, and ketchup, and a squeeze bottle of Texas Pete. The burger comes out unstacked, and it is a bit on the chaotic side. The patty is thick and not in any recognizable shape. Lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, American cheese, and a very soft, thin bun. After wrestling with it to get it all into some manageable sandwich-like form, the burger is pretty damn good. It's thick, juicy, a little char from the griddle, and the flavored with what I'm sure was a couple pounds of butter used to fry it. The salty grease of the oddly shaped burger, the thin soft buns, and the mayo and mustard (I don't do ketchup) combined to make it fairly unwieldy to eat. By the end, it was falling apart, but I didn't care. Great flavor, well-seasoned, and for $4.75 — that's hard to beat. Also, it's damn big. The fries were pretty standard, out-of-a-freezer-bag crinkle fries, but with the size of the burger I barely even touched them.
I talked to Mr. Coffee and finally got him to open up a little bit. Asked him if it would be ok if I took his photo, but he just kind of laughed, shook my hand, and went back to polishing some silverware and singing. Interesting guy for sure. I bet he's been doing this for years and has some stories to tell about the Old Village.
Written and reported by Robert Donovan.