The bells on the front door jangle awake. The griddle crackles from hot beef fat, a sound that bests any jukebox on earth. It should be early. That’s when it’s best at Hunky’s: Be there right after the doors unlock for lunch. The sputter of rendered fat on a flat top, especially if you’re sitting in a 35-year-old diner, is loud enough to wake the deadest things. The angry roil of the fryer is in there too, encasing dill pickle slices with gold. There’s cheer at the register, the sunrise-red sign is humming and the traditional cacophony of a good diner means your food’s getting wrapped in a golden crust.
It’s been nearly 35 years, and Hunky's on Cedar Springs remains a lighthouse. You can see the barber’s pole-red sign calling you in for cheeseburgers. I exhale when I step in; do you? Serving an “old-fashioned” menu, when it’s wielded correctly and not with a heavy hand, provides to-the-bones comfort. It’s a narrow target to hit. At some diners, you may find frozen patties massacred by heat until the middle is gray and chewy. Others get away with an unseasoned crust, and you’re left only with the nostalgia of ordering a simple diner burger on a store-bought bun. At the right kind of “old-fashioned joint,” the phrase “I could have made this at home” will bounce off you like a bullet off of Superman.
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Hunky's sears the crust on thick patties, marbled by juices. You’ll see it in the beef’s landscape immediately. Each bite is anchored by the sharp tang of yellow mustard, chopped iceberg that tastes more of water and crispness than anything else, pickles, onion and insanely yellow cheese. More than three decades later, Hunky's is sending out diner cheeseburgers better than most diners. Stick with the classics while you’re at it: A bacon cheeseburger is not a perfect burger, but it’s the right burger when you’re there. The bacon is breakable and thin.
A standard cheeseburger is also proportioned modestly. Before the age of challenge food and shiplapped pubs, some cheeseburgers, believe it or not, weren’t on a mission to murder you like a hulking Terminator. In other words, there’s solace to be found with an order at Hunky's. Deep-fried pickles are the size and weight of silver dollars. You get a handful, not a Halloween candy bowl-full, and some ranch for dipping. It won’t upend your taste buds with new flavors, but it won’t bore them either.
The door’s bells jangle again, and the crowd floods in around high noon. Grab a stool if you make it before the crowds — the sizzle from the flat top steams out of the kitchen’s window in waves like a pie on a sill. It’s the right kind of old-fashioned.
Hunky's, 3930 Cedar Springs Road (Cedar Springs)