Bill Maund admits that relocating his popular Retro Burger & Ice Cream from the summer crowds of West Yarmouth to a spot just outside Arlington Center — and going from a seasonal place to a year-round location — is a “calculated risk.” Burger competition around Boston has stiffened as franchises like Shake Shack and Five Guys Burgers & Fries have joined homegrown Tasty Burger, UBurger, and Flat Patties in adding occasional upscale touches to the classics. That’s exactly why Maund thinks the move is a good idea. His place isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, er, patty.
“Those [other places] are trying to be more clever, more unique than we are,” says Maund, an Arlington resident for 19 years who opened Retro in July. “We just offer a nice simple backyard burger that you could basically do at home if you had the time or the ingredients.”
The name pretty much says it all: it’s retro chic, devout to the ’50s diner theme with vintage metal Pepsi Cola ads on the wall. Only missing are employees’ paper hats and a jukebox (though Retro Burger’s 1952 Seeburg music machine is due back from the shop soon; it’s the same model seen on “Happy Days”).
With 19 seats, the former Cakes Bakery & Cafe space on Mass. Ave. is a downgrade from the 40-seat Cape location Maund owned for three summers. “We did very well between May and September, but that leaves six months of inactivity,” he says. “We fill a niche for Arlington.”
The checkerboard-lined menu is straightforward, mostly burgers with big, greasy patties and a few hot dogs. Names reflect regional themes (The Rifleman and Menotomy burgers, The Spyponder hot dog) and Maud’s Ohio roots (The Clevelander hot dog). The most expensive item, another midwest tribute, is the massive Godzilla burger ($9 half-pound, $5 quarter-pound). Where he comes from, “it’s not unusual for sub shops to make cheeseburger subs with lunchmeat on them,” Maud says of the patty topped with Genoa salami, bologna, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onions, and mayonnaise. It’s a combination that tastes a lot better than it sounds.
Anyone intimidated by the half-pound Angus beef patties can order the “Not Man Enough” quarter-pounder (on the Godzilla it’s called “The Godzuki,” an obscure reference to the giant reptile’s son). The best, The Rifleman ($8 half-pound, $5 quarter-pound), is actually more akin to a cheesesteak, with a peppered patty topped with provolone and sauteed mushrooms and onions. The classic Menotomy ($8 half-pound, $5 quarter-pound) is Retro’s most popular offering, a combination of lettuce, tomato, red onions, pickles, American cheese, ketchup, and yellow mustard.
A few selections on the “alternative burgers” menu fall short. Foghorn Leghorn ($6), grilled chicken breast with lettuce, tomato, red onions, and Swiss, is laced with gristle and surprisingly disappointing for a dish that’s hard to get wrong. The Larry Bird turkey burger ($6) improves between visits. A first take is bland, but improves dramatically with sauteed onions, mushrooms, and Swiss cheese.
Like the burgers, 10-inch-long hot dogs (one-third pound each) are plenty to handle. The Alamo ($6), covered in melted cheddar and red onions under a chunky river of chilies, is overwhelming. The Spyponder ($6), with the same neon American cheese you’d find on stadium nachos and more heaping chilies, again tastes OK but leaves a mess.
Sides can be added to orders or bought in baskets. Huge, peppery onion rings ($5 basket) lead the pack, though extremely greasy. Fries ($5 basket, $1.50 side) seem like they were once frozen, while sweet potato fries ($7 basket, $2.50 side) split the table as to whether they’re floppy or just firm enough. There is optimism that the fries will improve with cheese, but it’s quickly dashed when cheese fries ($6 basket) come covered with the same neon goop that drowned the Spyponder. Chicken fingers ($5) are nuggets more than fingers, but a solid option.
Vegetarians: This probably isn’t the place for you. There is a build-your-own grilled veggie burger ($7), but that’s about it. Maud is considering adding a salad, but there are scarce few greens now, all on burgers and chicken sandwiches.
This isn’t a burger and brew place. It’s family-friendly: no beer, just water and soft drinks, and a single HD television to keep kids entertained.
Slightly annoying is that each time we order at the counter, they close the bill, meaning, if you want to get ice cream after your meal, you’ve got to pull out the plastic again. But the Richardson’s ice cream, handpicked by Maund’s wife, Dimitra, is top notch.
Time will tell if Arlington will sustain a restaurant built around summertime bliss through the dark days of winter. For now, it bodes well that the two items in its name, burgers and ice cream, are what Retro does best.
Glenn Yoder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.