SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
Originally opened in 1965 by WWII veteran Bill Elwell, the man, the myth, and the namesake remains at the forefront of the operation, cooking his perfect little cheeseburgers Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Always closed on weekends and holidays, Bill’s is the only cheeseburger you’ll ever need to call in sick for in order to enjoy. Yes, it’s that good.
As a crowd grows around the eight-seat counter, Bill takes a step away from the grill to pop his head out the window. “McDonald’s closed today?!” The man of few words chortles to the gathering of burger lovers. What is it exactly that makes this literal shack in Van Nuys so much better than the burger spot down the street, or In-N-Out? The short answer is: everything. But to begin, let’s go over some ground rules when dining at Bill’s Burgers.
Rule #1: If there’s an open stool, take a seat at the counter. If not, wait patiently for one to open up. Like most burger counters, the honor system is implemented. Some people may be waiting for a friend or a to-go order. However, if you plan on eating with any more than a friend or two, I suggest seating yourself at the community table located in the back of the shack. But for anyone looking for the true Bill’s Burgers experience, you MUST sit at the counter.
The counter at Bill’s is where you witness this 91-year-old man doing what he was put on Earth to do. Viewing the cooking process is essential to eating at Bill’s.
Rule #2: Know your order so that you can place it promptly when called upon. This brings us to Sharon, one of Bill’s five ex-wives. Sharon is a get-to-the-point order-taker who has seemingly been serving Bill’s burgers as long as he’s been cooking them. When it comes to beverage refills, additional orders of chips, and paying your check, it all runs through Sharon.
Rule #3: Speaking of chips, Bill’s does not serve french fries. Only potato chips and, more specifically, only Lay’s Classic potato chips. The minute you ask for a side of fries, you reveal your cards as an ignorant amateur to all of the Bill’s regulars surrounding you.
Rule #4: Wait patiently for your burger to be made. Sometimes the backlog of orders can lead to waiting upwards of 20-30 minutes after ordering. Trust me though…the wait is worth it.
While waiting for your order to arrive, take in the environment. Bill’s burger stand/shack is quite small, but there’s still plenty to soak up. From the fat and grease-encrusted grill that appears to be from the 1920s, to the sign adorned beneath the cash register (also from the ‘20s/’30s), stating: “YOU CAN’T HAVE IT YOUR WAY — THIS IS NOT BURGER KING!!!” Even gawking at Bill’s considerably low menu prices (cash only) is an appropriate use of time. For those curious, a cheeseburger costs $4.20, a double cheeseburger is $5.30, a hot dog is $3.60, chili dog is $3.80, and chips are 50 cents a bag.
The best way to pass time, as your order is prepared, is to just sit back and bask in Bill’s process. Hunched over the grill, the 91-year-old slaps each thin piece of meat, cheese, and bun onto the flat-top cast-iron grill with his bare hands. First he toasts the buns and seasons the fresh meat. The buns are then passed down the line to longtime friend, Hiroko, who spreads mayo on the top bun. The bottom bun is then topped with a slice of tomato, pickles, diced onions, and iceberg lettuce.
Meanwhile, Bill munches on a piece of bacon (if it’s not sold out) or even raw burger meat (it’s that fresh), as he waits to flip. After flipping the burger, a slice of cheese is topped and quickly melts into the meat. The mayo-topped bun is then placed on the cheeseburger so that it can all finish cooking together. This is when the flavors truly start to combine and the real magic happens. The smoke billowing from the cheese melting onto the grilled meat is easily one of the greatest aromas of all time.
Finally, the mayo-topped bun and cheeseburger(s) is reunited with the bottom bun and vegetables to create the magnificent meat marvel known as Bill’s cheeseburger. And there you have it: The quintessential Los Angeles cheeseburger. It’s even better as a double; and if you’re really feeling gluttonous, go the extra mile by adding bacon and/or a fried egg.
The charm of Bill’s Burgers is its history, delicious product, and the old-school nature with which it’s all presented. Bill’s is old school all the way down to the powdered soap in the bathroom. It’s the definitive example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”In fact, he’s often quoted saying, “I don’t want anymore business.” Yet, for as long as he’s still hunched over that timeworn grill, breathing in clouds of mouth-watering cheeseburger smoke, new and old customers will continue to come. And they better like it, because Bill isn’t going to change a thing.
Header image courtesy of Facebook/Phaedra Cook.