Post written by Nancy Moseley
When I told my cousin I interviewed Mike’s Grill for a DBI blog post he only had one thing to say: “Well, they really are the best burgers anywhere around here.”
Sure… everyone residing in the greater New River Valley already knows they’re the place to go for a tasty burger, but popular local opinion notwithstanding, when I went by to meet them I wanted to, quite frankly, go behind the burger; look between the buns, if you will.
Nick & Elaine Varelos inherited the family owned and operated restaurant from their father, the Mike, in 2005. Donned in aprons and periodically popping away to attend to kitchen duties or wait on customers, they answered my questions with the typical banter of brother and sister.
“We’ve been here since 1976,” Nick said. “Back then there was a bar in the front and pool tables in the back. We sold French fries and a basic burger, in a couple of sizes, from a small kitchen. But we were mostly a bar.”
“There was a lot of cleaning we had to do before we opened. I was pretty young, but I remember helping clean and clean and clean,” Elaine added.
“And I remember falling asleep on the pool tables,” snickered Nick, who was even younger at the time. “But when he shows up, he’ll tell you all about it.”
He, of course, is Mike himself, who continues to come by the restaurant every day. After immigrating to the United States from Greece in the late 1950s, Mike made his way to Roanoke where he worked at the Roanoke Weiner Stand and eventually opened his own restaurants, The Manhattan and later, Mike’s Place. Ultimately, he saw more opportunity for growth in the burgeoning community of Blacksburg, 40 minutes south.
But the early bar business proved rough. Riffraff from outlying areas didn’t mix well with college students, so trouble was always stirring. Nick recalls his dad keeping a machete behind the bar to slam down on tabletops as a harmless, albeit shocking, way to regain order.
Almost on cue, Mike arrived through the back door greeting everyone in a thick Greek accent. He joined the conversation and, despite the machete and riffraff, was excited to tell me about how the basic burgers of the early years became the famous burgers we know now.
“It was the good ol’ days! We were a beer joint first, but then we wanted to become more of a family place, so in the early 80s we took out the bar, moved the kitchen to the back and focused more on the food.”
“We changed everything down to one size, to streamline it, to make it simple for the wait staff. We started offering just a half-pound burger and one-size sodas. Even now we keep the menu small, it’s easier to keep things fresh,” Nick added.
This idea of freshness is rightly a matter of pride for the family. The beef is brined daily on premises and the cheese, the lettuce, all the condiments, are prepared on site. The tomatoes, from nearby Newport, garner compliments all year round. Every single burger is cooked to order; nothing is warmed-up or premade.
And then there’s The Spice. As with most restaurants that have a signature dish, there is also a signature secret ingredient. Only Mike and Nick prepare The Spice which you can add to your order by noting desired amount: “A lot of spice,” “Just a little spice,” or, for the patty purest, “No spice, please.”
The menu, down to the Greek dressing recipe that Mike also created himself, hasn’t changed at all since those good ol’ days.
“People come in because we haven’t changed, they come in to relive their memories,“ Elaine said. “If you ate here in 1981 and came in tomorrow, it would be the same. We’re exactly what they remember.”
Nick agreed, “It’s great when people come in and want to meet you because they ate here 30 years ago and are back again. They actually want to thank us for not changing.”
Though back in the 80s if the restaurant sold 5 pounds of beef it was considered a good day. Today, Mike’s Grill is known to sell 1000 burgers, roughly 500 pounds of beef, during a Virginia Tech football game weekend. So some change is good.
The restaurant opens every day at 11AM and loosely matches Virginia Tech’s calendar, shrinking hours during the summer and closing during school breaks. Nick admits they get accused of not caring about locals, however someone from the family is on site at all times and since the staff is mostly college students, they simply decided to take their breaks when the students do.
“We are very proud of what we make here. We put everything we have into this every day, so we need time off, too,” Nick defended.
The Varelos have not only built a business on burgers, they’ve built a business on memories. Having grown up going to Mike’s Grill myself (and to movies at the old Capri Twin next door, but I digress), I asked Nick and Elaine about their favorite memory of running the restaurant.
“Once when I was driving on the interstate a car next to me was honking, smiling and pointing at my Mike’s Grill bumper sticker. I’m just amazed that people everywhere seem to know about us,” Elaine laughed. “I guess my favorite memory is that we’re a big part of other people’s memories.”
“Several years back,” Nick recalled, “NFL recruiters came here to get burgers and talk about Michael Vick. Ever since then we’ve called where they sat the ‘Million Dollar Table’ for how much money was probably being discussed.”
But when it comes to Mike’s Grill, there is only one million-dollar question, why are the burgers served upside down?
Mike jumped in: “The juices! The top bun is bigger than the bottom bun and holds more broth. So when it’s upside down, all the good juices soak through the lettuce, the tomato and then the bun.”
[Author’s Note: burger broth, as explained by Mike, is the juice released from a grilled half-pound Mike’s famous burger]
“And if you think about it,” Nick said, “it’s how you naturally pick up a burger anyway.” He mimicked the two-handed flip from plate to mouth; demonstrating how taking a bite this way is just, well, more ergonomic.
Trademark upside down burgers and all, Mike and his family have spent decades dishing out authenticity. Even as Blacksburg changes, Mike’s Grill has no similar plans. They will continue to sit on the edge of downtown serving burgers that feed memories.
“We keep waiting for Guy Fiere from ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ to show up. Or even Bobby Flay for a burger cook-off!” Nick laughed, “Maybe one day.”