The real deal
After 62 years, Kirk's is still serving up great burgers with a no-frills attitude
Kirk's Steakburgers is a quasi-fast-food haven smack dab in the middle of Town & Country Village's tony new eateries. It's old style, cool style, without constructing a make-believe Happy Days vignette to entice the public.
No, Kirk's is the real deal. It has been since 1948 when Bill Sincere and his wife, "Kirk," both New York transplants, opened for business just south of here on El Camino Real, near Arastradero Road. Sincere found a butcher to grind meat to his specifications, then grilled the beef over charcoal and served burgers, hot dogs, milkshakes and potato chips — and that was it. There were lines around the corner every day.
Twenty years later, Kirk's moved over to California Avenue. In 1996, John Withers bought the business from Sincere's son. In 2002, he moved Kirk's to Town & Country after the landlord terminated his lease.
"The restaurant business is not for sissies," Withers said. "I had been in the electronics business and wanted less travel and more family time. I settled for less travel."
"I didn't want to be in the restaurant business," he added. "I wanted to be in the Kirk's business. Over the years, we've survived everything, including my own apprenticeship."
Withers soon added french fries, chicken sandwiches, flavored shakes, salads and sides, and a few other menu items.
"Bill Sincere was irascibly tough, adamant about his menu," Withers said. "'Want fries?' he once scowled, 'Go somewhere else.'"
Withers added: "The most important thing is the food; no one can be successful without good food. That is why Kirk's is successful. It's comfort food, tasty and distinctive. We use a special blend of cuts of beef."
The burgers are pleasing, dense and juicy, and are made to order. My first visit, fool that I was, I ordered Kirk's Big Griller ($8), a half-pound heavyweight burger topped with grilled onions and Swiss cheese. I added a medium-sized side of steak fries ($2.69) and a soda. It was 24 hours before I was remotely hungry again.
On subsequent visits, I skipped breakfast, or lunch, and made sure I didn't over-order. I avoided Kirk's Big Tripler with three cheeses ($8.60). Kirk's doesn't cheat on portions, and I had other dinners to attend that week.
Most of the steakburgers are available with single or double patties. The smallest burger on the menu is a third-pound steakburger for $5.25. The biggest is the double Big Kirk with cheese. That's two half-pound patties of beef with jack, Swiss and cheddar cheeses ($12.30) — definitely not for the faint of heart or those with mature-adult cholesterol levels.
Kirk's Big Melt ($9.50) is a belt-buster burger on rye, blanketed with grilled onions and topped with three cheeses. I could have added additional cheese, grilled onions, bacon, mushrooms, pineapple or chili ($0.75-$1.60) but thought better of it.
Kirk's also offers kid-sized portions: $3.45 for a steakburger, $3.75 with cheese. There are frankfurters and variations ($4.95-$5.55), grilled cheese ($4.10) and grilled cheese with bacon ($5.10).
The Clubber ($8.35) is a tender marinated breast of chicken amped up with Swiss cheese and strips of bacon on a thick tender bun. What's not to like? Life is tastier with bacon.
I admired the steak fries: thick-cut, fried to perfection, non-greasy and begging for salt and ketchup. Three sizes are available ($1.69-$3.69). There are also garlic fries, chili-cheese fries, bacon-cheese fries, garlic-onion strings and a combo of onion strings and fries. My onion strings were heavy with grease and tasty, but not for the health-conscious.
The milkshakes are dense, ponderous affairs, the way they should be made but usually aren't any more. A good milkshake takes time to consume, with a little loud sipping through the straw, followed by a couple of spoonfuls of ice cream skimmed off the top. Repeat exercise until ice cream melts and straw is all that is necessary. Never share.
Kirk's shakes come in America's favorite flavors: vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, with regular and child's sizes. ($2.70-$3.90). Ten Torani-flavored shakes broaden the options.
One day I compared the root beer float ($3.10) with a Torani root beer-flavored shake ($4.10). Not much difference in flavor or consistency. The root beer float, though, was a half-cup of vanilla ice cream with an additional empty cup. The counterman instructed me to fill the empty cup with root beer from the serve-yourself soda dispensary and mix my own float. It took three trips to the soda bar to balance out the ice cream with root beer.
Besides the large portions, there is a condiment island in the middle of one of the two small dining areas, loaded with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, relishes, mustards and ketchups, etc. There are stacks of sorely needed extra napkins, too.
Decor-wise, not much to report. Photos on the forest-green walls of various Little League and Stanford teams; a couple of booths, tables and chairs; bus your own table — there are no rollerskating carhops. When my number was called, I fetched my order from the pickup counter. The place wasn't built for lingering.
But after more than 60 years, Kirk's is still here, and it has three locations, including Santa Clara and Campbell. Kirk's isn't a return to Happy Days; rather, the happy daze comes from the superior burgers, shakes and fries.
75 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto
Hours: Daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: shopping-center lot
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: sidewalk tables
Party facilities: no
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent