Pro tip: The cheeseburger shot is a thing, just don't ask for it when it's busy.
For a city the size of Asheville, the bar scene features some steep competition across a number of excellent places to get drunk. And that’s without counting the high density of breweries per capita scattered across the city. But even amid that strong set of options, this reviewer would hands down pick Burger Bar, one of Asheville’s oldest drinking destinations, as the premier option in a stacked mountain town where you can probably throw a rock and hit a beer bottle from any city street.
The history of Burger Bar is an oral one at this point, though there is some justification in saying that is either the oldest or one of the oldest Asheville dive bars, opened in 1960 after existing in a prior incarnation as a service station. The number one fact to understand about Burger Bar is that there are, in fact, no burgers to be had, and asking for one upon entering is a surefire way to get pegged not only as a tourist, but a clueless one.
Though the exact dividing line between food served and a burgerless existence is hard to pinpoint, the name originates from an era in Burger Bar’s existence when burgers were, in fact, served almost around the clock to accommodate third-shifters and others. At some point, the math equation of profitability from alcohol outweighed the benefits of devoting space to a kitchen and those rose-tinted days of hamburgers ended. Today, there is food to be had at Burger Bar, but only in the form of things that can either take advantage of a microwave or toaster oven. The menu includes corn dogs, cup-o-noodles, White Castle sliders and a few other options, all supported by a pretty impressive little condiment pyramid in the corner of the bar.
And while the food and non-food heritage of an Asheville dive bar named Burger Bar is interesting, the hero is really the building itself. Burger Bar is positioned across the river from Asheville’s dense downtown area as the lone building at a fork in the road. Its location makes for a pretty glorious first impression with the dive bar first comes into view, a glimpse of a ramshackle faded blue hut in the middle of the road like the dive bar siren song it represents. In total, the footprint feels like a rural shed crossed with a corrugated metal lean-to, some rope lights seemingly holding the contraption together.
Ownership has changed a handful of teams over the existing of Burger Bar and one such transfer in 2014 included a little bit of sprucing up to the building and its contents. A pair of Asheville locals took over ownership of Burger Bar at that time, executing a handful of cosmetic changes that preserved the bar’s divey glory while providing a handful of updates. The result is the Burger Bar seen today, one that weathered the 2020 pandemic and came out the other side with its dive bar credibility well and truly retained.
Outside, a pretty expansive front patio houses a handful of picnic tables and a drinking rail that circles the gravel plot, an attractive dive bar drinking spot in a city where the weather tends to cooperate. A drinking alcove just off the front door seemed to be, on this reviewer’s visit, a spot for regulars to congregate, the well-stickered front door perpetually swung open next to a selection of stools under a short sloped roof. The rest of the building resembles a short, squat, blue prison with bars on the windows and a decent selection of graffiti on one alternate door. Atop the blue hut is a metal bit of trim, for lack of a better description, with the proud name of the bar inscribed.
The vibe inside, however, ups the ante on the dive bar majesty of Burger Bar’s exterior, somehow taking a blue prison hut and transforming it into the dark, multi-colored living room of your most interesting aunt who happens to be a bit obsessed with Elvis. The main room features a short bar, a zebra print couch, a small table, a built-in wooden booth and the previously mentioned frozen food nook, packing all of that into a room short on square footage. Every surface inside is painted deep green or black, causing light to be basically absorbed by every surface for that nice dim dive bar aura. Christmas lights and rope lights hang off of nearly every vertical surface in this front room.
Decorations are eclectic and thickly distributed throughout the space, a fact that spills over into the secondary room at Burger Bar, one that doubles as overflow seating, live band performance space and karaoke staging area (Saturday nights). Dollar bills are, of course, stapled liberally around the bar area, taking care to avoid the occasional stuffed animal head or purple boa-laden Elvis lamp. A small shrine to Elvis takes up one end of the bar’s short seating area (4-5 stools), Christmas lights framing a guitar and image of the king.
Even the ceiling sees plenty of action, layers of artwork, live band posters and even a few choice photographs (you’ll have to find those on your own). The theme extends to the bathroom where, of course, graffiti reigns supreme, the dim lighting creating a soft green glow that makes for an interesting look when paired with layers of graffiti, stickers and what used to be a mirror. Taken together, all of these features are compelling in the daytime, let alone at night when the ambient lighting provided by about 50 Christmas light strands creates a very cozy, very drinking-in-a-shack vibe in the best possible way. Even the exterior strikes a different character at night, red rope lighting bathing the structure.
Simply put, Burger Bar is this reviewer’s pick for best Asheville dive bar, a few decades worth of history stuffed into a shack-like structure that screams dive bar at first impression. The relentless use of multi-colored Christmas and rope lights both inside and out creates that perfect dive bar glow, accentuated by dark painted walls. And in a town where there’s a compelling place to grab a beer on seemingly every corner, the fact that Burger Bar can standout is a testament to its divey, burgerless glory.