Michael Farrell, who graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2000, is now a married father of two. Time to himself is a rare and precious commodity.
In June, his wife, Christina, took the children to visit her parents in Massachusetts. Faced with his first completely unprogrammed, self-guided time in forever, Farrell got into his car by himself and pointed it south.
He had heard that the Burton was for sale. While his old college watering hole was still open, and he didn’t have to justify it to anyone, he felt compelled to get one more Burton Burger.
Perched at 1 E. Main St. in Allegany, the Burton is an old-school, no-frills tavern that long ago became a beloved part of the St. Bonaventure landscape. Built in 1900, the closest bar to campus, it was the site of many a freshman’s beer baptism, especially before the drinking age was 21.
When owners Crisanne Nevin and her brother Chuck Collins decided they did not want to continue to bear the rigors of college saloon-keeping, news of the Burton’s uncertain fate cast a pall over generations of Bona alums.
After months of uncertainty, this summer the Burton might have found its answer for the future. Nevin said that a group of Bona alums has approached them to buy the place, aiming to keep it just the same.
The deal hasn’t closed yet, though.
In the meantime, the Burton Burger beckoned. Never having had one myself, I searched for clues to the whispered-of sandwich. Photographs showed a hand-shaped, 8-ounce ground beef patty, griddled to a gentle medium, served with cheese or without, on a griddled bun brushed with melted butter and sprinkled with salt.
This was St. Bonaventure’s Holy Grail of hamburgers?
Clearly there was much I did not understand. Fortunately, Farrell, a frequent contributor to The Buffalo News, agreed to guide me on the 90-minute pilgrimage, so that I might explore the mystery firsthand.
“Bonaventure has sort of a weird effect on a lot of people that go there,” he explained as we drove. “It's such a small school, and you're so removed from basically kind of everything down there, the Southern Tier. Everything down there is so essential, as far as the bars, the bar experience, the restaurant experience, and the Burton Burger kind of fits in that whole dynamic.
St. Bonaventure University is “such a small school, dug into this little corner of the Southern Tier,” Farrell said. The isolation intensifies connections between students, and between the people and the place. “The people that go there, they have a connection with the school that it really does live on for a long time.” It’s normal for Bona grads to return for a walk around the campus for the day, he said. “It's almost like going to church for some people.”
Aha. If going back to your alma mater is like church, the Burton Burger is a sacrament of sorts, the edible symbol that seals the ritual.
“When people go to school there, and they go to the Burton, and they try it for the first time,” said Farrell, “it's officially an Allegany/Bonaventure thing for people to experience.”
In this way I came to understand that on some level the Burton Burger isn’t just a snack – it’s a rite of passage, an initiation rite sealed with secret sauce.
How long has that been true? For half a century, or more.
In 1969, when freshman Jim O’Day arrived in Allegany, “you couldn’t say ‘What do you want to do tonight?’ without upperclassmen telling you: You have to go down to the Burton and get a Burton Burger,’ ” he said. “It was kind of one of those pass-the-torches things.”
That the Burton was the closest bar to campus didn't hurt.
Then-owner Ray Mulvey sold O’Day his first of countless Burton Burgers for 50 cents, and O'Day was hooked. The Bonaventure love affair with the Burton wasn’t just the burger, and the beers that came before and after, O’Day said.
“Everybody that's owned the Burton has always welcomed the college student,” he said. “You always felt like you had a place to go that you were welcome. We were always happy to be in there, we were polite in there. Millie, Ray's wife, she smoked a pipe – and that's going back a long time when you talk about Millie – she would sit with us, come sit at the table and talk to you.”
Subsequent owner Patsy Collins was respected by students, who didn’t want to cause him trouble, O’Day said. “So that's kind of like the romance you had with the Burton,” he said, “that the owners were always watching out for you.” Sometimes they might even lend a student who was short a few dollars, O’Day said.
In 2013, Collins sold the place to his son and daughter, its current owners. With its built-in audience, spanning generations, the Burton won an online contest naming it the Best Burger in Upstate New York.
Today the Burton Burger is $7, or $7.50 with cheese (if paid in cash; $7.79 if by credit card).
Customers top the burgers themselves, offered ketchup, mustard, chopped onion, sweet relish, dill pickle slices, and a Secret Sauce that tastes a lot like ketchup, mustard, onion and sweet relish.
Collins told him they’re still made on the same iron griddle, O’Day said.
“He feels that it's the grill that's the magic to the Burton Burger, he says. I don't know what it is, he says, but it's that grill that really makes the Burton Burger the Burton Burger,” O’Day recalled. “He says it's well seasoned.”
When Farrell and I got to the Burton, there were two other customers at the bar, watching “Family Feud” on the television. When school was in session, before Bonnies games, Farrell explained, it was crowded hip-to-hip.
We ordered cheeseburgers and a large half-and-half basket of curly-Q fries and rings. They were good. So were the burgers – delivered to our table done to a medium-well but moist enough, a solid burger.
The Burton Burger’s lure was not in the meat, or some mystical seasoning, I was beginning to understand. Its magic was in the place it held in the hearts of the people who hoisted it, among friends, in a place where they felt welcome, when their lives stretched out in front of them, filled with possibility.
Thus I can only imagine that in advancing age, a Burton Burger is an edible time machine capable of whisking you back to that moment, standing on that tile floor, surrounded by that woodwork and the class pictures, overseen by the Lanier jersey on the wall, same as it ever was. Proof that in this tumultuous, ever-changing world rife with crumbling edifices and fading values, some things stand the test of time.
I felt a twinge of jealousy. We all want a Burton Burger – even if it’s pizza, or falafel, or, so help me, Mighty Taco.
As the question of its fate remains unanswered, the worshipful elevation of its humble foundations proves, once and for all time, that nostalgia makes the best sauce. For now, at least, the Burton Burger yet abides.