Dueling burgers: Flat-out competition at Forest Lakes

When Martin's Grill opened in the Forest Lakes area last November, more than a few people noticed its resemblance to Riverside Lunch, a legendary burger joint famous for having the flattest burgers and the coldest beer in town.

Operating since 1935, "the Riverside" has survived fire and growth– including losing its longtime location on Long Street near Free Bridge to CVS. But now it faces an unusual burst of competition– from a former member of the Riverside flock.

Buster Taylor has owned the Riverside for 25 years and currently manages its spacious spot on the corner of Hazel and High Streets. Five years after rebounding from a 1995 electrical fire that scorched the interior, Taylor moved the restaurant from its trailer-sized spot on Long Street and adopted a new slogan: "Flat out STILL the best burgers in town."

Encouraged by his north-of-town regulars to duplicate his winning recipe, Taylor says he plans to open Riverside North in April in the brand new Forest Lakes Shops.

"We have a lot of interesting people who drive down from Forest Lakes and Hollymead just to eat at Riverside," Taylor tells Dish. "Plus there are more than a thousand houses out there." Taylor also mentioned that a good friend of his works for the shopping center's developer, The Kessler Group.

Taylor– aware of the obvious competition– claims that he had kindly asked Ryan Martin, a former Riverside employee, not to open his own family-style restaurant in Forest Lakes. But Martin contends that Taylor's plans were uncertain and that he didn't want this business opportunity to pass him by.

"I've been planning to open my own place for years," says Martin. "I also thought there was such a thing as free enterprise– but I could be wrong."

Martin says he was originally interested in the Forest Lakes Shops location (the one now sporting a "Riverside North" banner), but that his inquiries were not embraced by the Kessler Group. When a spot became available in another building, in front of Food Lion at 3449 Seminole Trail, Martin made his move.

He signed a letter of intent more than a year ago. Representatives of the Kessler Group confirm that Riverside North has had its lease for just a few months.

The two places– Riverside Lunch and Martin's Grill– do have elements in common. On the day I visited Martin's Grill (during a Friday lunch rush), the crowd reflected all the variety of a changing neighborhood. To the right of me, two hunters decked out in camouflage sipped glasses of beer at the counter. To my left, a father and son enjoyed a post-practice ritual of burgers and footlongs.

In the packed, but not claustrophobic, dining room, a couple with two young daughters shared fries at a window table while construction workers in a corner booth watched one of the four TVs. In both restaurants, servers darted about wiping tables, chatting, and filling orders– while cooks plopped balls of ground beef on a grill and flattened them with a stainless spatula. Burgers at Martin's Grill cost $2.25, just as at Riverside Lunch. Add an extra dime for cheese.

But with these similarities (shared, let's face it, with Five Guys Burgers and lots of family-style diners around the country) come differences. Martin's, unlike Riverside, is smoke-free, and according to one server, they sell "more chocolate milk than beer."

At Martin's, the Cokes are served in cups, not super-chilled glass bottles. Martin adds a spice blend to his ground hamburger, grills his onions, and fries his mushrooms. Though the cheeseburgers I ordered at each place looked identical, the flavors were noticeably different.

While chatting with folks at Riverside, I learned that the 33-year-old Ducati-loving Martin had been a well-liked employee and that he had been trying to open a restaurant of his own for years.

At Martin's, where the conversation flowed just as easily between total strangers, I learned that Martin had recently presented a high school athletic award in honor of his grandfather, a local sports legend, and that the Martins have actually been in the Hollymead area for generations. I also found out that Martin's girlfriend is a descendant of the Italian family that came to Charlottesville in the 1700s to grow grapes at Monticello.

Says one Martin's regular, "The restaurant's success is an inspirational story of a young entrepreneur who saw an untapped market that appreciates an alternative to the fast food chains/franchises."

Sounds kinda like Riverside. If their mutual success is any sign, there's plenty of burger love to keep 'em all in business for years.

Ryan Martin at Martin's Grill


Diners at the famed Riverside Lunch should be able to belly up to the bar at Riverside North by April.