Story by Elise CardenasPhotos by Jenah Ovalles-Forey
Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” echoes in the background as customers wait for their charcoal-grilled hamburgers. They watch cooks lay patties down on the grill on the other side of the counter. Soon, they hear the crackle of the intercom announcing their order number. They pick up their plastic, red tray. Dinner is ready.
Top Notch Hamburgers has called Burnet Road its home since 1971. Some may recognize the restaurant’s drive-in from the classic Austin film “Dazed and Confused.” Scenes of Matthew McConaughey sitting in a black 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle parked in the Top Notch drive-in continue to bring in new customers for the restaurant even more than 20 years after the film’s release. More recently, the English rock band Alt-J filmed scenes for their "Left Hand Free" music video at the drive-through diner.
As Top Notch gets older, it remains a timeless piece of Austin culture. Austin-American Statesman restaurant critic Matthew Odam says, “[Top Notch's] neon sign may be the best of Burnet Road’s impressive collection. There is an untouched vintage ’70s feel to the place, and it remains in museum-quality condition. It’s like a setting from the Smithsonian.”
Customers can choose to park in the drive-in where carhops will deliver their order, or sit inside the dining room while listening to hit songs from decades past. “It’s almost like, as a customer, you can come here and step back in time,” Top Notch general manager Katie Adams says.
The nostalgia involved in Top Notch’s aesthetic presents opportunities for restaurant and customers alike. The retro dive hosts hot rod nights during the first Saturday of every month. “Everyone will set up outside and eat at their cars, and we have a band play and then we have a movie play,” Adams says. “On random nights we’ll have some car clubs show up. Just like 20 Beetles will show up or 20 Scions, or we even have scooter clubs that come.”
Furthering Top Notch’s homage to “Dazed and Confused,” the restaurant also boasts a mural of a 1970 television set expanding across an entire wall outside. They screen other classic movies like “The Sandlot,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Grease” for free.
Aside from the hot rod and movie nights, Top Notch hosts events, like high school reunions. Recently, Top Notch hosted the 50th class reunion for Lanier High School.“They rented out the space, and we served everyone burgers and fries,” Adams says. “They had a slideshow, they hung up their decorations, and then we had old cars drive through. They had a movie playing outside, so it was very reminiscent of when they use to come here as kids.”
The memories of childhood trips to Top Notch and the sense of family are principles that the restaurant thrives on. “We’ve been married for 30 years. We’ve been coming here that whole 30 years plus when we were dating before that,” says customer Catherine, who frequents Top Notch with her husband John. “It’s a way that food was served in the past. This was a lot more common when I was younger and it’s something that I remember from my past so I gave it a try and I like it.”
Top Notch’s ability to remain the same is, in part, accomplished by their staff. “One of the cooks has been here for 18 years,” Adams says. “He makes the [onion] rings by hand every week, every day that he is here.”
The nostalgic family atmosphere draws in many, but the food keeps them coming back. “I don’t know where else you can find a charcoal burger with that backyard flavor, and awesome fried chicken,” Odam says.