Gordy’s Hi-Hat in Cloquet, MN

Becca Dilley Photography / File

It seems no one, especially not on the Internet, is allowed to have a valid opinion when discussing hamburgers in superlative terms. It’s because determining the pinnacle of the most pervasive American sandwich involves something entirely more than an analysis of a beef patty on a bun. It routinely involves a connection to something intensely personal – a memory, a style, or a feeling.  And depending how strong the association is, accepting someone else’s criteria can feel like wanton self-betrayal. So with no delusions of having this opinion be well received, this author has no qualms proclaiming the best burgers in the state of Minnesota belong to Gordy’s Hi-Hat in Cloquet.

Opened in 1960 by Gordy and Marilyn Lundquist, the Hi-Hat is a throwback drive-in perched up a hill from the St. Louis River.  The vibe is equal parts Wobegon and Pleasantville. Its address is on Sunnyside Drive, the flooring is checkerboard, and the soundtrack is full of doo-wop and surf rock. Its weathered deck seems to have never seen a coat of sealer. On it lay ancient octagonal tables whose chipped red plastic tops are worn like a proof of authenticity. Specials are scribbled in dry erase marker on a Pepsi placard.  Black-and-white photos inside show the old Gordy’s shack selling cheeseburgers for 29 cents while rides on a nearby carousel are a dime “on the honor system.”

Becca Dilley Photography / File

Also on the deck, stacked by the kitchen’s back door, are about 400 pounds of softball-sized onions.  There have been sacks of onions sitting there for decades. They greet you when you exit your vehicle, as you stretch your back because you’ve been driving for at least an hour. The message in their multitude is clear: Skip the fries, embrace the rings ($3.49, about a dozen to an order). They nail the elusive combination of super crunchy texture and solid composition thanks to a half-battered, half-breaded preparation that involves buttermilk, cornmeal, and Bisquick.

John Garland / Heavy Table

Gordy’s burgers have a makeup as rudimentary as they come. Fresh, hand-pattied beef, smashed to In-N-Out thickness until just the faintest hint of pink remains inside. The magic comes from the flat-top grill, which ensures every nook and cranny of the irregular patty is imbued with char. The most popular order is a double cheeseburger with everything ($4.29) – “everything” in this case comprises merely ketchup, mustard, pickles, and fried onions. When the burger, onion, and cheese are cooked together, the patty picks up a bit of onion sweat while the American cheese melts over both, trapping the juices like a blanket. They’re juicy, tangy, slightly greasy, and entirely delectable.

John Garland / Heavy Table

The obviously subjective criteria elevating this burger the top of my list has to do with its location and relative lack of availability. Gordy’s is open only for half the year. Their lifeblood is cabin traffic – the thousands of travelers who veer off I-35 onto MN-33 to head toward the Range instead of the North Shore. For this author, a bite of a Gordy’s double instantly recalls Memorial Days on the lake with all the cousins, cramming into the back of the fully packed wood-paneled Plymouth Voyager, and fishing the pieces out of Gordy’s Bubble Gum ice cream to test if blowing a bubble was possible.  Now, summers without a stop at Gordy’s feel fundamentally incomplete. And since Gordy’s has been catering to lake-bound Minnesotans for more than 50 years, it’s a safe bet that there are Hi-Hat devotees out there with similar experiences.

The complete lack of smoke screens and secret ingredients – the very foundation for Gordy’s success – is also what made for the most boring segment in Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives history. Even Guy Fieri, the crown prince of feigning enthusiasm, looked hard pressed to react to such straightforward fare. And it’s slightly sad that since Triple D’s visit, Fieri’s face has been plastered all over the joint – exterior signage, tray liners – as if his tepid approval was somehow a tipping point that validated a half century of burger perfection.

Becca Dilley Photography / File

Also not to be missed: the malts ($2.99 Regular / $4.19 Large). Strawberry is the best bet, followed closely by blackberry. They’re perfectly creamy, though not too dense, with a slight tinge of malted milk flavor on the aftertaste and chunks of strawberries big enough to necessitate attacking it with both a straw and spoon.

Touches of modernity have slowly crept into the Gordy’s experience. Ice cream is no longer sold out of the back window, but rather at a new building across the parking lot. Named the Warming House, it also sells coffee drinks, some other sandwiches, and is complete with a — gasp — drive-thru. Two hours on the nose from downtown Minneapolis, it feels pretty nice to take a quick road trip and be reminded of the glory of a basic burger – and of all the summers passed devouring them.

Gordy’s Hi-Hat, 411 Sunnyside Drive, Cloquet, MN, 55720, 218.879.6125

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About the Author

John Garland

John Garland is a freelance writer living in the East Isles neighborhood of Minneapolis. His area of expertise is wine - thanks to schooling from the International Sommelier Guild and more than a few winery visits during his time at the American University of Rome. He also contributes to Beer Dabbler's Growler Magazine and is always available for writing opportunities and happy hours.

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7 Comments

  1. You neglect to mention that while Gordy’s is only open during the “Summer”, the warming house is open year round (for those who end up traveling past Cloquet when the weather isn’t so pleasant).

  2. This has been a week for family funerals. Two sister-in-laws both died within a couple days of each other. My mother, in Mpls. at 108 yr and my aunt in Duluth at 100 yrs. My wife and I will be driving to Duluth for the funeral and I’ll be a pall bearer. The only thing that will break the funerary mood will be A STOP AT GORDY”S HI HAT! They are a pick-me-up at any time. Any visit to the area is enough of a reason to get the burgers, the onion rings the chili and visit with the owners, Gordy, or his son at the ordering bar where everyone puts in their orders.
    The reason for their exceptionally good burger is the ratio of surface char to total meat amount and the use of fresh meat.

  3. gordy’s, & Mannings on como, best two burgers ever.

  4. Gordy’s rules! If you make it to Gordy’s, be sure to stop by the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gas station in town if you are a fan of architecture and/or FLW.

    And Guy Fieri is becoming insufferable. (If he wasn’t already).

  5. David Foureyes05/16/2012Reply

    Does anyone else think this looks just like an In-N-Out double-double hold the everything but ketchup and onions?

    Seriously…that bun is an In-N-Out bun…

  6. Had a California burger there on Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. Made to perfection. Meat cooked with a hint of pink. Crisp iceberg lettuce and fresh real ripe tomato slices with mayo on the perfect bun. The char was perfect. This place is consistent and sooooo good. Gordie and his son were there again, as they always are when I’ve been there, which is about 6 times a season. This place is the real deal.

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