Its usually a good sign when a restaurant parking lot is full at 3 pm on a rainy weekday in the middle of March. And indeed it is here at Jonny’s Cookhouse, a nine-table burger joint and dairy bar on the outskirts of Berwick.
Between 2010 and 2014 this place was voted “Best Fast Food” by the Annapolis Valley Chamber of Commerce, so it’s not like Jonny’s is a secret. But when you find it, a white bungalow with a wooden deck along the Evangeline Trail, and you first bite into a burger made on a homemade bun, you might wonder why there isn’t a chain of these across the province. I did.
But then I talked to Jonny King, the Newfoundlander who launched it in 2008 with the help of his brothers and dad. Like Berwick itself and the island the family comes from, speed doesn’t trump all. “We take things slowly,” he says. “We really think things out, and we don’t quit.”
They needed that tenacity back in 2008, when the burger craze hadn’t yet hit the province and Berwickians were used to diners that served everything. Starting with nothing, they built a customer base that slowly caught on to their juicy burgers—sourced from Meadowbrook Meat Market just up the road—and their dense soft-serve ice cream. “And then all of a sudden, in about 2010, it caught,” says Jonny. “And when it caught, it was hold on for the ride.”
Today I’m holding onto one of the three booths in the small dining room that’s decked out with hamburger-designed window shades, wood floors and Newfoundland-inspired murals, including one with colourful row houses that spans the four walls of the washroom. A stream of folks comes in the front door asking for ice cream as two waitresses try to keep everyone happy, and full.
It’s hard for them to disappoint. The four starters range from potato and cheddar pierogis to deep-fried pickles, while the 10 burgers options include “The Jonny Burger,” a double-patty monster with bacon and cheddar, and “The Apple Capital,” a tip of the cap to the area with a single patty and grilled apple slice. You can also create your own. On the other side of the menu are nine poutines, fish and chips, a hot hamburger sandwich, and eight hand-spun milkshakes.
I go for “The Sweet Maria” burger and “Macho Taco” poutine, both served up in red baskets with blue- and white-checkered paper.
The first is gorgeous to behold: a rough-edged, handmade patty fired to perfection with a grilled slice of pineapple, thick Meadowbrook bacon, sweet chili sauce and mayo, all between two slices of white bun with sesame seeds on top. The sweetness of the pineapple and chili sauce is a spot-on balance to the salt of the burger and bacon, and the bun is just doughy enough to sop up most of the juicy goodness.
The poutine isn’t so gorgeous, but it’s just as good. The texture of the crispy hand-cut fries, well-browned ground beef and broken nacho chips on top pair well with the gooey mess of mozzarella cheese, salsa, sour cream and gravy, which is just salty enough.
Both harken back to side-of-the-road greasy goodness, while at the same time adding a fresh twist of originality. And that’s kind of the point. “It’s just good ol’ comfort food, cooked fresh to order,” says Jonny, “but we do what we can to make it a little unique than the rest. When you come in and first bite into that burger or poutine or whatnot, I want you saying, ‘Holy, that’s different, I can’t wait to keep going.’”
Something different that may be on the menu by the time you read this: grilled sandwiches on fresh sourdough bread. When I catch up with Jonny, he and his team are slow-cooking local pork and brisket to put on those sandwiches, and if his hunch is right, they should be another hit.
But he’s not taking all of the credit for these creations, let alone the huge success this place has become. “I’ve seen little kids who were seven or eight are still coming in at 15 and 16, so that community support has been big.” As has Meadowbrook. “Without them and without the pride they put into their product, we’ve got nothing.”
And not to be forgotten is the ice cream machine, which is still pumping out the dense, heavy soft stuff to a steady stream of customers as I leave. “I don’t have a wife, but that machine is pretty close to my wife,” says Jonny with a laugh. “I take good care of her.”
He and his staff took good care of me, too, and now that I think about it, part of me hopes a Jonny’s chain doesn’t pop up across the province. There’s something comforting in knowing that only one of these exists, and that the search is well worth it. Then again, a parking lot can only hold so many cars.