Beverly Griswold lays out a simple paper placemat in front of my friend Mark and one in front of me, as Mark fills out the little swatch of paper with the details of our burgers---the famous burgers at the Westcliff Grocery & Lunch.
"I don't want to talk about other restaurants," she says with her signature blend of friendly exasperation. Her partner, Tyler Slaunwhite, is a quiet blur, burning a repeat path from one end of the counter to the other, prepping orders and ringing up customers. "What they do is their business, what I do is my business. I just know what the people say about my business: 'The burgers are the best in town,' you know. And what more can you say?"
Our cans of soda sweat onto the flimsy paper as we wait for our burgers. There's always a bit of a wait at the Westcliff. The restaurant looks like it's been here forever. Mustard-coloured booths sag in a timeworn fashion, the old backlit Pepsi-brand menu board sits darkly on the wall, a laminated sheet below holding prices that look frozen in time: a hamburger and fries for $4.50, a milkshake or a float for $2.25. Even though the story of the Westcliff seems beyond memory, the restaurant has actually only been there for 14 years.
Thwack, thwack, thwack. Bev's spatula gives the row of burgers on the grill a series of hard slaps, like they're a row of police officers in a Zsa Zsa Gabor fever dream. Each slap is a small explosion, a whip snap that punctuates a symphony of grill-top sizzles and the gurgles and pops of frozen french fries and onion rings swimming in a deep- fryer.
"I've been cooking burgers since 1981 and everybody from day one said the burgers were the best burgers they've had," Griswold says, matter-of-factly. But that long-held reputation doesn't give her airs when it comes to the burger scene in Halifax. "It's just a matter of who got here when, that's all."
People have a lot of tips when it comes to making a perfect burger---what meat to use, how to season it, how big to make the patty, whether or not to put a dimple in the centre of the patty so it cooks up flat, or what surface cooks it best.
Griswold's advice is simple: "Doesn't matter," she says. "Just keep your mind on what you're doing so it's just the way you want it to be. To each their own."
The only thing she stands by is the meat, local beef she buys from 2 Boy's in Dartmouth. "There's nothing mixed in. No salt, nothing. And it's not frozen. It's fresh," she says. "Freshly made every day."
Her burgers are hand-formed patties, gently packed so that they stay together enough to cook, but retaining the delightful, messy hand-to-mouth crumble of a homemade burger. The patties all have a crisp sear, and the buns invariably have dusky, flat tops where they've also been kissed by the heat of the grill.
"Some people like to put them on and take them right off again. I cook mine until they're well done," she says. "When I serve them, they're not juicy; they're just right."