These days, when every week seems to bring news of another E. coli or salmonella outbreak, when supermarkets offer free antibacterial wipes for your grocery cart at the entrance and at the meat counter for your shrink-wrapped chicken breasts, that some restaurants still let you order your burger at a temperature below well-done should be reason enough to give thanks. Except that, as the true burger aficionado knows all too well, ordering a burger medium-rare guarantees nothing. Maybe what you're served truly is medium-rare. More likely it's closer to medium. Every now and then, it's a hockey puck. A kitchen that knows the difference between red and pink is rare indeed.
So when I ordered a medium-rare burger at Dooley's Beef n Brew House — just a plain burger, not even a scoop of soft-spread cheddar to distract the cook — I tried to keep my expectations in check. My first bite revealed a vivid red interior, and I wasn't even close to the center yet.
I was relieved. In truth, though, I never should have worried. Dooley's opened only two months ago, but it harkens back to the time when red meat was a description, not a category. Better yet, it comes by its old-school cred in the most authentic possible way: by blood.
Alex Dooley founded his namesake restaurant, Dooley's Ltd., on North Eighth Street downtown in 1968. Forty years later, with its building slated to be razed for parking garage, Dooley's flipped its last burger. (In a cruel twist, that plan went bust; to this day the building remains vacant.) Alex's son, Sean, ran Dooley's for the final ten years of its existence. After it closed, he looked at possible new locations, but nothing panned out. Then Steve Smith of the Lawrence Group, which had already helped revitalize the midtown-Grand Center area with the likes of Triumph Grill and Kota Wood Fire Grill, approached him about taking over the spot on North Grand Boulevard across from the Fox Theatre, which had sat empty since the closure of Wm. Shakespeare's Gastropub in 2009.
The new Dooley's is appropriately old-fashioned in its look, with plenty of dark wood and much of the décor from the original restaurant, from the Irish flag to the framed, yellowed newspaper clippings. In the kitchen stands the original Dooley's Ltd. grill. Of course, the burger recipe remains the same — and remains a secret.
The first question Sean Dooley asks Dooley's Ltd. regulars who stop by the new spot to relive their past in ground-beef form: "Is it like you remember it?"
"They better say yes," he laughs.
The only difference is the bun. Wonder no longer makes the bun used at the original. The new bun is smaller. And, Dooley admits, those regulars "were able to call me on it."
The "World Famous Dooley Burger" is six ounces of fresh ground beef pattied to a fairly even thickness and grilled to your preferred temperature. The standard issue, sans toppings, provides the purest of simple gustatory pleasures: a rush of grill char, backed by minerally beef, juicy but not greasy. If the Dooley Burger were a cocktail, it would be a boilermaker.
As was customary at the original Dooley's, many of the cheeses are soft, cream cheese blends: cheddar, blue, jalapeño-cream. The cheddar is reliably tangy; the jalapeño has a decent bite. Would I prefer an actual slice of cheddar cheese? Probably, but here tradition precludes carping.
Aside from the basic burger (which you can top with your choice of cheese as well as bacon or sautéed onions or mushrooms), there are half a dozen variations, from the "Hill" (topped with marinara sauce) to the oversize "Big Pappy" (featuring cheddar, bacon, grilled pineapple rings, fried onion rings and barbecue sauce from nearby Pappy's Smokehouse). The latter is an impressive specimen — and I do love me some Pappy's barbecue sauce — but given a choice, I'll always opt for the simplicity of meat, seasoning, grill.
The onion rings are very good on their own, crisp and not too oily, with the onion's own sweetness still present beneath the fried batter. The French fries are OK, sometimes crisp, sometimes not quite.
The menu isn't limited to burgers, but as far as I'm concerned, at a place like Dooley's you stray from the house specialty at your own risk. (I say that less as a critical admonition than as a moral code.) The steak sandwich is very good, and a boatload of very good at that: A thin rib eye grilled to order, topped with a sharp garlic aioli and sandwiched between slices of garlic-cheese bread, it's sufficient to serve as dinner for two. The chicken offerings were less impressive. "Chicken Pappy" is "Big Pappy," only with a fried or grilled boneless chicken breast. The grilled chicken was a tad overcooked (as breasts nearly always are) and supplied nothing beyond ballast for the towering toppings. Such specific critiques are largely superfluous, though, because, after all, why would you? You don't go to Ted Drewes and order a popsicle.
The new Dooley's calls itself a beef "n" brew house: The latter refers to the basement bar, stocked with beers on draft that range from the big names (Bud, PBR, etc.) to local suds like Schlafly and Urban Chestnut.
Service is very efficient — and this is key when your clientele includes the before-theater crowd — and never less than friendly. Sean Dooley assures me that there's usually at least one member of the extended family in the house. If he's not around, it's because he's at his other job: A paramedic with the city fire department, he pulls ten 24-hour shifts each month.
And how's the old man? Alex Dooley, Sean reports, is "doing well. He's enjoying retirement. He comes in every few weeks, sits down, says hi to everyone, has a burger."
His advice to his son, upon opening this new chapter of the family business?
Dooley's Beef n Brew House