Even though Zandy’s and Burgermaster closed a few years ago, Great Falls, Mont., has some mighty fine burger establishments worth visiting.
There’s The Roadhouse Diner on 15th Street for the true hamburger aficionado, where they’ve turned the experience of a hamburger into an unparalleled culinary art, and the Burger Bunker on 5th Street, which serves up some of the best old-school, diner-style burgers and onion rings in the state. Ford’s Drive-In is never a letdown and always worth the extra wait time for curbside service.
But I’m going to let you in on the secret address to a corner of hamburger heaven you might not have had the pleasure to visit yet: 1004 Central—The Great Falls Senior Citizens Center.
Walking by on the street and looking in through the big plate glass windows, you might not ever suspect there’s a pretty decent café hidden way in the back of the building, past the rows and columns of bingo tables occupied by stalwart gamblers skillfully playing four or five cards at a time.
But wander in, past the community bookshelves and bingo parlor, past the stairs that lead up to the second-floor billiards tables, and make your way to the back of the building to order the Vidalia Burger.
It’s a little like a take-out place or getting food at the State Fair: you order and pay first, and then they call your name when it’s ready. But they serve everything on heavy white restaurant china, and there’s plenty of tables scattered around with pleasant faces, where you can sit down, have a bite, and make new friends.
And the Vidalia burger—wow! A standard café burger with cheese and a big fat slice of sweet Vidalia onion and all the trimmings. The fries are pretty good, but I like the tater tot option, and they serve you up a big healthy—well, good-sized, anyway—pile of them.
Throw in a can of ice cold Coca-Cola or (my favorite) Squirt, and the whole bill comes to a whopping $5. I’m telling you—you can’t beat it.
For your basic burger joint, The Senior Center is right up there among the best, but the ambiance really makes it shine.
Imagine a restaurant with no cranky waiters and a room full of patrons who all know each other and who are always happy to see one another. Where else can you order a burger and see people still playing cribbage and bridge while they eat?
It’s a lot like Tracy’s, but without the jukeboxes, with a little more white hair and twice the smiles to go around. You can even get a candy bar for dessert on your way out at the snack bar up near the door.
I eat there pretty regularly with the Dr. Greg Madson, sociology professor at University of Providence (formerly College of Great Falls), so he’s made a living out of observing people, often in restaurants. I asked him why he likes to eat at The Senior Center.
“Oh,” he said. “This is real Great Falls.” Then he added: “And the burgers are great.”
I suppose one of these days we’re going to have to learn how to play bingo.