Since the year following the end of World War II, hungry diners have been lining up inside a little building in the middle of North Carolina to await made-from-scratch burgers.
Not much has changed at Johnson’s Drive-In through the years since the restaurant opened in 1946 in Chatham County, between Charlotte and Raleigh. You still need cash to pay for your meal. The place still seats only a few dozen customers at a time. The menu fits on just a few lines on the wall. A kitchen and checkout register both fit behind the same counter. And the whole place buzzes with activity each day it’s open for lunch.
I’ve long wanted to visit Johnson’s because it’s included on every list of notable North Carolina restaurants and must-eat cheeseburger joints. It’s easy to understand, after a visit with my wife on our way across the state, why the drive-in gets so much praise—and so many continued patrons.
As regular #FoodieScore readers know, I prize a place known for great-yet-simple cheeseburgers perhaps far more than any other dining establishment. The cozy combination of hand-pattied beef and melty cheese on a soft and sturdy bun is all it takes to thrill me. I’d say that description fits Johnson’s fairly well.
Don’t anticipate frills or gimmicks at Johnson’s Drive-In. What you see on the menu board is what you can get—literally. There’s a short list of possible sandwich toppings. For super-foodies like us, you might not even consider your lunch to be Instagram-perfect worthy. But you can guarantee what you order will be made fresh, and it will fill you up without costing you a lot of money.
When you look down the cooking line, you’ll see fresh meat sizzling on the grill, and you’ll see fresh tomatoes being sliced and immediately balanced atop sandwiches. And everything that makes its way to the counter or the tables will be served with a smile by a wait staff member who never stops moving in the pursuit of service.
Johnson’s Drive-In still exists—and it still receives heaps of regular praise—because it hasn’t changed in the ways so many restaurants have over the years. It hasn’t branched out into a chain. There are no limited-time menu items. You don’t need to worry about whether or not your debit card’s chip will correctly register at checkout.
Just show up, wait for a table (and you can expect to stand a few minutes if you get there in the middle of the lunch hours), pick your order and then savor the simple and satisfying experience that seems like something that was long gone in this hurried and high-tech world.
I consider my visit to Johnson’s to be a major cheeseburger bucket-list item now checked off. It’s the kind of place I’d visit often if it was a little bit closer to home. Judging from the crowd of people shaking hands and saying hello to each other on the way in and out of the restaurant, Johnson’s has plenty of regulars.
Regular. That seems like an appropriate word to describe a restaurant that’s been so good for so long.
NOTE: Johnson’s is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The restaurant is closed Sundays and Mondays.