The scene: The big sign on top of the building says it all: “White Hut Since 1939.” That represents 80 years of serving burgers that are not just beloved by denizens of the Bay State’s second city (and the oldest of the many municipalities named Springfield in this country), but are iconic for all of Western Massachusetts. However, the White Hut has remained largely off the radar of many of the thousands of motorists who pass within three minutes of it each day on Interstate 91, the main north-south route through New England.
That may well change, given the recent and very high-profile opening of the MGM Springfield, Massachusetts’s first casino, which also sits next to the interstate (as does the Basketball Hall of Fame, honoring a sport invented right here). The bargain-priced, charming and decidedly noncorporate White Hut is a great option for gamblers and hotel guests looking to step outside. But don’t expect the White Hut to woo the inebriated late-night crowd – it closes at 6 p.m., even on weekends.
A study in classic road food simplicity, the White Hut is an irregularly shaped building on a stretch of road that has essentially become a strip mall. There are haphazard parking spots on two sides, and a fenced-in outdoor sitting area with picnic tables. It looks a little like a vintage White Castle, America’s oldest burger chain, but without the faux “castle” architectural embellishment and minus the miniature “slider” burgers. Inside there are exactly a dozen red vinyl-topped, chrome bar stools at the counter that runs the width of the small eatery, between the two doors to the outside. These and three high-top tables constitute the entirety of seating capacity within White Hut, making 20 guests a tight fit, but most people get their food to go, and turnover is fast.
There’s a large menu board (but small menu) over the grill area immediately behind the counter, and everything is in very plain sight. From left to right there are deep-fryers, the large flattop griddle and a milkshake station. Immediately behind a low glass wall on the counter is an array of nearly a dozen condiments you can have added to your burger or hot dog – you do not touch these yourself. That’s about it, except for a single rack of potato chips and a cooler devoted to old-school drink options such as Stewart’s sodas and elementary cafeteria-style half-pint containers of milk and chocolate milk.
Reason to visit: Cheeseburger, onion rings
The food: Everything about the White Hut is frozen in time, but most unusual for today is the ordering and payment system. There’s no real rhyme or reason. Anyone behind the counter who is free shouts at you for your order, then commits it to memory. Since the only real options are burgers or dogs, the only immediate choices you have to make are whether or not to add cheese, bacon or the White Hut signature “famous fried onions.” Everything else comes later, condiment-wise. Your food is presented as soon as it comes off the grill or out of the fryer, at which time you can have them add things like raw onion, relish, veggies or hot peppers. It is no-frills, and the burgers are served on small paper plates, while hot dogs are even more simply handed to you on a napkin.
When you are done eating you make your way to the register at the end of the counter, where you will be asked, “What did you have?” While once common, this form of “settling up” is completely alien in a day when even McDonald’s gives you a pick-up number for your order, and fast food is always paid for in advance.
While the place is often busy, the staff is extremely friendly and ready to help novices navigate the frenetic process. This is made much easier by the simple fact that you are likely to have a cheeseburger, double cheeseburger and/or hot dog, with fries or onion rings, maybe a shake, and that’s about it.
The burgers are small, thin patties cooked on the griddle, and even if you are not especially hungry I heartily recommend the double, because a single is sort of lost in the bun. The double, which looks like a lot of singles elsewhere, does a better job of conveying the classic diner-style greasy, melded-together burger you get at the White Hut. The famous fried onions are sort of a must, and I like the hot bite the peppers add. While I am usually a big fan of bacon cheeseburgers, here adding bacon throws off the textural cohesiveness of the cheeseburger. The cheese is always white American.
The hot dog is perfectly fine, and made better by the heavily griddle-toasted New England-style bun, the best kind of hot dog bun, with sides of exposed soft white bread. Fried onions are good on the dog too, as is the green relish. But the burgers – simple, classic comfort food – are the sandwich highlight here, though it’s worth noting that both the fries and onion rings are standouts, freshly made and always hot. You won’t go wrong with either, but the onion rings are a more superlative take on their genre, the flattish rather than artificially round kind, with plenty of delicious exterior breading. Most importantly, you can take bites without the onion round pulling out, a common ring failing.
However, it is the shakes that perhaps best represent the White Hut ethos: They are not gourmet, they are not artisanal, but they are tasty, comforting and better than the versions sold at any of the better-known fast food burger specialist chains. That is pretty much White Hut in a nutshell.
I loved the overall vibe of White Hut, a fun, friendly step back to a different era. But to me the burgers were just a pretty good part of that equation. However, others feel differently and I am obligated to mention two very notable opinions. One is the late food writer and burger guru Josh Ozersky, who literally wrote the book on the subject (“The Hamburger: A History”) and named White Hut to his annual “10 burgers you must eat this year” list. Going further is highly respected Thrillist chief food critic Kevin Alexander, who calls the burger here “one of the best I’ve ever had,” and emphatically raves about White Hut: “It is my favorite place to eat in the entire world.” Strong words from someone who has eaten all over the world. I can’t go that far, but I can say it is hard to imagine not enjoying a visit. The food is good to very good, it’s cheap, it’s fun, and it’s a definite step up from most roadside fast food alternatives.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: No, but it’s the best place to grab something in the region, or if visiting the Basketball Hall of Fame or MGM casino.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 280 Memorial Avenue, West Springfield; 413-736-9390; whitehut.com
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