Long before light rail traveled up and down Central Avenue through the high-rise business district now known as Midtown, that stretch of the city’s spine was known for its cruising culture. Of course, cruising meant not only showing off cars and socializing, but also stopping for sustenance. The foods historically associated with cruising have been burgers, fries, and shakes. While cruising now occurs only as part of occasional special events, some semblance of the old cruising culture endures at Lenny’s Burger, a retro-themed hamburger restaurant in the heart of Midtown.
Although Lenny’s look suggests the freestanding burger joints of “American Graffiti” or “Happy Days,” its central Phoenix location is a stucco strip mall. The small retail plaza has recently undergone a renovation, but even with a fresh coat of paint, it still feels somewhat out of place amid the office towers, new apartments, and increasing density of Midtown. It would not be surprising to see it demolished in favor of more intensive development in the years to come. Until that happens, it houses about a dozen small businesses, whether locals like Lenny’s or outlets of national chains.
The location is across the street from the Thomas / Central light rail station at the corner that has become the unofficial crossroads of Midtown. A bike rack is found at the north end of the plaza near the Thomas Road entrance. Because this strip mall was designed primarily for access by automobile, entering carefully via a driveway is necessary even for those arriving on foot. Lenny’s is found near the midpoint of the shopping center, about halfway between Thomas and Roanoke. Look for neon signs proclaiming Lenny’s, along with plenty of posters of the food served inside.
Inside, the decor is a salute to diners of decades past. The walls are quilted metal, the floors are checkerboard tiles, and many of the photos show images of classic cars. Lenny’s operates as a quick service establishment with two conjoined dining rooms. Customers line up at two cashier stations near the front, and during the busy weekday lunch hour, the line will sometimes curve into the second chamber. Seating is found at tables in both rooms, but the narrow counter can be the best option for anyone wanting a view of the open flame over which the burgers are grilled.
Those burgers are, as expected, the main focus here. Lenny’s offers a plethora of different burger options — some listed on an overhead menu, some on posters, and some on its website. The garlic mushroom burger is a patty topped with Swiss cheese, light garlic sauce, and plenty of grilled mushrooms. Lettuce and tomato are optional, as on all burgers. The Mexican burger is layered with yellow cheese, grilled onions, and green chile. Most decadent of all is the Cowboy burger with bacon, cheddar cheese, barbecue sauce, and a few onion rings all within the bun.
All burgers can be doubled with a second patty, and all can be upgraded to combo meals with a side and a fountain drink. The default burger accompaniment is a generous portion of serviceable fries, but a slight extra charge for the sweet potatoes is worthwhile. The fried zucchini is tender but also a bit on the oily side. The onion rings, however, strike just the right balance between crisp and yielding textures. Several sauces are available for dipping the sides, including Lenny’s sauce, similar to ranch dressing, and fry sauce, akin to Thousand Island but without minced pickles.
Beyond burgers on a bun, Lenny’s diversifies with a patty melt full of ground beef, cheese, and caramelized onions in between two slices of rye bread. The sourdough ranch burger is also based on the concept of a burger with bread rather than a bun, but with without cheese. Pastrami appears a few times on the menu, as a burger topping and in a Reuben sandwich. Chicken sandwiches are available with either grilled or crispy breast meat accentuated with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, and onions. A fish sandwich features a slab of breaded cod similarly prepared.
A simple chili con carne of ground beef and beans is offered as a topping for hot dogs and even French fries in a sort of variant of poutine. It can also be ordered by the cup on its own. Anyone looking for a meatless meal at Lenny’s can find a minimally adorned veggie burger, as well a simple, straightforward grilled cheese sandwich. Chances are no one visits a place called Lenny’s Burger to order a salad, but if one member of a group prefers that option, a standard mix of iceberg, cucumbers, and tomatoes is available with the option to top it with chicken or tuna.
With its business coming mainly from the lunch needs of nearby Midtown office workers, Lenny’s closes early in the evening. Those hours, coupled with the emphasis on diner fare, rule out a liquor license. Here, liquid indulgence is more likely to take the form of a milkshake than a cocktail. To that end, Lenny’s offers sundaes, milkshakes, and even banana splits. Keep in mind, however, that the emphasis in the small kitchen is on burger and fries, so it’s not entirely surprising, even if a little disappointing, that packaged bases and powdered flavors are used for the frozen desserts.
While it’s sometimes argued that allowing high-rise development in Midtown undermined Phoenix’s true downtown two miles to the south, the office towers along Central are here to stay. The population they bring, augmented by parallel efforts to follow up with residential construction, makes this area one that is likely to be gradually converted to higher density and enhanced walk appeal. Nevertheless, a few reminders of Central’s earlier role as a cruising corridor remain. Until the strip mall it inhabits becomes something else, Lenny’s Burger re-creates the food of that era.
2825 N. Central Ave., Phoenix AZ 85012
Thomas / Central Station