When Zack’s Grille opened its doors in Oxford on June 13, it didn’t take long for word to spread. That’s how it is with good burgers.
Really, really good burgers.
One of the restaurant’s first customers, Russ Connell, an English teacher and upper school director at The Donoho School, made the ultimate declaration on his Facebook page: “Beats Five Guys.”
Whoa. That’s saying something.
Janet Tyson Prosser, owner of Tyson’s Fine Wines & Things, had her own comparison to make. “It reminds me of Hamburger Heaven in Irondale,” she said. “But even better, with cooler artwork.”
Owner Ryan Varnum is pleased to hear the compliments. “It’s the kind of response I had hoped for,” he said. “We’ve been happy with the turnout so far.”
Ryan’s family has been in the food business for as long as he can remember. With all of that hands-on experience, it was only natural for him to pursue a degree from Auburn University in hotel and restaurant management. His father, Don Varnum, owned and operated the original Zack’s Grille on Highway 78 before his death in 2008.
According to Ryan, the original Zack’s began as a snack bar connected to a coin laundry that was owned by the family. Hamburgers, fries and shakes were the specialties, and the place became so popular with local residents that it expanded into a sit-down restaurant, adding steaks to the menu.
Janet Prosser remembers that original Zack’s Grille. Having lunch at Ryan’s new place is a walk down memory lane. “It reminds me of his dad’s cooking,” she said.
But where did the name “Zack” come from?
“I guess it’s just a name my dad came up with,” Ryan said. As a result, patrons thought Don’s name was actually Zack and greeted him as such.
“They’d say, ‘Hey Zack’ when we were out somewhere,” Ryan said. “Dad would just nod and wave.”
Today that tradition continues as Ryan, himself, recently had a customer refer to him as “Zack.”
The new restaurant has a basic menu consisting of hamburgers, with or without cheese and with or without bacon, as well as chicken sandwiches and chicken strips, both fried and grilled. BLTs, hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches are among the other offerings, while fries, onion rings and chips round out the sides. Hand-spun milkshakes finish it off.
After the restaurant’s first month, it’s clear that burgers are the big draw. Tim Ross, the sales manager of Widenet Consulting, can relate to that. As he explained, “Cheeseburgers are my favorite food group.”
Tim’s office is directly across the street from the new eatery, only a few steps away. On his first visit, Tim arrived 30 minutes after they opened for lunch. The line was already to the door, and it took awhile for him to reach the counter and place his order — a double bacon cheeseburger with a side of onion rings.
“I don’t mind waiting in line for a real burger,” he said.
Another customer, Toni Leverett, senior staffing manager at Elwood Staffing, agrees with that sentiment. “Anyone who knows me, knows I love a good, messy cheeseburger,” she said. “And this one qualifies,” she added, pointing to her shirt where evidence of her devoured lunch was still visible. She joked that she’d be going back to work looking like a toddler, but it wouldn’t stop her from visiting Zack’s Grille for lunch again. “Definitely a do-over,” she said. “But maybe with a bib next time.”
Zack’s Grille is in Oxford at the corner of Highway 78 and Coleman Road (where Quizno’s used to be). The restaurant is open for lunch Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.