As teenagers, my friends and I used to discuss how the burgers at the Le Tub Saloon could possibly be so good. There was a prolific rumor that the place had employed just one grill since its inception in the 1970s, and that grill was never cleaned. Therefore, each burger was infused with the flavor—or ghost—of every burger that had been cooked there before.
On a recent trip back to the Hollywood, Florida dive, owner Steve Sidle assured me that although Le Tub has had only two successive grills during its nearly 40-year history (and the first remained for almost three decades), cleaning is standard daily procedure. But that's beside the point. The very fact that there is mythological lore about the source of a particular burger's deliciousness is evidence enough that it's a damn good burger.
And this is not just nostalgia or even availability bias. In 2006, GQ declared Le Tub's sirloin burger the best in the country, which is, by proxy, the best in the world. An endorsement on Oprah followed soon after. Although my word—unlike Oprah's—may not be gospel, I've certainly never had a better burger.
It should never be much of a surprise that the best versions of American proletarian foods are served at similarly proletarian institutions. Nothing against Peter Luger Steak House's Luger Burger ( GQ's number two), but the best pizza, the best burrito, the best hot dog, the best burger—these sorts of things are not served by waiters in tuxedos. That said, Le Tub is particularly remarkable in its divey-ness: It's literally made out of stuff that floated ashore from the Atlantic Ocean.
There are license plates, buoys, toilets, a rusty bicycle, the leg of a Santa costume, and various other flotsam and jetsam. It's said that the namesake and centerpiece is a fully articulated bathtub that washed ashore, but I couldn't tell which of the tubs constituted a centerpiece, since I counted three. "The original owner had a compound with all this junk on it, and the city told him to clean it up, so he built a bar," said Sidle.
Situated across a narrow strip of land—is it an isthmus?—from Hollywood Beach, on the Intracoastal Waterway, Le Tub looks like a scraggle of wood, shrubs, and sea trash emerging from the canal. Most of the seating is outdoors, on the water, affording direct views of boaters passing by, as well as a distinct lack of shelter from the seagulls who seem to enjoy Le Tub's food as much as its patrons do. I've seen boaters pull up to the restaurant and order burgers to their vessels.
Seated next to me and listening in on my conversation with Sidle was a longtime regular with a handlebar mustache, a Harley-Davidson hat, a gold chain with an eagle pendant, and copious fuzzy white chest hair displayed prominently between the lapels of his half-buttoned sleeveless denim biker vest. Insisting that he was famous "in some circles," he declined to provide his name. I'll just call him Keith. Or Buck. He was the sort of salty old Floridian I forgot about (until this past election, anyway), and he looked like he hadn't left that barstool since he first started frequenting Le Tub 30 years ago.
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"It was always a very inexpensive place for people with money," said Keith or Buck. "It was kind of like a hideout. Until that GQ article came out." He kept insisting that the real clientele—whether regular or visitor—constituted sort of a clandestine who's-who of the secretly rich and famous. Like whom? "The manager of KISS," he said, without skipping a beat. Maybe Keith/Buck has different standards of celebrity, but he also looked like the kind of guy who might idolize the manager of KISS. At this point in the conversation, I looked out the window and saw two people fall off a jet ski; the jet ski kept going, and the castaways swam after it frantically.
Although the clientele and wait times may have changed, Keith or Buck insisted the sirloin burgers haven't. Personally, I've been patronizing Le Tub for about 12 years, and I concur. The patties are cooked slowly, possibly due to the bottleneck of having one small grill, and the anticipation resulting from the long waits can't hurt. When they arrive, they're served on poppy seed buns with optional cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion. The patties themselves are nearly as tall as they are wide, almost globular; I believe the proper geometric term is oblong spheroid. But glancing across the restaurant, I noticed a slight inconsistency from burger to burger—some protrusions and concavities here and there, certain charred bits—that reminded me of just how human Le Tub's operation is. The outside is crispy, and the inside is juicy.
I asked Sidle why his burgers are so good, if not the ghosts of burgers past. "We get our meat every day, and we make our own blend, so it's never frozen, it's always fresh." Blah blah blah, whatever. If this all sounds pretty standard—fresh meat, good grill, nice char on the outside—that's because it is. There are many thousands of burger joints across the United States with similar methodologies, and reading about this particular exemplar may leave you unconvinced.
But whatever it is that distinguishes an amazing burger from a very good burger is ineffable. There's just something about Le Tub's burger that sets it apart. Maybe the salty ocean air blows across the cooking patties in just the right way; maybe the environment itself manipulates perception; maybe Taurus was in an auspicious astrological house when the place was built out of wood and old toilet seats. But there's definitely something.
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For now. Le Tub has managed to stay pretty much the same despite the demographic shifts of South Florida, the exposure from the press, and Jimmy Buffet's development of a monstrous Margaritaville-themed resort right across the street. But Keith/Buck was all doom-and-gloom about the longer-term prospects of the area. "If you come here in October, I mean high tide, A1A goes underwater," he said, referring to the road that hugs Florida's coast. "The sea is rising."
I didn't take him for the climate change-prognosticating type. But he's right. Le Tub might have survived decades of cultural change, but eventually, this place and countless other coastal treasures will be underwater. But at least when Le Tub—built out of sea trash in the first place—goes underwater, it won't look out of place.