New Top Hat retains down-home appeal

Beloved Ventura burger joint survives move with down-home appeal intact

By Rita Moran
Courtesy of Ventura County Star, February 23, 2012

Joe Paz of Ojai bites into a burger at the Top Hat Burger Palace

Top Hat Burger Palace withstood the weathering of time for almost half a century at the corner of Main and Palm streets in downtown Ventura. When owners of the property decided to sell the land and not renew the restaurant's lease, Top Hat finally closed in February 2010, much mourned by fans who loved to relax at its small counter and watch the mini-world of Ventura pass by. The down-home of it all captivated visitors and was a frequent subject of photos contrasting its humble exterior with the ever-changing city structures all around it.

But you can't keep a good burger joint down. With help from Charlotte Bell, the resilient owner during Top Hat's heyday, and other enthusiasts, new owner Jerry Martin finally has found a place for a new Top Hat that honestly looks like a palace compared to the simple, functional old Hat. It's not downtown anymore, but it does have a good location, across Main Street from Ventura High School in what is a midtown hub area.

Customers stand in front of the Top Hat Burger Palace

Top Hat stands out on its new corner with a handsome flared facade and eye-catching red and white paint job. Add the bonus of a welcoming side patio where diners can munch their burgers and such under vivid red umbrellas, and it's a welcoming sight. A bit of fencing around the patio sets off the fresh look.

The new menu is a lot like the old menu, and the good ground beef for the burgers still comes from Frank's Market farther East on Main.

Naturally we couldn't resist the Top Hat Special ($4.60) even before we knew what it was: a double cheeseburger with a medium soft drink. It comes on a small soft bun stacked with the patties and mild cheese plus tomato, shredded lettuce and a light, creamy sauce. What's not to love?

We tried for the pork tenderloin sandwich ($3.95) but it wasn't available the day we stopped by. We did add a steak sandwich ($4.25), a nice, thick cube steak-style piece of beef on plain white bread, with shredded lettuce, sliced tomato and the mild sauce. We also tried the grilled cheese sandwich ($2.95), which combined plain white bread with pale cheese, possibly Jack, resulting in a very mild-flavored snack.

Picture of a haamburguer made at Top Hat Burger Palace

On the side, we found the french fries (large, $2.05) flavorful and nicely crisp, and the fried onion rings ($2.75) more darkly fried and crunchy.

For those whose experience with Top Hat might have been confined in the past to burgers and hot dogs, there's now an expanded range of food items, including chicken sandwiches and lots of grilled-sandwich permutations (ham-and-cheese, ham-and-egg, egg-and-cheese, etc.) The regulars include chili and double-chili burgers, chili-cheese burgers and chili-cheese dogs. Corn burritos and chili-cheese fries round out the main menu items.

Medium and large soft drinks and ice tea are available, along with reasonably good coffee and even milk.

On a balmy Ventura day, which the town has in abundance, Top Hat's patio is a comfortable and inviting place to munch and sip. Takeout is always available.

Picture of a haamburguer made at Top Hat Burger Palace

Photos by ROB VARELA, Ventura County Star

© 2012 Ventura County Star. All rights reserved.