In the middle of the night, Billy Bartley thinks of his finest creations.
By Megan Turchi
“I can’t just sit down and write,” Billy Bartley says. “I need to be inspired.”
Bartley has been a making burgers since he was a teenager and now owns Bartley’s Burger Cottage in Harvard Square after taking it over from his father.
Barley makes burgers, but he also makes burger names, with relish, not the kind you put on burgers, but a kind of joy.
THE iPHONE, (“Siri”ously delicious, ask her) boursin cheese, grilled mushrooms & onions w/ sweet potato fries.
This burger won’t answer your questions, other than what’s for dinner.
But, these burger names don’t just come out of nowhere. Well, they kind of do.
Bartley says he thinks up his next burger creation in the middle of the night, when he is honking at a driver in traffic, or when he is listening to the radio.
“My head is always turning,” Bartley says. “The wheels are always going.”
Billy says the place had been for sale in Harvard Square for quite some time before his dad found it.
“It was right under everybody’s nose, right across from Harvard University,” Bartley says. “It was really a no-brainer, but nobody used their brains, he used his brain.”
By 1962, the Bartleys had converted the store into a full-scale restaurant.
Joe Bartley was selling a 4 ounce burger at the time, which, according to Billy, was pretty big for 1962.
“Nobody put any thought into them,” Bartley says of burgers in the 60s. “Nobody put any effort into them.”
Behind the counter is a hand-chalked sign that lists Bartley’s burger creations. But don’t be deceived by the simple sounding names. Open up the menu and you’ll see where Bartley’s boasts names such as:
THE TOM BRADY, (a role-MODEL) w/ cheddar, guacamole, lettuce, tomato and red onions with fries
THE TAXACHU$ETT$, topped with Boston baked beans, sriracha, bacon and a fried egg with fries.
THE TAXACHU$ETT$ is one of Billy Bartley’s favorite burger creations.
“It is one of the best looking burgers,” he says, “and it actually smells good too. You don’t usually get smell. But this burger smells good.”
He says, on average, he creates a new burger a week.
Bartley started working at the family restaurant when he was a teen, and he’s never worked anywhere else.
“It becomes part of you,” he says. “It’s a member of my family really.”
His love for grilling started in his teens working behind the counter 40 years ago. He liked the power.
Running the lines, you’re the boss.
“I was the star there,” he says. “Girls love it.”
Bartley met his ex- and current wife working at the restaurant.
Bartley has four children — a son who is a PhD student, a daughter who is a teacher (and a vegetarian, gasp!) and two younger sons who would love to spend all of their waking hours at the restaurant, but his current wife, Karin, isn’t ok with that.
His two younger sons love the celebrity aspect of the burger joint.
“I always love when celebrities come in,” Bartley says. “They could eat anywhere they wanted to and they choose here and then they come back again.”
Despite being featured on TV shows like Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and Destination America, gaining world renown acknowledgment, Bartley has made sure that the fame doesn’t go to his head.
Bartley is not the kind of owner who stands around with his arms crossed. He cooks, all the time.
“I am not there in a shirt and tie. I am actually doing it,” Bartley says.
Bartley says there was a great opportunity in taking over the restaurant and he knew he couldn’t have a desk job somewhere.
“To be able to be your own boss, to work at a fun really fast paced environment,” Bartley says, “it’s just a good fit for me.”
He says he asks people, “could you see me sitting behind a desk?”
“They said ‘not unless the desk has peddles underneath it,’” he says. “I have a really fast paced personality that the restaurant business is well-suited for.”
Despite owning the restaurant, Bartley doesn’t spend the majority of his days doing the budget (though there are times he has to do the paperwork). He would rather be behind the counter.
On a busy weekend day, Bartley and his staff could crank out somewhere between 700 and 800 burgers.
It’s a cultural institution that keeps tradition, but stays modern. In fact, he even had a burger-based gubinatorial race.
THE MARTHA COAKLEY: (runs more than a marathoner) jack cheese, chili, salsa and sour cream with fries
THE CHARLIE BAKER: (second time’s the charm) bacon, american cheese, grilled onions, jalapenos, & fries
“Oh, Baker is kicking Coakley’s butt,” Bartley says. “I can’t give away the Martha Coakley burgers.”