UFOs on a bun: 5-8 and 5-8 and 5-8

So let me get this straight: You're going to offer us $4 Juicy Lucy burgers on three consecutive nights. And then, after buying $12 worth of food, you're going to give us a $25 gift certificate!? The part of my brain responsible for math never got its mitts around this one, but my pleasure sensors were like, "Just roll with it, trust me."

And with that, my wife and I booked our itinerary for the last week of February: The 5-8 Club in Minneapolis Monday, Maplewood's 5-8 Tavern Tuesday (our "home game"), and Champlin's 5-8 Grill and Bar Wednesday.

Give credit to the 5-8 for baiting these east-siders perfectly: The imminent trip to Champlin almost scared us off, but the prevailing logic went something like this:

Night 1: The Club was where it all started! We could experience the original!
Night 2: We could leave home and get to the Tavern before our GPS locates us, so we might as well.
Night 3: It's a 33-mile drive, but ... I mean, we're already two-thirds of the way done, so ...

Well played, 5-8. Well played.

The Basics: The menus for each location differ slightly, and are on their website. They serve some ooky-sounding offshoots of the original Lucy, but stick with the Pig Pen and thank me later. The 5-8's generations-old feud with Matt's Bar is widely-documented - like, very widely. It's hip to pick Matt's, but 5-8 KOs them in the basket.

The first thing you need to know about the 5-8 establishments is their dining experience is 100 percent about the food. The dining areas look fundamentally the same at all three locations - beer neons in the windows, post-war-era metal signs on the walls, specials on a large chalkboard, and wooden booths with the table uncomfortably far from your seating position. They seat you quickly, they serve you quickly, and you're only there for as long as it takes to eat the food.

On the first two nights, my wife and I were in and out in just over 30 minutes. In Champlin, we stuck around for drinks and desserts while our punch cards were processed. This gave Jenna the Waitress more time for her service to shine.

I'm going to try and make this triple-review cohesive; my apologies if it isn't even.

5-8 Club on UrbanspoonMinneapolis: Getting to the 5-8 Club off Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis was a small chore, but you can't blame the club for the city's hokey road layout. There was also the task of peeling my wife's face off the window when we passed by Fat Lorenzo's as we turned off Cedar. Hey there big boy, wanna have some fun? Make a left turn across Cedar one time while your wife shears your eardrums with OH MY GOD THEY HAVE GELATO!

The Minneapolis location has like four parking spots, unless that barren wasteland across the street was supposed to be a lot. Most people just parked on the street.

This was the only location in which people were waiting for a booth in the restaurant. We happened upon the two remaining bar seats and our 30 minutes began.

The Bars: Each location has an adjoined bar, and this element is the only one in which the locations differ. In Minneapolis, the bar hides opposite the front door, small and subtle. Going into it feels like sneaking into the porno room of a video store. In Maplewood, the bar is walled off from the restaurant, dim and square, viewable through a large window in the bathroom hallway. Take out the counter and booths, and you've got the set for every TV interrogation scene ever. In Champlin, the bar is open and prominent; it's hard to tell which side is smaller.

5-8 Tavern & Grill on UrbanspoonMaplewood: The statue of Snoopy and his doghouse greeted us like it's greeted us so many times before. Strangely, at 8 p.m., the restaurant was silent. At no point was there more than one other table occupied than ours. We asked the waitress and she mentioned our punch cards being the first ones she had signed so far that night. When I explained this to a co-worker the next day, he said "I guess not everyone is as dedicated as you, Frank." It's hard to tell when he's being sarcastic.

Service: 

1. G and B
2. Club
3. Tavern

Don't get me wrong; service was great at all three locations, but this isn't elementary gym class. Not everyone gets to be a winner.

Jenna the Waitress claimed the trophy for Champlin, making frequent stops at what would have been a "table of death" most other places; on the cusp of the bar half, hidden behind a large beam, near two occupied and more easily-accessible tables. She had plenty of free time to spend playing Angry Birds, but chatted with us instead.

The service of the other two locations were determined by the length of time we were there. We were at Maplewood two minutes longer. It was really the only way to differentiate them.

5-8 Grill and Bar on UrbanspoonChamplin: To our right side, a woman faced our booth and was forcing a smile you could push a CD through. Beyond Smoove, a patchy-faced young man in a well-soiled Hurley hat was giving his parents some curious-sounding financial advice. Behind my head, trivia questions were boomed over the bar speakers. The Grill's lighting was noticeably darker than that of the other two locations.

To celebrate our tour victory, we stuck around for dessert. Smoove ordered a slice of chocolate layer cake, and I ordered ... a second Juicy Lucy.

Which leads me to the verdict ...

Burgers:
1. Club 
2. Tavern
3. G and B
You won't be surprised to know the flying disc-looking patties were the food version of a townhome community. It was frightening; you could order three Whoppers from the same Burger King and they'd look less alike than these burgers did - which isn't a bad thing if the burger tastes good, which all four of my selections did.

So, if you have a restaurant that makes the same product at all three locations, what do you have to set them apart? You have the one element of a Juicy Lucy you must master to pull it off: The cheese eruption.

The Club's Lucy never seemed to run out of cheese. Every bite sent a vine of American swinging from the patty and sticking to the top of my neck. The cheesing was no intense I had some left to dip French fries in afterward. The Tavern's Lucy was only a half-step behind; you got the same effect, you just had to squeeze the patty a little bit. At the Club, the cheese flowed like a water main break.

In Champlin, there was a noticable lack of effect. I didn't get cheese in bites unless I squeeze the patty flat. It was basically the last brush of your teeth before you toss the tube out. And the cheese had blown out of the dessert Lucy before I could even lift her up, rendering my dessert Lucy an empty pocket. Not that I was going to complain about a $4 burger, but I might have had I paid full price for the second one.

But two out of three ain't bad, and there's a reason 5-8 stays in the Juicy Lucy conversation even though they and Matt's have been left behind in the tar pits by stuffed-patty studs like the hipster hovel Blue Door Pub and Nicollet Malls' swanky Vincent.

I can't think of anyone from out-of-town I haven't taken to the hometown Tavern, and it remains an easy decision to make. They make the area's signature dish well, they can seat everyone you bring right away, the atmosphere isn't a gamble, and the service is great. The locations are placed wisely, making the franchise accessible to everyone around the TCs.

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