Joe Deel behind the counter, Hank Williams on the wall.
Joe Deel behind the counter, Hank Williams on the wall.

Burger Bar: Hank Williams' Last-Chance Meal

Field review by the editors.

Bristol, Virginia

Visiting the Burger Bar is like returning to New Year's Eve, 1952, when the baby blue Cadillac convertible of country music star Hank Williams pulled up in front. At the time, the all-night 25-seat road food joint was named the Snack King. According to a yellowed newspaper clipping displayed inside, a parking space outside the front door was where Hank uttered his last word. His teenaged driver, Charles Carr, asked him if he wanted something to eat. Hank answered, simply, "No."

Snack King and its owner, Sean Howlin, as they looked when Hank stopped by.
Snack King and its owner, Sean Howlin, as they looked when Hank stopped by.

Hours later, when the Cadillac was far into West Virginia, Carr again tried to talk to Hank, who was lying under a blanket in the back seat. This time Hank had nothing to say. He was dead, already stone cold and stiff with rigor mortis.

Hank Williams' earlier stop at the Burger Bar was part of a marathon drive from Montgomery, Alabama, to Canton, Ohio, where Hank was scheduled to play a New Year's Day gig. He made the trip even though he was barely alive, running on booze, beer, morphine, chloral hydrate, and injections of vitamin B12. In fact, a plaque in Knoxville, Tennessee, states that "many believe" that Hank was already dead when he was carried out of that city's Andrew Johnson Hotel, hours earlier -- but that claim seems highly unlikely (There is, however, no dispute about where the hotel's namesake, Andrew Johnson, died). Most Hank Williams fans accept that the Burger Bar was the last place that he was seen alive.

Burger Bar.
Lunchtime rush. Favorite burgers include the "Howlin' at the Moon" and the eerily predictive "Cold, Cold Heart."

Just to the right is where Hank Williams spoke his last word.
Just to the right is where Hank Williams spoke his last word.

Joe and Kayla Deel, both professionally-trained chefs, bought Burger Bar -- its name had been changed from Snack King years earlier -- on the 60th anniversary of Hank's death. At the time the place was struggling, but the couple believed that it could be revived by returning it to what made it popular in 1952. They revamped the menu to evoke the times -- including the original-recipe chili cheeseburger served on Hank's last night -- and restored the interior's fixtures to the way they looked during the restaurant's fateful brush with fame. "We tried to keep it as original as possible," said Joe. As a tribute to Hank, several of the most popular menu items were named for his songs.

Burger Bar's customers are mostly local, but Joe told us that probably one out of every five are Hank Williams fans from across the globe, a number and range that he said never ceases to amaze him. Many are re-tracing "Hank's Last Ride" through Bristol to its end point in Oak Hill, West Virginia, where Hank was most definitely dead. Even though Hank refused to eat at Burger Bar that night, Joe is philosophical about it. "At least no one can say that it was the food that killed him," Joe said.

Burger Bar beckons after-dark pilgrims to enjoy what Hank missed.
Burger Bar beckons after-dark pilgrims to enjoy what Hank missed.

And if Hank had just eaten that chili cheeseburger, maybe he would have lived.

The popularity of the revived Burger Bar led Joe to knock a hole in the wall and expand into an adjacent building. The place can be crowded during the mealtime rush, but if Hank fans are lucky they can snag a table seat in the original 25-seat diner and look out to where the Cadillac sat, only inches away. It's unlikely that Bristol, which bills itself as the Birthplace of Country Music, will ever erect a "Hank Williams' Last Parking Spot" historical marker -- but Joe was open to our suggestion of outlining the hallowed Burger Bar parking space in gold paint.

Joe said that Bristol old-timers have told him that despite Hank's rejection of his last meal, he did eat at the Snack King on several occasions during his lifetime, because Bristol was on a north-south route used on many country music concert tours. "The most frequent question I get asked is, 'Where did Hank sit?'" Joe said. "I always tell them, 'He's sitting on the seat right next to you.'"

Burger Bar: Hank Williams' Last-Chance Meal

Address:
8 Piedmont Ave., Bristol, VA
Directions:
Downtown, on the west side of Piedmont Ave., just north of its intersection with State St.
Hours:
M-Th 10:30-7, F 10:30-8, Sa 8am until food runs out. (Call to verify)
Phone:
276-466-6200
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Birthplace of Country Music MuseumBirthplace of Country Music Museum, Bristol, VA - < 1 mi.
Country Music Distribution MonumentCountry Music Distribution Monument, Bristol, TN - < 1 mi.
Birthplace of Tennessee Ernie FordBirthplace of Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bristol, TN - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Big John: Giant Indian, Kingsport, TN - 19 mi.

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February 28, 2020

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