Mikey Yoon’s taste buds flood his brain with nostalgia when he eats a hamburger. His mission as a chef is to recreate that feeling for his customers. He started Lovely’s as an East Bay pop-up at The Lodge on Piedmont Avenue. At the time, he made the choice to leave nursing school in order to devote himself to Lovely’s. His dedication paid off. Three months ago, the restaurant opened in a more permanent home situated in a large outdoor beer garden. Lovely’s shares the space with Two Pitchers Brewing Company next door. When someone coined the expression “a match made in heaven,” they must have imagined this perfect pairing between a brewery and a burger joint.
When he was growing up, Yoon’s parents owned a small business that included a deli. “So it’s ingrained in my psyche,” he said. He started out working for them, so the restaurant business has always been a part of his life in one form or another. Yoon said, “I love the whole experience of going to institutional burger places.” And by “institutional,” he means burger shacks like The Smokehouse. Places that have been around for decades. Places that stay open to satisfy late-night food cravings.
Yoon came up with the name Lovely’s because he felt it represents what the restaurant is striving for, “To put a lot of love into what you do.” Before opening Lovely’s as a pop-up, Yoon spent a year and a half doing research and traveling around the country. “I was taking notes in terms of how people want burgers and about the history of burgers in general,” he said. He lived in the Midwest and in the South. By the time he moved back to the Bay Area, Yoon knew exactly what he wanted the menu to be. “A lot of it has to do with nostalgia, with the way [burger] institutions run in different American cities.”
Lovely’s tries to strike that balance between tradition and being part of an evolution of burgers and food shacks. “I knew burgers are those food items that people have a lot of opinions about—it’s almost religious,” he said. “There was a point where some people were doing half-pound burgers with truffle aioli. I’m sure they taste great, but it doesn’t ever hit the nostalgic factor.” Yoon likes food that brings back certain memories or feelings. “I just knew that we didn’t want to be a place that put lobster on their burgers.”
The menu itself is designed like it’s straight out of the 1940s. It’s what Mildred Pierce’s hand-drawn fonts must have looked like. A note at the top reads, “Ground In House, Daily (Stemple Creek Grass Fed Beef)”. True to those nods to the past, the original fried-onion burger ($7.50) did remind me of a McDonald’s hamburger. In terms of its presentation, the burger was petite, though served on a much better potato bun. But the menu is diverse, with many modern updates.
In addition to a chili burger and a Western burger, customers can order a vegetarian Impossible burger, hot dogs and buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches. The classic chicken sandwich ($13) is a fried thigh served on a sesame bun. A “hot” version is a dollar more. I loved the golden-brown onion rings ($7.50), which may have been breaded in a tempura batter. The french fries ($4.50), though, were less like McDonald’s—not particularly crispy—and more like In-N-Out’s. On my next visit, I want to try the fish-and-chips basket ($16.50) and the vanilla, chocolate or swirl soft serve ($5).
“The thing I want people to know,” Yoon said, “in terms of what we’re trying to do here, is create a culture of bringing people together in one space.” That’s what he learned about burger places that are intertwined with their communities. “It’s a place that you can always rely on. It’s always going to be there. And that’s something we would like to be.”