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Richard Hyatt: The return of a Southern staple

They were belly bombs on little square buns, served in a simple setting that glistened with stainless steel and pure white porcelain. On a stool at a spotless counter you watched the cook throw paper-thin hamburger patties on a grill. The aroma of steaming onions was in the air, and so was the magic of a Krystal.

And for the longest time they were only a dime.

Krystals were the fast foods of my youth and when I got to Columbus, there were three or four of them in walking distance of the newspaper building that called my name every night.

They went away slowly and then there was none. Now Krystal has returned on 13th Street, and though a burger costs more than a dime, the unexplained attraction is still there.

They've been making those little burgers since 1922, and before there were Golden Arches or Whoppers there was Krystal.

The first one was in Chattanooga, and they've never ventured very far from home. They were known for those little square burgers, and that is still the company trademark, though the menu now includes oyster po'-boys and even a bowl of shrimp and grits.

What brings us back? It isn't seafood, and I asked Atlanta author and noted foodie Jim Auchmutey what he thinks the attraction is.

"Krystals are like a weird cousin you wouldn't want to spend every day with but you enjoy seeing from time to time," Auchmutey said.

Like other longtime diners, he enjoys going back in time.

"I love Krystals -- love the little steamed buns and onions and all that mustardy taste. But truth be told, a lot of it has to do with memories."

Krystal has reinvented itself several times over the years, but it can't escape the mythical lure of those four-cornered buns. Auchmutey points out that they were born in Chattanooga, the home of Moon Pies. "That makes the town a shrine for Southern junk food," he said.

As a newspaper reporter he wrote about an employee at a Krystal who said when she left work she had to hose down to get rid of the onion smell.

"She made it sound like a coal miner scrubbing off the black dust," he said.

And it won't be long before they're going to have scrub that smell off of me.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at