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Back road burgers

Kentucky’s best cheeseburgers for $5 or less

Inside the unassuming building that houses Dovie’s in Tompkinsville, a horseshoe counter and stools provide front row seats to the magic show in the center of the room, where griddle pans of time-darkened canola oil shimmer like a well rising from the desert and ground beef sizzles blithely, as if those patties are eager to go about the fine work of feeding a town. 

Servers bounce around taking orders, proactively slapping down buns already dressed with your choice of condiments, and maybe topped with a nice pickle and onion dome, waiting for the cooks to grace the bread with their masterpiece. If you have ever seen it, you’ll understand that Dovie’s is a process. Cooks start the raw burger on one end of the series of griddles and, when they deem it ready—by the standards of a restaurant that’s been in business for more than three-quarters of a century—they flip it into another griddle, increasing the heat incrementally so the outside crisps and the center guards the juice. With practiced hands and blackened spatulas, cooks work even more of the fat and oil over the patties until they’re ready for the cheese (or not). 

You can get the grease squeezed out before your burger is slapped on the bun, but your cardiologist’s advice aside, don’t do that. You want/need the nectar of the hamburger gods. 

Dovie’s, served by Tri-County Electric, is one of the many joints I visited in recent months as I attempted to find the best cheeseburgers in Kentucky for under $5. It was a fun, daunting job, as you can imagine, but I was up for it. For consistency, I ate all the cheeseburgers with pickle, mustard and onion. How you like your burger is your business. Even you people who use Miracle Whip. 

If you don’t see your favorite burger on the list below, it could be because it didn’t meet the price requirement; it could be that I didn’t visit because I didn’t know about it (though, after 30 years of traveling Kentucky, I’ve seen a lot of places); or maybe it just wasn’t up to the level of excellence on the day I was in there. Really, the fun of a story like this is for you, the reader, to agree or disagree with me on Kentucky Living’s Facebook page—and maybe we can learn about some more great cheeseburgers in the process. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that these are the best burgers in Kentucky. I would put them up against any best-of list in the world, especially if the competition is some Wagyu beef burger covered with gold flakes and soft French cheese mixed with Himalayan saltwater that you’d need a loan to afford. There is just no comparison. 

Not once did I tell any of these restaurants that I was working on a story about Kentucky’s best cheeseburgers. I just showed up and enjoyed, which is what I hope you can do as well.  

Dovie’s, Tompkinsville 

This is the most unique place to eat a cheeseburger in Kentucky. The openness of how they cook the burgers provides a satisfying experience, and the food speaks for itself. My wife, who had never eaten at Dovie’s before, was with me the day I visited. She tried Dovie’s “special sauce,” a mixture of what looked like steak sauce, brown sugar and magic fairy dust, and after taking the first couple of bites of her cheeseburger, she hummed and said, “This might be the best burger I’ve had in my whole life.” 

Reed Moore, co-owner of Dovie’s, holds a double cheeseburger outside his Tompkinsville eatery. Photo: Joe Imel

Ferrell’s Snappy Service, Hopkinsville 

Want proof this place in downtown Hopkinsville is in demand? There was a line out the door and around the corner the last time I visited. I parked nearly a block away and stepped out of my car into the back of the line. On one trip, we had arrived the day after Thanksgiving and the line was still outside when I heard one of the cooks yell, “They had turkey yesterday; today they are coming for the good stuff.” Indeed. 

The burgers are crispy—inside the small restaurant, you can watch as they smash the burgers and add them to the grease on the griddle. The balance of tastes is perfect. It is a recipe someone got right nearly 100 years ago, and it has been drawing burger lovers ever since. My son and I had good intentions that day of bringing a sack of cheeseburgers back to the rest of the family. We weren’t out of Christian County before the sack was empty.

Lines out the door are a
badge of success at Ferrell’s
Snappy Service, a downtown
Hopkinsville fixture for nearly
90 years. Photo: Ryan Craig

Laha’s Red Castle, Hodgenville 

Whenever I can stop in Hodgenville to learn more about Abe Lincoln with my family, I also make sure to storm the castle at Laha’s. The cheeseburgers are crispy on the edges and the onions are smashed into the patties. The best burger, somewhat ironically called the “Nasty,” is topped with the onions, greasy drippings and cheese that fall off on the grill and are scraped up and slapped back on your burger. Not such a great name, but maybe it’s how our faces look after devouring this excellent mess of a cheeseburger. 

Known for seasoned onion burgers cooked on a vintage Vulcan Hart grill they have used since the early 1950s. Photo: Kathy Witt

Burger Barn Drive-In, Irvine 

If the word burger is in your business name, you already know the pressure is on for you to serve up the best. This drive-in makes a crispy-edged burger with a nice salt and peppery taste. It is the best I’ve had from several drive-in places around the state (see Destinations sidebar). If you are still hungry after a couple—or 20—be sure to follow up with a baseball-sized hunk of chocolate cake that you can top with ice cream, nuts, hot fudge and a cherry. Be sure to bring a designated driver who doesn’t like cake, just in case you need a nap afterward. 

Dairy Freeze, Island

You kind of have to know where Island is, have a good GPS or be prepared to ask for directions, but it is just the right place for a great summertime drive. Order the Island Burger. It is crispy and cooked just right on the griddle. My brother first told me about this place because some people he knew just could not stop bragging about it. They were right, he said, and I agree. I don’t know if it is the name, the walk-up windows, or how they make them but I was served perhaps the best chocolate shake I’ve ever had. Try one and thank me later. 

There you have it—my choices for Kentucky’s top five cheeseburgers under $5. Try them for yourself, and take with you a sense of adventure, a pair of stretchy pants and your appetite. Also, be sure to bring people who have never had a good, old-fashioned smash burger. Smile knowingly as they taste one of the burgers on this list and have their culinary life choices all brought into question. Enjoy! 

Featured restaurants:


Ferrell’s Snappy Service 

Laha’s Red Castle 

Burger Barn Drive-In 

Dairy Freeze 

More great burgers to enjoy:

Gary’s Drive-in 

  • 2220 Veach Road, Owensboro 
  • Gary’s Drive-In 
  • (270) 683-4289 
  • Gary’s serves great cheeseburgers, and their patty melt and sweet potato fries are worth the trip. 

Ollie’s Trolley 

  • 978 S. 3rd St., Louisville 
  • Ollie’s Trolley Louisville 
  • (502) 583-5214 
  • Some of the best spices on any cheeseburger. Bring cash, and know that there will most likely be a line. 

Big Dipper 

  • 2820 W. Parrish Ave., Owensboro 
  • Owensboro Big Dipper 
  • (270) 684-4806 
  • Go for the great burgers, stay for the soft serve. 

The Bethel Dipper 

  • 200 S. Bethel St., Russellville 
  • Bethel Dipper 
  • (270) 726-7571 
  • Enjoy burgers similar to Ferrell’s in Hopkinsville—and the best Tater Tots.

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