It all started one night with a friend's grill. He had a miniature tabletop model from Sharper Image. That's not usually my type. But it was stainless-steel, heavy, clean, efficient, and so incredibly small -- everything my grill was not. When fully assembled it looked like a shiny silver lunchbox, making it the perfect companion for a working stiff who wants a little hot meat in the afternoon.
About a month ago, I started having an Internet affair with a charcoal-burning beauty called the Leader at GourmetGrills.net. It was a full-sized, space-age marvel. Perched on a stainless-steel pedestal, the Leader had its own built-in chimney lighter, making any argument in favor of using natural gas or propane completely moot. With the Leader, all you need is a sheet of newspaper and some charcoal, and you've got a fire inside a beautiful piece of modern design. But I can't buy a grill over the Internet, no matter how sexy it looks or sounds. I've got to lift the lid and feel its weight. I've got to walk around it and see it from every angle. I've got to fondle the merchandise. I've got to know for a fact that it's the right grill for me.
"So, I hear you've come to see the King of Smoky City," says Jim Hamilton, the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing owner of Hamilton's Fireplace Shop on Summer Avenue. The front of Hamilton's establishment is dusty and cluttered. Holes in the floor are patched with tin. But the claustrophobic front opens up suddenly into an enormous showroom and warehouse space, with more than 200 fully assembled grills to gaze upon and touch. Hamilton says he's got the largest display of grills in the world. That fact is pretty hard to check, but the collection is impressive.
"They say if you can come up with a product that will make men want to go shopping, you've really got something," says Hamilton, who sells 3,000 grills a year. "And who do you see shopping here? You see men. They'll come in in the morning, go across the street and have a Backyard Burger for lunch, and then they'll come back in the afternoon. They want to touch everything. They want to lift every lid."
The first grill Hamilton shows me is a 600-pound monster by Viking. The Viking Professional is all stainless-steel with a geared rotisserie. It's gas-fueled but has an independently heated smoke box for pumping in extra flavor. It also has an infrared burner when you want a steak that's charred on the outside but cool and bloody in the center. At $4,900, however, it's a little outside my price range.
The Brinkman Commercial Grill is big enough for me to get inside and lie down. It's a charcoal burner made from boilerplate steel, and it won't lose a bit of heat. The Commercial is a no-frills beauty with a separate side-loading firebox that's easy to clean. But at $1,699, it's still out of reach. The Brinkman Residential is exactly the same as the Commercial, only half the size. The $699 price tag is a little more appealing, and the lid is so heavy you just know that heat could never escape.
I walk past $39 Weber kettle grills and expensive natural-gas jobs with side-burners for sauce. There are grills with detachable shelves that can be used as trays. There are upright smokers that look like bank safes.
"Look," I tell Hamilton. "I've got a good grill, a charcoal burner. It's been a really good grill for me, and I don't know if I'm ready to get rid of her just yet."
"Everybody needs two grills," he answers coolly, "a gas grill for quick starts on Monday through Thursday and a charcoal grill when you've got a little more time on the weekends." •