Last year was a turning point for the burger boom. The pivot is evidenced by the relative absence of burger-menu spots on “best new restaurants of 2011” lists. But contrary to what some industry observers/doubters choose to believe, I don’t think this represents a decline in burger popularity. The list below shows that quality new openings continue. But the perceptions of burgers by operators, critics and diners are changing.
Burgers’ overall popularity is shown by the number of those “best new” restaurants that do feature a burger on their menu. Unlike in the past few years, however, their menus just aren’t all burgers. The degree to which burgers are now expected is clear at T. Murray’s Bar & Kitchen—on Columbus (Ohio) Underground’s best-new list—where the item is labeled on the menu simply as “Our Burger.” Gotta have one. It’s a good one, at least: a half-pound, hand pattied burger with farmhouse Cheddar, crispy applewood bacon, lettuce, tomato, red onion and pickle on a roll with house-cut shoestring fries. Similarly, in The Detroit Free Press’s review of one of its best new spots for 2011, The Root Restaurant & Bar, the paper notes “There’s also a fabulous hamburger.” Of course, there is. This is the “one great burger” strategy, which has become commonplace and is a tribute to burgers’ importance to the American menu.
Also evident on many “best new” lists is the presence of “non-native” burger concepts. These are burger brands that migrate into other markets but still aren’t treated as though they are “chains.” Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack is the prime example, and it’s included on the Washington Post’s 2011 list. New York City’s 5 Napkin Burger is on the Boston Globe’s “best new” list of 2011. Northern Virginia magazine “best new” list includes BGR The Burger Joint, although the concept has opened more than a dozen locations over the past few years. So with Bobby Flay, 5 Guys, Smashburger, The Counter and others spreading out fast, the answer to restaurant critics’ common gripe that “burger joints are opening everywhere” is that, in part, what we’re seeing is just the marketplace sorting out and rewarding concepts that are successful.
Last year saw a few new “celebrity” burger joints: actors Mark and Donny Wahlberg’s Wahlburger in Hingham, Mass.; and Carnival cruise ships’ Guy’s Burger Joint, bearing the name, if not the presence, of Food Network workhorse Guy Fieri.
But there were truly new and notable burger-joint openings in 2011. Some made it onto “best new” lists, but many were overlooked because burger spots seem too trendy, too easy to some critics. Below are 14 new places with the courage to offer more than “one great burger” and that brought something special to the party. Together they yield the best “state of the burger industry” trend report to be had.
Anisha Jagtap told the North Baltimore Patch she was bored. That’s why she transformed her Puffs and Pastries dessert shop in Baltimore’s funky Hampden neighborhood to Baltimore Burger Bar. She’s not bored now, and neither are diners. The joint is the essence of the playfulness that infuses the best burger joints. Recent menu items have included an End-of-the World 2012 Burger (grass-fed beef; Cheddar; black-eyed pea and pickled pork belly hash; roasted garlic mayo; sweet-and-sour ketchup and bacon) and an “I Love Lucy” tribute to the juicy-lucy burger with Monterey Jack; herbed apple, parsnip and heirloom carrot salad; caramelized onion; Djion mustard and a chiffonade of romaine hearts.
BRU Burger Bar, Indianapolis
BRU packs a lot onto its one-page menu: beer list, wine list (glass and bottles), specialty cocktails, apps and sides, salads, sandwiches, desserts and, of course, burgers. Like the economical menu, there’s no excess here, just on-trend burger innovation. The list of “Classics” includes a $4 mini and a $9 Classic Bacon Cheeseburger. House-specialty “Chef Burgers” include the $10 Mount Olympus, topped with a Greek salad (pepperoni, feta, fried garbanzos, red onion, marinated mushrooms, kalamata olives, chopped lettuce and roasted-tomato dressing), and the $10 Provençal (basil aïoli, red onion, herbed goat cheese and marinated portabello). The house BRU Burger is a bit simpler, with Taleggio cheese, bacon, tomato jam, porter-braised onion, chopped lettuce and mayo. When you get a hankering for a dressed-up burger, this is the sort of place where you head.
How do you get to be considered one of the year’s best new arrivals? By being a fun hangout with beers like Alltech Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale on tap and menu that goes all-in on burgers. Start with siracha-soy deviled eggs or roasted marrow bones but move to the burgers, which include the $9 Carolina BBQ (with barbecue sauce, Cheddar, sweet and tangy slaw and fried onion strings) and The Italian (arugula, balsamic grilled tomato, basil aïoli and mozarella with pickled peppers).
Chef Al Sternweiler and business partner Josh Woodward describe their restaurant as “a neighborhood burger counter at heart” augmented by “a dash of old-fashioned butcher shop with a pinch of culinary artistry mixed in.” In other words, it is the epitome of 21st century up-market burger joints, where burgers are well-dressed and good looking. Choose your protein from the meat locker and have seasoned with salt and pepper or with one of several house seasoning blends before it goes on the char-broiler.
B3: Burger-Bar & Bistro, Kingston, N.Y.
The upscale-burger trend’s unloved stepson was the mini-burger fad. Originally bar-food staples, where they shine, they quickly became overplayed as entrees. This burger joint has full-size burgers, too, but it isn’t giving up on minis or sliders. And when you see their menu you’re glad it’s sticking to its mini guns. Jamaican-Jerk Pulled Pork with bread-and-butter green tomato ($3.95 each). Mongolian BBQ Beef with Asian slaw and cold English cucumber ($4.35). These are minis with flavor, style and a reason to be. Kudos to them.
The beef’s grass-fed and hormone/antibiotic-free. The menu has a Tandoori Burger with ground lamb, Indian spices and pickled cucumber, and Pork Belly and Collard Green Sliders. Yeah, I’d pick that as a “best new” as D Magazine has done. Writes reviewer Nancy Nichols: “The patties are steamed in a CVap machine and cooked until the meat reaches a medium-rare 140 degrees. When an order hits the kitchen, only then is the meat seared on a hot griddle, which creates a beautiful black char across the top. Take one bite and you’ll see the difference, a perfect reddish pink across the entire patty. It looks and tastes more like steak.”
Eat-a-Burger, Tucson, Ariz.
One of several concepts to make the leap from food truck to bricks-and-mortar restaurant, Eat-a-Burger began as a 14-foot trailer. Now it’s also a 1,100 square-foot restaurant in downtown Tucson. Where it’s also trend-forward is in its acknowledgement of the market for breakfast burgers. The $3.89 Big Breakfast Burger piles two sausage patties, two fried eggs, two pieces of cheese and two slices of bacon on an unsuspecting toasted muffin.
The Escondite, Los Angeles
An example of the burger-joint trend to focus on the beverage menu as well as on the beef, The Escondite sports a full bar (with rye as well as bourbon, to its credit) and nine beers on draft, 15 more in bottles. Sides include a house-specialty Buffalo Mushrooms and an almost-poutine mash up of fries, gravy, and cheese. And, you gotta love it, there’s Chicago-style Italian beef. The burger names alone will make you smile: The Gavin MacLeod (crumbled blue cheese, sautéed mushrooms, A.1.) and Capt. Kangaroo (egg over easy, hash browns, Cheddar, Canadian bacon, gravy and hot sauce).
Grange Hall Burger Bar, Chicago
Grange Hall melds the farm-to-table, local-sourcing philosophy with the build-your-own-burger trend. The result is a menu with grass-fed beef, free-range turkey and house-baked buns and pies. Choose your protein. Toppings have origin information (the sharp white Cheddar is from Darlington, Wis.; the eggs are from Paw Paw, Mich.). Sides include hand-cut fries, grass-fed-beef chili, and Baked Northern Beans with Fennel. The farm conceit isn’t shtick; it’s about making good burgers.
Oscar’s Pub & Grill, Milwaukee
The menu isn’t overflowing, but there’s an authenticity to Oscar’s that’s valuable. The menu’s divided among appetizers, sandwiches and burgers. There are only two sandwich choices, but they’re not afterthoughts or standard-issue choices. Burgers include The Big O, a half-pounder with Black Angus beef, chipotle Jack, smoked Gouda, hickory-smoked bacon, chorizo, fried onions, jalapeños and a side of house-made guacamole. Oscar’s lack of pretension makes it a destination-dining spot. The burger business needs more of these.
Sadly, co-founder Amy Pressman died in September 2011, less than two months before Short Order opened to raves. Her partner in the venture, famed chef Nancy Silverton, with whom Pressman had worked in the Spago pasty kitchen many years ago, opened the burger joint they had planned and that L.A. eagerly awaited. “Chef-created burgers” have become a bit of a cliché, but this is what the phrase means: simple commitment to quality. Wrote Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila, “The two them tested and tested and tested the buns, the beef, the sauces and the fixings, and the result is just about perfect.” The signature $12 Short Order Burger is grass-fed beef dressed with FrenchMorbier cheese, griddled mushrooms, bibb lettuce and “mustardy mayo.” The Patty Melt boasts pimento cheese and griddled onion on toasted rye from La Brea Bakery, which Silverton founded in 1989. For brunch there’s a Benedict Burger.
Stack Burger Bar, Austin, Texas
Yes, there’s Baked Mac ‘n Cheese on the list of starters, but there’s also Andouille Sausage Poutine, a Cajun spin on a Canadian favorite in an Austin burger bar. Cool. Cocktails include the Gary Busey (hand-squeezed grapefruit and lemon juices, Hendrick’s gin and agave nectar) and the burgers—from the house Le Roial w/ Cheese burger to the signatures—are equally fun. The Triple B (right) combines beef, bourbon-bacon jam, Jack cheese, fried onions, arugula, house-made pickles and a house-made sauce. Their egg-topper Morning Glory burger also features Cheddar, bacon, Parmesan crisp, lettuce, tomato, onion, whole-grain mustard aioli and, wait for it, house sauce. Now it’s ready.
Stackhouse Burger Bar, Vancouver, B.C.
Like Austin’s Stack, Vancouver’s Stackhouse Burger Bar has poutine—theirs is seasoned fries with locally sourced bocconcini and truffle demi-glace—but the ambience is a bit more upscale. The burgers are a bit more pricey ($14 to $18 Canadian) and more diverse. There’s a Venison Burger with Stilton cheese, cilantro aïoli and butter lettuce on a brioche bun; a Pancetta Burger (prime rib patty with pancetta. Guinness Cheddar, chipotle aïoli and butter lettuce on brioche) and Kobe beef, chicken, Dungeness crab, lamb and other burgers.
The Rail, Akron, Ohio
I was born and raised in Cleveland, so I understand that northern Ohio receives little recognition for its culinary contributions. But by golly if this new burger joint in Akron isn’t just the sort of smart burger bistro that’s keeping the business humming. The menu has a few other sandwiches, including a clever BrieLT, but burgers are the focus. Build your own (with condiments that include red onion jam) or select a signature burger such as the $9.75 “Crouching Burger, Hidden Bacon” (bacon, pork shoulder, crispy wontons, special sauce) or Bon Fire Burger (jalapeňos, pepper-Jack cheese and sriracha sauce) for $8.25. Your move, Cleveland.
There are plenty more new-and-notables all over the country worthy of attention and patronage. Among them are The Burger Philosophy here in Chicago; L.A. Burger Bar, Fukuburger (formerly just a truck operation) and Burger Parlor in Los Angeles; Burger Tap in Atlanta; The Burger’s Priest in Toronto; Tru Burger in New Orleans; Dave & Tony’s Premium Burger Joint in St. Louis; Todd Jurich’s 21st Century Burger Bar, Virginia Beach, Va.; and Skillet Diner in Seattle.
If your favorite new burger joint (maybe you run it?) isn’t here, don’t send me a nasty email. Add a comment below and tell the world, and not just me, about it. We all want to know what I’ve missed.