America's Best Burger Cities 2011
Travel + Leisure reveals the best cities for the ultimate American comfort food.
Sometimes, only a burger will do.
When traveling overseas and feeling under the weather or homesick, New Yorker Jeff Ward often craves a burger. "I start wanting comfort food—something American," says the managing partner of African Safari Consultants. And yet? "They're always terrible," he says. "There's no better place for a burger than the U.S.A."
Which American city does burgers best? That inspires a lot of debate—but now Travel +Leisure readers have picked a winner. In our annual America's Favorite Cities survey, readers weighed in on the best features of 35 cities. While some categories had obvious contenders (like Chicago for pizza or Seattle for coffee), the race for the best burger seemed wide open.
There's even debate over where the hamburger originated—perhaps at a lunch counter in Athens, TX, in the 1880s, or at the famed Louis' Lunch in New Haven, CT. While only major cities were in the running—sorry, New Haven—the Top 10 showed a certain small-town flair in its distinctive burger styles.
In Texas, you'll find big patties, shredded lettuce, and plenty of mustard; Minneapolis/St. Paul has varying versions of a Juicy Lucy, a burger with the cheese cooked inside the patty. "The Juicy Lucy goes beyond burger-making and into science," says burger expert George Motz, a filmmaker and author of Hamburger America. "They have to prick it during cooking to release steam, otherwise it will explode on the grill."
In still other cities, the best burgers have gone upscale. New York's DB Bistro Moderne serves one of Ward's favorites: a sirloin patty filled with braised short ribs and black truffles for a whopping $32.
So what's the difference between a $3 burger and a $32 one? Motz says it's mostly the beef: not just whether the cattle is grass-fed or hormone-free, but that meat is fresh and ground right at the restaurant—something increasingly found at mid-range places like Joe's Cable Car in San Francisco.
Motz and most AFC voters seem to agree that the best burgers, no matter the price point, keep things simple—one reason California-based In-N-Out has such a loyal following. "The wax-paper-wrapped, handheld double cheeseburger is one of the greatest things California has ever given to America," says Motz. "Add too many seasonings and other things to the patty, and it becomes something else—meatloaf."
No. 1 Houston
It turns out that bigger does mean better for AFC voters, and this oil town takes the prize for putting a Texas-size spin on the American classic. Double-patty, half-pound burgers are the norm here, topped with shredded lettuce and mustard more often than mayo. Some local favorites—such as Lankford Grocery and the Hubcap Grill—also offer triple-patty versions, with upwards of a full pound of beef.
No. 2 Salt Lake City
Locals have lined up in droves ever since the streamlined burgers of In-N-Out have come to town, but otherwise the area's burger personality is quite a bit more decadent—as in, pastrami burgers. To try a quarter-pound patty piled high with more beef, check out Crown Burger, where they also add Thousand Island dressing, lettuce, onions, and cheese.
No. 3 Providence
The Rhode Island capital is a crowd-pleaser for food lovers: it ranks No. 3 in the AFC survey for overall dining, as well as No. 3 for pizza, ethnic food, and mom-and-pop cafés. Locals even claim the diner was invented here. For a classic burger, go to Stanley's, which has been serving Stanley burgers since 1932, topped with just grilled onions and pickles.
No. 4 Denver
Denver won top honors for its active locals and came in at No. 2 for its great outdoor spaces. That fresh mountain air works up an appetite. So where to go for your burger fix? Locals love the H Burger, in lower downtown Denver, with fresh-ground Angus, Hatch chile pepper, and red pepper-tomato jam. Purists, meanwhile, rave about Bud's Bar in Sedalia, outside the city. Talk about basic: you get just patty, cheese, and bun—as well as a lot of flak if you ask for fries, which have never been on the menu.
No. 5 Austin
The Texas capital landed in the top five for both barbecue and burgers. For an old-school favorite, go to Hut's Hamburgers, which started as a drive-in in 1939 and offers grass-fed longhorn as well as buffalo burgers. Or, to experience the No. 2 town for live music by way of a burger, go to Ranch 616, where there's weekly live country music, and the beloved Framed Burger is stuffed with something different daily—such as cremini mushrooms or jalapeños.
No. 6 Chicago
The eight-ounce burger at Duchamp includes ground chuck as well as rich trimmings from the local meatpacker, piled on a homemade cottage-cheese-and-dill roll. Then there's Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern, which inspired the classic John Belushi skit on Saturday Night Live ("Chee-burger, chee-burger, Pepsi, Pepsi! Cheep! Cheep!"). You can get a chee-burger there today for just $2.85.
No. 7 Nashville
Nashville may be most famous for its live music scene, but the city takes pride in all kinds of homegrown products. The gourmet newcomer Burger-Up uses ingredients sourced from 10 Tennessee farms. Its burgers are accompanied by beef toppings-including Tennessee-made Jack Daniels ketchup.
No. 8 Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Twin Cities' contribution to burger culture is the Juicy (or "Jucy") Lucy—a burger with cheese melted inside the patty. To truly form an opinion, you'll have to visit the two places that battle over the claim of the original: Matt's Bar and 5-8. Happily, this is about as rough as things get in Minnesota, according to AFC voters, who lauded the area for its safety and cleanliness.
No. 9 New York City
In the No. 1 city for both diversity and style, there's a burger for almost any taste, from the old-school coffee-shop fare—where you have to order it "deluxe" to get lettuce and tomato—to the high end. At the Four Seasons, the 10-ounce Niman Ranch burger, served on a toasted brioche, sells for $30. For more affordable gourmet fare, try Danny Meyer's famed Shake Shack, where the all-natural, hormone-free burgers are cooked medium and served plain unless you say otherwise.
No. 10 Savannah
Savannah put its stamp on the survey for local specialties, with pizza, barbecue, and farmers' markets also ranking in the Top 10. Hometown favorite B&D Burger uses fresh Angus and its own home-baked buns for its menu of 33 different burgers. Try the Tattnall—with cheddar, pineapple, teriyaki sauce, and onion rings piled on top.
No. 11 Portland, OR
Sitting down here for a burger is far from gluttonous: in the No. 1 town for farmers' markets, the burgers feature lots of grass-fed beef and local ingredients. A good place to start is at neighborhood-style Tasty n Sons, known for its house bacon burger and its Toro burger, topped with bacon, manchego cheese, and zesty romesco sauce. There are also plenty of options for washing down burgers: Portland is the No. 1 city for microbrews.
No. 12 Los Angeles
It's hard for any burgerphile to cruise through L.A. without stopping for a super-fresh In-N-Out burger. But if you want to check out the newest burger star (after all, In-N-Out is so 1948), go to one of the five Umami Burger locations, where the ketchup and even the American cheese are house-made. Up-and-coming national chain The Counter—where you can customize your burger with more than 60 toppings—also started here.
No. 13 Phoenix/Scottsdale
When it comes to burgers, this southwestern city offers a different kind of heat. If you're daring, try the Habañero Burger at Scottsdale's Carlsbad Tavern, loaded with the hotter-than-jalapeño peppers and delivered with a disclaimer that it may cause temporary blindness.
No. 14 Dallas/Fort Worth
A football-loving metropolis is a natural for great burgers. At Dutch's in Fort Worth—named for a college football coach—you can sub in Tater Tots for your fries, or add a serving of Frito pie. Texan burgers almost always come with mustard, but the gourmet cheeseburgers at Dallas wine bar The Grape come with a more high-toned Dijonnaise.
No. 15 Kansas City
No need to drop a lot of cash in this midwestern city: AFC readers ranked it in the Top 10 for affordable digs. Better yet, the best eats in town—sauce-drenched barbecue ribs, medium-thick-style burgers—work for even the slimmest budget. Try the local Winstead's chain, which started in 1940 and made a rep for its Steakburger, a grill-flattened patty, served alongside Skyscraper shakes that can satisfy up to four.
No. 16 San Diego
The beachy lifestyle in this SoCal city gets raves from AFC voters: San Diego ranks first for its weather and second for its washboard-abbed, surfing locals. Indeed, trying to pass yourself off as a surfer is the actual theme of famous burger joint Hodad's in Ocean Beach ("hodad" is surfer lingo for a poser). Operating under the policy of No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem, its offerings include bacon burgers as well as veggie burgers and meatless "unburgers."
No. 17 San Antonio
Visitors think of the Alamo and the Riverwalk, but there's also good grub to explore here. For a longtime favorite, check out Fatty's, where the husky Lineman comes with a two-pound patty. Even the all-natural, grass-fed-beef burgers at The Cove have a decadent dose of Lone Star attitude: the Texas Burger gets topped with refried beans and corn chips.
No. 18 Charleston
Even the best burgers are civilized in this elegant southern city. At Cypress, the gourmet version of a low-country patty melt sits on a brioche and is topped with house-made pimento cheese. Or at Poe's Tavern, on Sullivan's Island, you can order half-pound burgers that were ground in-house and named after Poe stories: the Tell-Tale Heart has a fried egg, applewood bacon, and cheddar.
No. 19 Atlanta
This business hub can hold its own when it comes to burgers, as long as you know where to look. Ann's Snack Bar—famous for its chili-bacon-and-cheese-laden "ghetto burger"—is the classic old-school option, but it's endangered, as the building is for sale. Compare it to worthy newcomer Flip Burger, where you can choose from burgers made of lamb, tuna tartare, or just the "local," garnished with Coca-Cola ketchup, pickled peaches, and pecans.
No. 20 San Francisco
Just because this town is full of foodies doesn't mean that they can't enjoy an old-fashioned burger. They just expect them to be well made, with ingredients that were harvested close by. For a retro-meets-contemporary burger, try the Burger Joint, which offers hormone- and pesticide-free natural beef from Niman Ranch. Pair it with a chocolate shake made with local Double Rainbow ice cream.