America's Best Burgers
When Matt McKinney took a 39-day road trip in 2012, he experienced one version of the American dream, just before he reached the Pacific Ocean: a flawless burger.
“It was a really big, juicy patty and a perfectly moist bun,” says the Dallas-based credit analyst, who had stopped at gastropub Father’s Office, in Santa Monica, CA, on the recommendation of a friend. It was so satisfying that, McKinney says, “it was my only meal that whole day.”
Served with caramelized onions, cheese, applewood bacon, and arugula, the Office Burger typifies what has become, in recent years, the “destination burger.” Steakhouses, gastropubs, and hotels around the U.S. are serving well-crafted burgers topped with anything from house-made pickles to mushrooms sautéed in Cognac, and rendered from grass-fed or Wagyu beef (which refers to various breeds of Japanese cows, including the fat-marbled Kobe).
But you don’t always need a pedigreed cow to create a fantastic hamburger. When we searched for the best around the U.S, we found some with enticingly 21st-century sensibilities—locally sourced ingredients, or globally inspired toppings such as roasted poblanos or Sriracha sauce—as well as classics that have wooed meat lovers for 40 or even 100 years.
“To me, a great burger doesn’t have to be made of the finest ingredients—it simply has to be memorable,” says Jared Strichek, a digital marketing analyst from Charlotte, NC, who recently enjoyed such a burger in Charleston, SC, nestled between two grilled cheese sandwiches. “A burger is the quintessential American food,” he says, “because, with just a little ingenuity, it can be anything you want it to be.”
As a result, defining the best burgers can spur heated debate. Check out Travel + Leisure’s highly subjective and high-calorie picks—and vouch for your favorite burger joints in the comments section.
Office Burger, Father’s Office, Santa Monica, CA
Chef San Yoon has said that when he created his legendary gourmet burger in 2000, he was inspired less by classic hamburgers and more by the flavors of French onion soup. The result—with aged beef, caramelized onions, applewood bacon, Gruyère, Maytag blue, and arugula—remains one of the definitive high-end burgers. First-timers take note: requesting ketchup is verboten, as it distracts from the beef’s flavor (and they don’t keep it around anyway). Wash it down with one of the gastropub’s craft beers, or, for dessert, a chocolate-almond OMG cookie from Helms Bakery.
Torta de Hamburguesa, Topolobampo, Chicago
While some non-burger restaurants may be accused of trying too hard when they offer a genre-crossing hamburger, Mexican-cuisine maestro Rick Bayless clearly knows how to play to his strengths. Topolobampo’s acclaimed burger, available only at lunchtime, is a house-ground rib eye and short-rib patty on an artisan bun, topped with chorizo, melted cheddar, and roasted poblanos. For dessert, go for the Oaxacan Chocolate Sundae.
3D Valley Farm Burger, Holy Grale, Louisville, KY
Occupying a former Unitarian church, this craft-beer bar puts a pub-cuisine twist on its local-beef burger: a fresh pretzel bun. It’s topped with bacon, caramelized onions, cheddar, arugula, and “fritje sauce”—a Dutch-style sauce made with mayo, whole grain mustard, and lemon zest. While fritje sauce is meant for dipping your double-fried potatoes, you can also request roasted beet ketchup, horseradish sauce, curry ketchup, or beer cheese. Save room for the chocolate pots de crème, topped with kettle corn and orange zest.
Double Cheeseburger, Holeman & Finch Public House, Atlanta
Burgers aren’t on the dinner menu of Holeman & Finch, which offers upgraded southern classics such as fried catfish, oyster po’ boys, and braised rabbit. But show up around 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and you can order one of the day’s 24 double cheeseburgers, which come out at 10 p.m., announced by a bullhorn. Why only 24? The proprietors wanted to focus on quality over quantity. They make patties with a blend of grass-fed chuck and brisket, served on house-made buns with homemade ketchup, mustard, and pickles. If you don’t want to risk being Burger Customer No. 25, come on Sunday, when the burgers are available for brunch.
Surf, Turf & Air Wagyu Kobe Burger, Tender, Las Vegas
The great burgers of Sin City—such as those at BLT Burger in the Mirage, or Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay—deftly walk the line between hangover comfort food and showstopping extravagance. But the Luxor’s steakhouse shows no such restraint: its $30 Surf, Turf & Air starts with American Kobe beef on a potato brioche bun, then takes it up a notch with a crab-tail medallion and crispy duck bacon. Not-so-mundane toppings include watercress, seaweed artichoke slaw, and truffle caviar aioli.
South Carolina Burger, Sesame Burgers & Beer, Charleston, SC
At this sustainable-minded burger joint—where even the to-go containers are biodegradable—the Angus beef is pasture-raised and hormone-free (Sesame also gets raves for its vegetarian-friendly black bean burgers). Toppings range from Brie and sliced apples to roasted beets. Southern-spirited burgers include the South Carolina, with house-made pimento cheese, and the Elvis-conjuring Memphis, with peanut butter, bananas, and bacon. Try them with a side of blue-cheese-dressed sweet potato fries, broiled with prosciutto crisps, scallions, and a red-wine reduction.
Green Chile Cheeseburger, Santa Fe Bite, Santa Fe
Topped with local green chiles, this definitive southwestern burger was reportedly first created at Santa Fe’s Bobcat Bite. This new incarnation, from the same owners, is found inside Garrett’s Desert Inn, on Old Santa Fe Trail. Come hungry: the patties are 10 ounces of house-ground sirloin and chuck, topped with chiles and white American cheese on a house-made, ciabatta-like bun. And unlike some restaurants, Santa Fe Bite lets you order your burger rare, if you like.
Juicy Nookie, Casper & Runyon’s Nook, St. Paul, MN
The Juicy Lucy is Minnesota’s great contribution to burger culture: a cheeseburger with the cheese cooked inside the patty. In Minneapolis, the 5-8 Club and Matt’s Bar have long been the main sources. In St. Paul, we’re partial to this burger joint, thanks to its hamburger buns from the bakery next door and extra-gooey patties. Its selection of stuffed burgers also includes the chorizo-lovers’ Spanish Fly, with a 50/50 blend of beef and spiced pork, and filled with queso.
Sebastian’s Steakhouse Burger, Brindle Room, NYC
In a city where the most acclaimed burgers—such as the Black Label at Minetta Tavern, or the DB Burger at DB Bistro Moderne—hover around $30, it’s refreshing to find a worthy competitor for $12. At the East Village’s Brindle Room, this dry-aged burger, featuring deckle (a fatty cut of rib eye) and cooked in a cast-iron skillet, comes with caramelized onions, cheese, and pickles, as well as a side of fries. The only catch: you can get it only at lunch.
The Big Okie, Hank’s Hamburgers, Tulsa, OK
How do you get to be a “Big Okie?” Perhaps by putting yourself on a steady diet of these legendary burgers, served in this landmark Tulsa restaurant. The beef alone tips the scales at a full pound, thanks to its total of four patties, four slices of cheese, and onions grilled right into the meat, before the addition of lettuce, tomato, and pickles. While you can order fries, it would be a shame to miss the Tater Tots or fried okra on the side. Assuming you’re stuffed afterward, order your dessert to go; Hank’s other signature item is the chocolate-covered peanut butter balls.
Downlow Burger, Mar’sel, Palos Verdes, CA
The gourmet burger has become the essential little black dress of hotel menus. Terranea Resort’s Mar’sel restaurant initially made this burger to satisfy a guest’s request and afterward left it as an off-menu item (hence, you asked for it “on the down low”). But it was so beloved that it finally went public. Expect house-ground Wagyu beef, aged white cheddar, house-made pickles, caramelized onions, and other veggies from the resort’s own garden. The bonus: views, over the resort’s bluffs, of the Pacific.
L.A. Burger, Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, Mobile, AL
Callaghan’s makes its L.A. Burger (which stands for Lower Alabama, don’t you know) only at lunchtime. And it only makes a limited number, so to be sure you get one, show up early (like 11 a.m., when it opens). The L.A. Burger sets itself apart with its patty—made with a combo of beef and Conecuh sausage—and its tangy toppings of pepper jack cheese, spicy mustard, and coleslaw.
Ray’s Hell Burger, Ray’s to the Third, Arlington, VA
Ray’s may be a dive, but its 10-ounce, freshly ground beef burger goes for fancy toppings: white truffle oil (on the Fat Joe); roasted bone marrow (on the Dog Catcher); or mushrooms sautéed in sherry and Cognac (such as the Soul Burger No. 1 and the B.I.G. Poppa). Across the street from its previous location, Ray’s has a rep for attracting big-name Beltway types, including burger-loving President Obama, who in 2010 treated then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to a Hell Burger.
Old Fashion Burger, Lankford Grocery, Houston
This Texas legend, originally a Depression-era fruit stand, has been making burgers since the 1970s, and today its mission statement declares: “We have nothing small, nothing healthy, and nothing fast.” The Old Fashion comes with a full slate of mayo, mustard, pickle, lettuce, tomato, and onion. Even so, Lankford is not content to be just a time capsule of old-school burgers: its variations include the Firehouse (habanero sauce, cayenne butter, and jalapeños) and the Wasabi (with Wasabi sauce, pineapple, red onion, and Swiss).
Mushroom Burger, Port of Call, New Orleans
Port of Call is laid-back yet still fabulous, just like its hometown. Fans have been queuing up for this French Quarter steakhouse burger since the early 1960s. You get only four choices for the half-pound sandwich: with or without cheese, and with or without mushrooms. In lieu of fries, your accompaniment is a big baked potato—which you can also top with mushrooms. Wash it down with the signature cocktail, the rum-based Neptune’s Monsoon, served in a hefty, who-cares-if-I-look-like-a-tourist glass.
The “Zizou” French Onion Cheeseburger, Dick’s Kitchen, Portland, OR
Locavores in Portland love Dick’s burgers so much that a third location is reportedly in the offing (right now, you’ll find branches on SE Belmont and NW 21st Ave.). The Classic Burger features grass-fed beef (from Oregon’s Carman Ranch) on a sourdough potato (or gluten-free) bun. But we say, live a little and order one of the specialty burgers: the lamb; the “Dork” (half-duck, half pork); or the Zizou, a Francophile burger named for French soccer star Zinedine Zidane. It has the same patty as the Classic, but ups the ante with thinly sliced onions smashed into the patty and topped with melted Swiss cheese. Get it with a side of air-baked Not Fries.
Charlie Special, Charlie’s Hamburgers, Folsom, PA
About 10 minutes from the Philadelphia airport, this little burger shack serves petite, almost slider-size burgers that pack a punch. The Charlie Special is topped with cheese, tomatoes, pickles, and “fried onions”—finely diced onions that have not been deep fried, but melted down right on the grill. (The corresponding Bunny Special keeps the diced onions raw.) Just don’t push your arrival too close to the 9 p.m. closing time: this is the kind of place that closes for the day when it runs out of the fresh beef. There are no fries, so trade salty for sweet with an order of Charlie’s black-and-white shake.
Heavenly Double Cheeseburger, Wholly Cow Burgers, Austin, TX
When it comes to burgers, there is a certain cachet in starting out in a convenience store—just as this Austin burger-maker did, in a farmers’-market-centered mini-mart on South Lamar. Now with a downtown location, too, Wholly Cow offers its signature double burger with all-organic, grass-fed beef, served on a sweet, King’s Hawaiian Roll. It also does a Paleo burger, with the beef patty sandwiched between two portobello caps and served sans mayo or ketchup.
The Original Burger, Louis’ Lunch, New Haven, CT
For many burger connoisseurs, Louis’ Lunch is the mother ship. Around 1900, a guy walked into this lunch counter and asked for a quick meal to go—so the cook took some meat scraps, patted them into a nice flat piece, and stuck it between toast. Today’s burgers, overseen by Louis’s grandson, look pretty much the same. The patty is a combination of five cuts of meat, grilled over an open flame on antique cast-iron broilers, while the toast is prepped in a contraption your great-grandmother might recognize. Don’t even think about asking for mustard or mayo: the only approved toppings are tomato, onion, and cheese.
Harry’s Bistro Burger, Abbey Burger Bistro, Baltimore
This combo bistro-and-sports-bar in Federal Hill embraces the build-your-own-burger model, but its signature burger offers a compelling, preset medley: an Angus patty, applewood bacon, a sunny-side-up egg, and cheddar—all piled on a contrarian-style English muffin. Another fabulous variation is the Baltimore Burger, topped with homemade crab dip, bacon, and cheddar cheese.