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.