Determining the area’s best burger is a daunting task. Nearly every establishment that serves alcohol has a burger on the menu, and burger-centric restaurants have sprung up across the region like a bacterial bloom. A person deep in an intense burger craving doesn’t have to go far to satisfy the urge.
An unfortunate consequence of the burger bubble is that in many places, they’ve been deemed mundane. Overlooked burgers languish on menus and on plates handled by staff members who can view them as simple and pedestrian.
There are plenty of examples: dry and desiccated patties, their life essence squelched out by a heavy-handed spatula. Stale buns, cottony tomatoes, and limp lettuce are common infractions. So much mediocrity can ruin one’s enthusiasm for a Best Burger hunt, but I was up for the task.
Only there’s no way to really crown a best burger—not any more than a parent can anoint one of their children “best.” To digest what elements elevate a particular burger into the realm of “best,” I decided the only way to tackle the issue was to segment the problem, thereby making analysis more manageable. Burgers can be divided into three major categories.
The first lumps together all the ubiquitous bar burgers. Here, “best” is determined as a matter of proximity, as every neighborhood flanges down on their local favorite. Excellent examples can be found all over the city. Stoney’s, Clyde’s, and Black Squirrel serve stellar renditions, but to call any of them “best” would be useless to anyone who lives or works more than a mile away.
In the second, I grouped burger-joint burgers. Five Guys Burgers & Fries, BGR: The Burger Joint, Good Stuff Eatery, Rouge States, Ray’s Hell Burger—places where burgers are front and center, and devoted fans line up to drool over the red meat. These burgers run the gamut from foil-wrapped and paper-sacked to porcelain-plated and beer-paired. Specializing in ground meat, these burger joints turn out patties to ravenous packs of enthusiasts craving their next great moment of bovinity. They are, in essence, all burger machines.
Of these burger temples, Ray’s Hell Burger does an exceptional job. Its second location, Ray’s Hell Burger Too, two doors down, adds table and beverage service, offering a few beers and milkshakes so massive they come with to-go cups. Waitresses process customers at tightly packed tables like the back of the house processes meat.
You can watch an employee work the meat grinder, turning out a fresh blend of loosely packed meat into massive 10-ounce patties, subsequently served on custom baked brioche buns. The beef is cooked perfectly and the toppings are solid. For the price, it’s definitely the area’s best quality-per-dollar burger. The original Hell Burger comes in around $8.
In the third category are places where top chefs have devoted significant time to crafting the best burger humanly possible. Steak houses, naturally, know a thing or two about creating bovine bliss on a bun. At these locales, the best quality ingredients are used by the city’s most accomplished culinary hands.
Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown, with its oak-fired prime steak burger, achieves things I’d previously thought impossible. Take a bite and note how your teeth penetrate flesh and bun with little to no resistance. It’s as if air were an ingredient, providing an ethereal quality that borders on divine.
Yet it’s no fancy-pants burger: The sandwich balances delicacy and heft like an accomplished ballerina, simultaneously delicate and satisfying. The “secret sauce” playfully recalls a Big Mac, just with way more sex appeal, invoking a burger that’s at once humble and refined.
Savor that pickle. It’s all you get with an $18 price tag, which leaves me conflicted: Did I really just spend an Andrew Jackson on a burger that doesn’t even come with fries? But the ingredients are better, the bun is better, and the staff that cooks it has better training—all of which is realized in a much higher price. (The fries? They’re worth shelling out the extra bucks for, too.)
Sometimes, you want a paper sack of fries and a toasted marshmallow milkshake. Sometimes, a more distinguished experience is called for. Thankfully, D.C. offers as many options for those craving a small-shop, family-type feel as it does for those who might want a burger while on a cougar hunt in Georgetown. With burgers, “best” is in the eye of the beholder.