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Photographs by Greg Rannells
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The provenance of the hamburger has been linked to a city in 18th-century Germany, as well as to our own city in the year 1904. We suspect the first union of beef and bread to have occurred long before either, but no matter. It happened—and shows no signs of letting up. In today’s restaurants, the hamburger is as common as a server’s introduction, so ubiquitous than even trendy tapas restaurants wouldn’t consider opening for lunch without one on the menu.
With St. Louis’ myriad restaurants, crowning one as the ultimate burger destination is a Sisyphean task. So we took a different approach, asking SLM’s food writers for their personal favorites within a specific category. We hereby present six lists to ponder, all the fixings you’ll need to determine your own favorite. —G.M.
By Bill Burge
1. Annie Gunn's
16806 Chesterfield Airport Rd.
Beloved for its mouthwatering steaks and clubby, old-school décor—and “snugs” that are actually quite roomy—this West County institution has also mastered burgerdom, grinding a mix of USDA Prime strip loin, rib-eye, tenderloin, and brisket. It’s impeccably grilled, set atop a billowy bun that’s slathered with butter and toasted. Annie Gunn’s calls it the Classic Hamburger, but we call it the Carnivore’s Dream. It’s easily the beefiest-tasting burger in the St. Louis area.
2. Cardwell’s at the Plaza & BC’s Kitchen
The Meadows at Lake St. Louis
With an atmosphere that exudes the “Traditional American” concept of the mid-’90s, right down to the wood-burning oven, Bill Cardwell’s restaurants still feel fresh, thanks to his omnipresent vision. Although the rest of his menus change daily, Cardwell’s “Burger Meister Burger”—a thick, succulent patty topped with apple wood–smoked bacon, cheddar and Amish blue cheeses, and a dash of tangy, spiced tomato relish—has never wavered and never missed a day. It’s the Cal Ripken Jr. of burgers.
3. Brasserie by Niche
When you think of a brasserie or of Gerard Craft, a burger is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But when you consider the classic French brasserie—always abuzz with people enjoying both friends and outstanding meals—it makes sense that a simple American classic would appear in a stateside one. Adorned with only pungent Roquefort, pickled onions, and wild arugula, Brasserie’s burger may be short on toppings, but it’s long on flavor.
1535 S. Eighth
Biting into a Franco burger, as the juice dribbles down your chin and the salt tingles on your lips, you realize that frequently all it takes is doing something simply, but right, no frills needed. A bun toasted with care, a patty well-seasoned and expertly cooked, and a slice of cheddar that weeps gloriously over the edges as it comes off the grill is all you’ll get at Franco—and it’s all you really need.
5. The Terrace View
As photogenic as the open-glass construction of Citygarden’s Terrace View is, it’s inside that Jim Fiala’s team has constructed a house-made brioche roll so picturesque it’s easily the most beautiful embrace we’ve ever seen of a grass-fed patty. Finished off with bistro sauce and a chopped romaine, onion, and tomato slaw, this is the burger we order after (or before) Albert hits a home run.
Bar & Grills
By Joe and Anne Pollack
1. O'Connell's Pub
Nearly three generations of eaters and drinkers have come to appreciate the thick, juicy O’Connell’s hamburger. Tasty even without the bun, it is consistently remarkable, from grill hands who perfectly understand the difference between rare and medium-rare. Sometimes-brusque service, perhaps a legacy of its original Gaslight Square attitude, seems to have softened, leaving an old-style saloon featuring burgers and conversation.
2. The Scottish Arms
8 S. Sarah
The lamb burger here is a stunner. The savory fennel jam on the side is superfluous, but we sometimes succumb to goat cheese and grilled onions, to lift things even further into fabulousness. Strongbow cider on tap is a bonus, and the beer list is terrific. So are the chips. Servers know the menu well, and if guys in kilts make you uncomfortable, just keep your eyes above the table.
This is about the last place we expected to find a remarkable burger. Failoni’s, an old-style watering hole, is noisy on the nights with music and quiet on the nights without—but it always serves these medium-size juicy hamburgers for lunch, between meals, at night, and on Fridays, when a larger dinner menu is on tap. And the plates arrive moments after cooking, another key to excellence.
4. Novak’s Bar & Grill
This gay-friendly bar in The Grove is off the usual burger trail. Its standard Big Novak burger involves two patties, medium-thick, that show no pink, yet remain extremely flavorful. Storytelling and conversation are major forms of entertainment at the three-sided bar; nearby is a dance floor that’s packed on weekend nights. During the day, though, we’re just looking for a tasty burger and well-chilled beer.
5. Blueberry Hill
After a long dry spell, things in the hamburger department at this legendary Loop location have finally begun to pick up. The meat isn’t overhandled, and the burgers remain moist unless they’re ordered well done. We don’t know anyone who orders Provel cheese on a burger, but you can do it here. Blueberry Hill still has a ways to go to reach its former glory, but it is making a comeback. (Extra points, by the way, for the addictive buffalo fries.)
By Rose Maura Lorre
1. Seamus McDaniel’s
When you consider this category, do you picture a neighborhood place drawing steady, loyal foot traffic? Or a driveworthy
destination that pleases all comers? Do you envision a menu with anything other than burgers, beers, and fried sides (spuds and onions chief among them)—and if other options exist, do you really care? The correct answer to all of the above: the original Seamus McDaniel’s in Dogtown.
2. Pat’s Bar & Grill
Oh-so-close to McDaniel’s geographically and aesthetically, our other Dogtown fave gets ranked just a notch lower, because honestly,
we often do order something besides burgers here (frog legs, s’il vous plaît?). That said, the welcoming, weathered interior screams “Half-pound of charbroiled, coming right up!” And besides: You’ve gotta order something to go with the best onion rings you’ll ever eat.
9025 St. Charles Rock Rd.
While other locations of this one-time local chain have come and gone, the St. John’s outpost has been in the biz since ’57—which happens to be the year of owner Ron Stille’s souped-up Chevy. Here, hamburgers (called Chucks) are fried on a flattop, done up with doo-wop, and served with a side of straight-up nostalgia. When the weekend comes and our cycle hums, we’re ready to race to you, Chuck.
4. Schlafly Tap Room
Lots of dark wood, lots of draft beer, and lots of live bands: the burger-joint trifecta. Granted, the Tap Room bills its menu as “European-inspired pub fare,” with only one of its four burgers coming from a steer. So let’s just concede that hamburgers really come from Hamburg, order another pitcher, and change the subject.
5. Fast Eddie’s Bon-Air
1530 E. Fourth
Yeah, there’re plenty of other (maybe even better) reasons to gun it over the river to Fast Eddie’s: a pile of peel-and-eat shrimp, a rowdy rockabilly band, the chance to take a spin on the always-lively dance floor. Such ambiance enhancements only make the taste of the house’s 99-cent, half-pound hunk of burger that much more delectably tempting.
By Dave Lowry
3957 Mid Rivers Mall Dr.
The aroma: that sweet, hot grease. The visual: 2-inch-thick wheels of beef, sizzling on a smoking-hot grill. The taste: a juicy Platonic ideal of a burger, meaty, beefy, so big you have to stretch to fit it in your mouth—and that’s before a stop at the condiment station. This is unquestionably the best burger bargain in town (at $4.50 for a Big Christy) and easily among the finest of chain burgers ever put between toasted buns.
2. Red Robin
The perfect spot for a quiet, romantic evening—no, wait. Kitschy posters, a couple of kids’ birthday parties in progress…the ambience is “Day Care Goes to the Circus.” But check out those burgers: fat, juicy, easily enough for two, especially with endless servings of thick wedges of fried potatoes dusted with seasoned salt. We’re partial to the Bleu Ribbon Burger, pungent with blue-cheese crumbles, layered with crispy fried onions.
Managing to mix fast food with a folksy diner atmosphere, Culver’s is like an improved, 2.0 version of Steak ’n Shake. The buns are buttered and toasted, the meat grill-smashed, the rabbit food on top garden-fresh. Crinkle-cut fries and Wisconsin cheese curds with the burger constitute a triumvirate of tastiness that can only be adequately celebrated with a turtle sundae for dessert.
4. Five Guys Burgers and Fries
We’re suckers for any place that has free peanuts. But the scatter of shells on the floor, the brown-paper-bag service, and the double patties of meat all indicate a serious burger joint. Signs noting the hometown of the fries served that day and fromage American on the must-try cheeseburger are both nice touches. Additionally, service here is so consistently friendly and pleasant, you’ll suspect it’s a cult.
5. Cheeburger Cheeburger
We have a friend who—seriously—tried to order a Coke here. Enduring the ’50s shtick is worth it for the delicious, two-fisted heftiness of the burgers. Ignore all of the goofy topping choices (Grey Poupon?) and go with that third of a pound of Black Angus beefiness, dressed with tomatoes and lettuce. A combo of fries and onion rings is mandatory. So are the first-rate chocolate shakes.
By Andrew Mark Veety
1. The Tavern Kitchen & Bar
2961 Dougherty Ferry
The Tavern’s inspired concoction of bacon, spice, and brown sugar has conspired with slices of Irish cheddar to make the ubiquitous bacon cheeseburger seem downright pedestrian. When a handpacked beef patty cavorts with caramelized “bacon jam,” additional burger adornments are unnecessary. Diners should wangle a counter seat, right next to the open kitchen. Did you see that? I think I just saw the burger bar get raised in West County.
2. Anthonino’s Taverna
Hearty slices of garlic cheese bread bookend an 8-ounce beef patty, thick slices of gyro meat, tomato, and red onion, making the Big Anthony a necessary recipient of a knife and fork. Don’t be bashful; ask your server for tzatziki instead of mayo, and plenty of extra napkins, as it’s a safe bet some portion of this masterpiece will end up somewhere other than your mouth.
3. The Bleeding Deacon Public House
Travel the upper Midwest, and you’ll run into the butter burger: modestly topped patties with a payload of melted butter on the inside. The Deacon puts a less messy spin on this regional specialty, with a butter-filled half-pound Black Angus patty stacked high with house-made onion rings. This all presents a challenge to the chewy, whole-wheat bun, which thankfully does yeoman’s service containing the concoction straight through to the last bite.
4. The Sports Page
The projection televisions and neon beer signs say “man cave” as much as “sports bar,” but the kitchen is running a clinic on turning out grilled burgers that would stand out at any backyard cookout. Nothin’ fancy, just fresh, well-seasoned beef, paired with thick-cut house-made chips.
5. Clancy’s Irish Pub at The Barn at Lucerne
930 Kehrs Mill
Clancy’s collection of tables and booths occupies the darkened yet welcoming nooks of a 105-year-old dairy barn; it’s home to not only the pub, but also a butcher shop staffed by the fifth generation of the Clancy family. Six-, 8- and 12-ounce Black Angus burgers are ground and spice-rubbed in-house. Pass on the uninspired sides in favor of a larger burger, which promises to make all eyes Irish, and smiling.
By George Mahe
1. Dressel's Pub
419 N. Euclid
No chicken strips. No waffle fries. Not even any TVs. This is a pub, for God’s sake, a public house, a place where people actually talk to other people—not to footballers on flat-screen plasmas—and a place where the fare is as paramount as the wide beer selection. Nestled at the bar, accompanied by a freshly ground lamb burger with goat cheese and apricot chutney, a glass of Bitch Creek ESB, and soon-to-be friends on either flank, this may be as good of a burger experience as can be found in our city. Go. You watch too much TV anyway.
In Ladue, one might expect a restaurant to be named Truffles. And have a wall full of Wine Spectator awards. But it was the bistro burger, sharing a menu with Dover sole and bouillabaisse, that confounded us. “Must be a good burger,” we thought, but we never ordered it until we wandered into Truffles’ clubby bar, a better home for a $14 burger—and for us. No surprise here that a genetically superior beef, Piedmontese, is used exclusively, promising full beef flavor. The base burger, gussied with cheddar, bacon, and caramelized onions, is excellent; when one adds a side dish (like sunchokes with sage brown butter), this burger becomes a celebration. A bottle of your best champagne, please.
Chef Jack MacMurray III produces his own line of spices, which is part of the appeal of his chorizo Angus burger. You might think a burger containing one-third house-made chorizo (and you thought it was only used in hangover omelets!) would lack that essential beef burgerness, but paired with mild cheese and jalapeño relish, it is one of the best burger surprises around. Not enough pop for you? Jack Mac has a spice bottle with your name on it.
4. Sub Zero Vodka Bar
308 N. Euclid
Great burgers at a vodka bar? Like the meteoric rise of Guy Fieri, there have been bigger surprises. (And there’s sushi here, too—good sushi—and a sashimi-tini, which only adds to the mayhem.) It’s hard to resist Sub’s coleslaw-topped barbecue bison burger, but if you can, the veggie burger (one of the best in the city) alleviates all burger guilt, especially when paired with tempura veggies or edamame. Here, another side dish has made a comeback: potato wedges. Hmmm…potatoes and vodka. Now it’s beginning to make sense.
5. Joey B’s on the Hill
We usually draw the line at half-pound burgers, but Joey has an appetite, so he insists on a 10-ouncer. We can deal with that. Our suggestion: Order it medium-rare (it’s blissfully correct every time), sub the homemade coleslaw for fries, and request the Pisa-like tower of onion rings on the side. Sound like too much food? It’s not, really, provided there are two of you.
And the Winner Is...
Foie gras topping? Kobe sliders? Please. Gussy up a burger too much, and it’s culinary parody. Five Bistro shows the way it’s done. Slap onto the flames a two-fingers-thick patty of house-ground chuck that spent its life munching grass. Wait for the beefy, caramel-crusted magic. Then slide it onto Five’s own light, puffy, organic bun just kissed by a hot grill. Add a confetti of tangy greens; lay a gossamer sliver of salty, briny pickle on the side; and let it all make friends with a pile of skinny, golden, hot pommes, frite-ified with their skins on.
Remember that at Five, if it can be made in-house, it is, right down to the little dipping crocks of creamy aioli, ketchup, and grainy mustard. That such an extraordinary burger comes from this decidedly upscale eatery might seem odd. But there’s no question: Five’s is the best hamburger in the city. (And at $10, a steal.)
What? Still not good enough for you, Herr Burgermeister? OK. Try Five’s burger specials, one with ground brisket and short ribs, another with lamb. True, they’re not traditional burgers. They’re more in the realm of angel food.
Video: The Making of the Best Burger (Web Exclusive)
Five Bistro's chef and owner Anthony Devoti gives us a special look at St. Louis Magazine's dining editor's pick for St. Louis' best burger.
In a Class by Itself: Carl’s Drive In
Travelers on the Mother Road were stoking the fires here back in the ’50s, fueling up on burgers and fries for the run to Tucumcari. Carl’s hasn’t changed much since. You stroll in and wait for a vacant counter stool. Order, and watch while beef goes from raw to crispy-edged perfection in seconds, appearing on très-elegant paper plates. Lettuce and tomato toppings are just right. Shoestring fries are good; golden onion rings are better. Everything on the menu’s flavored with nostalgia, especially the frosty, frothy, house-concocted root beer drawn from its own barrel. This is a St. Louis dining mecca. 9033 Manchester, 314-961-9652
Pushing the Burger Bounds: SweetArt
Veggie burgers generally fall into two categories: those that are masquerading as wannabe meat substitutes, and those that fill the vegetarian gap on a restaurant’s otherwise meaty menu. But where SweetArt isn’t any ordinary neighborhood cafe—being owned by Cbabi Bayoc (the artist) and his wife, Reine (the baker)—the Sweet Burger isn’t ordinary vegan fare. With a mix of lentils, nuts, carrots, Middle Eastern spices, and a veritable potpourri of other vegetables, this is the patty that raises the bar for what vegan food can be, even for the most well-seasoned carnivore. 2203 S. 39th, 314-771-4278, sweetartstl.com
Stalking the Elusive Slider
Like the wolf to the schnauzer, sliders are the primordial ancestor of the modern hamburger. The latter evolved, flourished. They roam the land now, vast herds of Big Macs, Whoppers, Thickburgers. The shy slider retreated to remote urban wilds and highway diners. Unabashedly greasy, grill-smashed meat? Fried onions? Buns with the ethereal lightness of a sponge? You’ve fortuitously wandered into slider territory, pal. White Castle trademarked “Slyders” in 1994; by 2010, imitators could be found almost everywhere, the most recent being those “Steakburger shooters” at your neighborhood Steak ’n Shake. Wherever there’s an all-night need for sustenance, somnolent socializing, or sobriety, the slider will always be there. Long may its aroma waft.
Unsung Burger Joints (Web Exclusive)
Six under-the-radar restaurants worth a bite
Deaver’s Restaurant & Sports Bar
Having worked at Mike Duffy’s Pub & Grill throughout high school and college, Derek Deaver—the student—is now the master of his own family-oriented sports bar, which consistently serves the finest grilled, half-pound burgers in North County. 2109 Charbonier, 314-838-0002, deaversrestaurant.com —B.B.
Grandpa Mischeaux’s Real Deal Barbecue & Grill
Foodies who won’t sauté without truffle oil and know how to pronounce huitlacoche need not apply themselves to the colossal, football-size mounds of beef that come out of Grandpa’s kitchen, parked between two slabs of Texas toast. Their loss—especially since they’d go gaga trying to guess the secret Mischeaux blend of seasonings that gives these hefty, humbling bad boys their ravishing savoriness. 2409 Union. (Editor’s Note: Phone disconnected at press time due to fire. GP’s should reopen soon.) —R.M.L.
The Hilltop Inn
So shy and retiring one could drive by it for years and never notice it, this is a classic south St. Louis tavern. And while it offers a delicious, home-cooked lunch from its steam table on weekdays, we gasp with pleasure at the fresh, tasty hamburgers. A thicker version of the flat-grilled burger gives the carnivore a perfect ratio of burger to bun. Smart ones add grilled onions. There are no fries, because there’s no deep fryer, but you, like other customers spanning generations, won’t miss them. Try the mac and cheese instead. 6902 Morgan Ford, 314-481-9191 —J.P. & A.P.
Gordon’s Stoplight Drive In
Sixty years of stories fill this Crystal City landmark, coalescing over crisp, thin drive-in–style burgers and thick shakes. This is classic American fast food that should have you swearing off the clown and the king in favor of the real thing. 500 Bailey, Crystal City, 636-937-9678 —A.M.V.
Fletcher’s Kitchen & Tap
Fletcher’s half-pound Fat Sam burger, grilled over hickory flames, should be the Official Food of Belleville, Ill. 6101 W. Main, Belleville, Ill., 618-239-3317, fletcherskitchen.com —D.L.
Burgers are grilled George Foreman–style, but don’t ask how much they weigh, because no one’s portioning—just like home. The answer given me by co-owner Denise Ulmer was a motherly “just the right size.” And she was right. I was hungry and my double cheeseburger was huge. And cheap ($5.25). 1436 Salisbury, 314-421-8900 —G.M.
By Bill Burge, Rose Maura Lorre, Dave Lowry, George Mahe, Joe and Ann Pollack, and Andrew Mark Veety