Burgers

A century after its invention, the hamburger is still a dining delight--when it's done right. Here's who does it very well and who doesn't.

By: Robert Shoffner

Where to Find a Great Hamburger

It took the hamburger 70 years to find its way into a bun. As a chopped beefsteak, it made its debut on the menu of Manhattan's Delmonico's restaurant in 1834, but it was not until 1904 that a hamburger sandwich "caused a sensation" at the World's Fair in St. Louis.

The chopped beefsteak did originate in the German seaport of Hamburg. Auguste Escoffier, who codified French haute cuisine in Le Guide Culinaire, includes in it a recipe for Beefsteak à la Hambourgeoise. But Escoffier's recipe directs the cook to shape the ground beef into a facsimile of a steak, so credit for creating the precursor to the all-American sandwich goes to another French chef, Charles Ranhofer.

Ranhofer headed the Delmonico's kitchen from 1862 to 1894 and published The Epicurean--subtitled "A FrancoAmerican Culinary Encyclopedia"--a book that influenced fine American restaurants for the first half of the 20th century. In it one finds "Beef Steak, Hamburg Style." Although Ranhofer's little burgers were served on a plate rather than on a bun, the immigrant French chef appears to have created the precursor to McDonald's Quarter Pounder.

But before we join Fuddruckers--the Texas-based chain that consistently produces the nation' s best fast-food burger--in celebrating the great American hamburger's 100th birthday, Jeffrey Tennyson, author of Hamburger Heaven: The Illustrated History of the Hamburger, comes along to cast doubts on the 1904 World's Fair as the birthplace of the burger.

Tennyson says that the purveyor of the sandwiches that caused a sensation at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair was a Texan, Fletcher "Old Dave" Davis. But then he points out that Charles Nagreen from Seymour, Wisconsin, sold hamburger sandwiches at the 1885 Outagamie County Fair.

While the great American hamburger may be older than 100, it continues to be one of the favorites of the nation's food writers. In his 1941 book, Cook It Outdoors, James Beard introduced Easterners to "California Hamburgers"--served on a toasted bun spread with mayonnaise and garnished with pickle relish, sliced pickle, lettuce, tomato, and onion. The late Craig Claiborne, the legendary New York Times food editor and critic, listed the hamburger among his 100 favorite recipes in his memoir, A Feast Made for Laughter, and Colman Andrews, the scholarly editor of Saveur magazine, says the hamburger is his favorite food.

A great hamburger begins with the meat, freshly ground on the day it is to be cooked. Flavor-packed cuts, such as chuck or round or a combination of the two, are recommended. From James Beard on, most burger experts insist that the ground beef should contain 20 percent fat, which conveys the meat's beefy flavor and ensures a juicy patty. In his New American Classics, Jeremiah Tower puts a finer point on the patty's fat content: 22 percent if it is to be grilled, 18 percent if is to be cooked on a griddle or in a frying pan.

Shaped with a light touch to ensure a tender texture, the patties should weigh six to eight ounces and be an inch thick. The ideal burger is cooked medium-rare. Cooked rare, it fails to develop its full flavor. A hamburger cooked beyond the medium stage will be too stiff and lose most of its beefy flavor.

Mo re than a few good restaurant hamburgers are undone by being served on inferior buns. The patty should not be upstaged by the texture or assertive flavor of the bread--that's why it is not a good idea to serve a backyard burger on a Marvelous Market baguette or a Whole Foods ciabatta roll. A great homemade burger will be best enjoyed on a toasted kaiser roll from the bakery departments of your local supermarket. The watchwords are "toasted" or "lightly grilled," so the roll has a lightly crisp texture and sufficient firmness to prevent it from falling apart. And as James Beard observed in his James Beard Cookbook, published in 1961, "There is nothing as unappetizing as a cold hamburger bun with a hot hamburger."

When it comes to garnishes, the promoters of the great American hamburger are dogmatic. In his Steak Lover's Cookbook, William Rice lays down his personal law: "I insist upon hamburgers that are unadorned with cheese, fitted into a toasted bun . . . and garnished with nothing more than onion--raw, cooked, or both--and ketchup."

For garnishes, it is hard to match James Villas' favorite hamburger, as described in American Taste: A Celebration of Gastronomy Coast-to-Coast: "Put plenty of mayonnaise on both halves of the bun (true hamburger lovers hate mustard on their patties) and a shake of catsup, stack on the bottom half a slice of raw onion, ripe tomato, crisp lettuce, plus any other garnish you happen to fancy, transfer the burger from the pan without draining, salt and pepper everything in sight, position the top half of the bread, and press down just hard enough so the juices begin to drip down through the ingredients."

While that treatment can result in a fine thing to eat, the beefy flavor prized in a great burger will get lost amid the welter of garnishes. Because a burger's greatness is determined by the freshness, flavor, juiciness, and texture of the beef and the quality of the bun, all of the sandwiches in this survey were ordered garnished with a thin slice of onion and a light coating of mayonnaise on the top half of the bun. The crunch of the onion provides a contrast to the tenderness of the patty, its sharp flavor leavens the fattiness of the meat, and the mayonnaise serves both to gentle the sting of the onion and amplify the beefiness of the patty.

This garnish reveals both the virtues and flaws of a hamburger. For this survey, it was applied to hamburgers at 25 area restaurants in a range of categories, from greasy spoons to fine-food establishments. The results: In the hands of Washington's top purveyors, the great American hamburger still sings.

Dinner prices may be higher than those shown here.

The Top Five

Harry's Tap Room, 2800 Clarendon Blvd., Clarendon; 703-778-7788. Hamburger or cheeseburger with fries, $8.95. A fair number of the hamburgers on this list are very good, and a few flirt with greatness. But the burger that sets the local benchmark is the one at Harry's Tap Room. Its darkly crusted, inch-thick patty is made from Sunnyside Farms' Virginia Kobe beef, produced from Wagyu cattle from Japan, a breed that produces meat with a heavy marbling of fat. The fat content produces a splendidly juicy burger and emphasizes the intensely beefy flavor of Wagyu beef.

The cooks at Harry's Tap Room seem aware that their hamburger is one of the stars of the menu and treat it with as much care as they do their filet mignon: Over the course of several months, at lunch and dinner, they never served up a burger that was less than a perfect medium-rare. Its remarkable flavor makes a case for enjoying it with nothing more than a thin slice of onion and a thin layer of mayonnaise on the top half of the bun. The bun could be more evenly toasted, but it is relatively thin and light textured so it doesn't muffle the beefy richness of this great hamburger.

The fries are also treated with respect: Even at slack times, they have a fresh-out-of-the-fryer flavor.

The Prime Rib, 2020 K St., NW; 202-466-8811. Hamburger, cheeseburger, or bacon cheeseburger with choice of two sides, $12. Available only at lunch. Many of those who order a hamburger at the Prime Rib are regulars who daily turn one of the most elegant bars in the city into a lunch counter--albeit one that requires its male patrons to wear jacket and tie. In fact, eating with one's hands at the Prime Rib seems a big incongruous. The solution for anyone wanting to keep up appearances is to order the chopped steak, which is the best of its kind in town.

As with everything else it offers, the Prime Rib's hamburger is impeccably executed: Its large patty has a light, tender texture. Cooked medium-rare, it has a richly beefy flavor, although it is slightly less juicy than ideal. Its ordinary sesame-seed bun does not do it justice.

At lunch, the price of all main courses includes the diner's choice of two generous side dishes of vegetables. Depending on the season, choices include excellent mashed potatoes, creamed or sautéed spinach, sugar-snap peas, and some of the best out-of-season tomatoes served at any local steakhouse. For those who cannot imagine a burger unescorted by fries, the ones here are thin-cut and properly crisp.

Black's Bar and Kitchen, 7750 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-6278. Hamburger with fries, $6.95. At Black's, what may well be the perfect hamburger is served on a less-than-perfect bun. But this is one of the rare instances where the patty was so good that it transcends a lackluster bun. Alone, Black's patty is in the charmed circle of the four or five best burgers in this survey. Served on an evenly toasted, high-quality roll, it would be among the best two or three hamburgers in the area.

The shoestring fries were crisp and fresh out of the fryer. Their true potato flavor matches their crispness.

Billy Martin's Tavern, 1264 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-333-7370. Hamburger with fries, $7.95. These days, there's a bit more to like about the perennially reliable hamburgers at Billy Martin's Tavern: Until the fourth Billy Martin took over the taps, Georgetown's oldest saloon--it opened in 1933--served a demure, five-ounce patty because that was the size served by the founding Billy Martin.

Based on this sampling, Martin's can claim to not only serve Georgetown's best hamburger but one of the very best in the metro area. Served on an excellent toasted roll produced by the Gold Crust Baking Company, this eight-ounce patty is made from Certified Angus Beef. A perfect medium-rare, it is tender, juicy, and very beefy. The garnish of dry and tasteless fries doesn't belong on the same plate.

Morton's, 1050 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-955-5997. Hamburger or cheeseburger with fries, $13. No matter how high the quality of its ground beef, the success of any hamburger depends on its cooking. Perfectly broiled, Morton's heroic Sirloin Burger is excellent; ill-timed, it is an overpriced disappointment. It took only two visits to experience the sandwich at its best and worst, showing an inconsistency unexpected of a premium steakhouse.

Cooked to a perfect medium-rare, Morton's big hamburger has the tender texture that comes from light handling, and a beefy flavor of a patty made from USDA Prime sirloin. The only fault was its surprising lack of juice for prime-grade beef, which indicates that it could do with a bit more fat in the grind. Its evenly toasted bun is of good quality.

The steaming mound of thinly cut fries are picture-perfect and taste as good as they look. No consistency problems at this kitchen's frying station.

The Next Five

Brasserie Les Halles, 1201 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-347-6848. Hamburger with fries and salad, $12.50. Brasserie Les Halles serves the freshest hamburger in the metro area: Treating the patty in the same manner that it does its much-admired steak tartare, the kitchen grinds top-round when the order is placed. Gently shaped into an impressively large burger, it has a tender texture and an incisively beefy flavor.

Cooked medium-rare, its only fault is that it has too little fat in its grind to produce an ideally juicy hamburger. Whereas virtually fat-free beef produces the best steak tartare, the great American hamburger requires ground beef that is 20 percent fat. An institutional sesame-seed roll does not do justice to Les Halles' burger. There must be room somewhere in its $12.50 asking price for a better bun.

The kitchen's famous fries are the best to accompany any hamburger on this survey.

Fuddruckers, 1216 18th St., NW; 202-659-1660. Hamburgers: one-third pound, $4.29; one-half pound, $4.79; two-thirds pound, $5.59. Fries: $1.79 and $2.59. The boast on this Texas-based chain's logo that it serves the "World's Greatest Hamburgers" is a bit of Lone Star hyperbole. But a Fuddruckers burger is consistently better than most served in the area's upscale saloons.

Whether it's steak, barbecue brisket, or burgers, Texans are serious about their beef. At Fuddruckers attention to detail honors this tradition. Its beefy, light-textured patty is shaped from meat that is freshly ground each day and served on a house-baked, butter-toasted roll. Fat is a great conveyor of flavor, and the butter emphasizes the rich flavor and freshness of the beef. And even on the occasions when the grill men miss the ideal medium-rare mark and turn out a medium burger, there is enough fat in the patty to produce an impressively juicy hamburger.

Fuddruckers' wedge-cut fries are not crisply cooked but have a good potato flavor. On two occasions, they might have been better had they spent less time in a warming pan.

Chadwicks, 5247 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-362-8040. Hamburger with fries, $6.95. Visually, this plump, half-pound patty with deep grill marks defines the term "char-broiled." Cooked to medium-rare, the burger has a beefy flavor untainted by any trace of the bitterness usually imparted by very dark grill marks.

Judged solely by the flavor of its patty, Chadwicks can claim one of the area's best-tasting saloon burgers. Unfortunately, it is served on a chilly roll. Meat this good deserves a high-quality, toasted roll.

The fries were freshly out of the fryer and crisp, with a good potato flavor.

Union Street Public House, 121 S. Union St., Alexandria; 703-548-1785. Hamburger or cheeseburger with fries, $7.50. A better-than-average bun complements the Public House's nicely crusted, richly beefy, medium-rare hamburger. It was a little more tightly packed than ideal and, despite its vividly pink interior, inexplicably juiceless. Though short of perfect, this is one of the area's better burgers. The steaming pile of fries that crowds the plate provides a deliciously crisp complement worthy of the sandwich.

Silver Diner, 3200 Wilson Blvd., Clarendon; 703-812-8600. Hamburger with fries, $6.99. The problem with the diner revival of the early 1980s was that almost all of its adherents set out to serve a parody of traditional diner food: They made the mashed potatoes obviously institutional, the gravy thicker and lumpier, the meatloaf much drier than Mom's, and the burgers as tough as hockey pucks.

Bob Giaimo--one of the founders of the American Cafe--and his partner in the multibranch Silver Diners, chef Ype van Hengst, approached the diner revival as a chance to preserve the traditional flavors of American cooking. Whether in Rockville or Clarendon, a Silver Diner has such a Las Vegas neon glow about it that one is surprised by the quality of the food.

The hamburger is a case in point: This large, hefty patty--larger than its buttery, well-toasted bun--has a juicy, tender texture and a good beefy flavor. A garnish of hot, crisp, thin fries provides a fitting complement to a hamburger that is one of the pleasant surprises on this survey.

Eleven More

Capital Grille, 601 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-737-6200. Hamburger with potato chips, $9.95; fries, $4.95. Unique among the hamburgers on this survey, the Capital Grille's jumbo patty is formed from a mixture ground beef, minced bacon, and finely diced onions. While it has a novel flavor, the strong, smoky flavor of the bacon overwhelms the beef. Its roll is toasted on the grill--the finest hamburger bun sampled in this survey. It would improve most of the top burgers on this list.

The cottage fries were crisp but would have been even better served hot.

Sign of the Whale, 1825 M St., NW; 202-785-1110. Hamburger with fries, $7.95. According to its menu, Sign of the Whale's hamburgers are made from USDA Choice beef.

Served on an evenly toasted onion roll, the Whale's burger was medium-rare--pink throughout with a thin strip of cool red beef at its center. But the patty was rubbery from being too firmly packed and contained a lot of gristle. It had a good beefy flavor and some juice, but not the amount one would expect from a patty made from USDA Choice beef. A second burger, sampled two weeks later, was also perfectly cooked but similarly marred by gristle.

At both meals, the Whale's thin fries were fresh from the frier, generously salted, and deliciously crisp.

Quarry House Tavern, 8401 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-587-9406. Hamburger with potato chips, $4.25; fries, $2.25. Dating back to 1937, the subterranean Quarry House is a minor landmark, one of the area's rare remaining neighborhood taverns.

Listed on the menu as weighing a half pound, the Quarry House hamburger is a half-inch thick patty whose circumference is greater than that of its untoasted, poppy-seed kaiser roll. According to Sara, the veteran Quarry House barkeep, the ground beef is purchased each morning from Snider's, a Silver Spring supermarket known for its meats. Although the patty misses the requested medium-rare mark by a good bit, the taste of its freshly ground beef is clear, but it would be better with 20-percent fat in the grind.

The fries--cut into wedges from small potatoes and fried to order--are excellent.

Whitlow's on Wilson, 2854 Wilson Blvd., Clarendon; 703-276-9693. Hamburger with fries, $6.50. Served between halves of an untoasted, spongy bun, Whitlow's circular patty looks more like it was sliced from a roll of ground beef than shaped by hand. Served closer to medium-well than to the medium-rare requested, it was pleasant but not as flavorful as the best burgers on this survey. Its accompanying fries had languished too long under a warming lamp.

Boulevard Woodgrill, 2901 Wilson Blvd., Clarendon; 703-875-9663. Hamburger with fries, $6.50. Gently grilling meat over a pit of glowing embers--the technique that produces the classic bistecca in Florence and the splendidly moist entrecôte cooked over vine trimmings in Bordeaux--doesn't work so well with the American hamburger. The Boulevard Woodgrill's patty is beige, latticed with faint grill marks. Although it has the fluffy texture of a gently formed hamburger, it is virtually juiceless. Served on an untoasted bun, it tastes more of smoke than of beef.

The Woodgrill's excellent fries--lightly crisp and with a pronounced potato flavor--upstage the burger. On two tries, this kitchen was unable to fill requests for a freshly cut slice of onion, delivering each time a plate of previously cut rings of raw onion.

Nathans, 3150 M St., NW; 202-338-2000. Hamburger with fries, $7.95. With a deliciously dark, crusty exterior, Nathans' half-inch-thick burger was cooked medium-rare. Served on an untoasted, cottony-textured bun, it was less juicy than it should have been. The requested "freshly sliced slice of onion" was served as a pile of shreds and half-slices; a second request brought a properly cut slice.

A handful of thinly cut fries were reasonably crisp.

Clyde's of Georgetown (3236 M St., NW; 202-333-9180. Hamburger with fries, $7.50. Inspired by a legendary Manhattan saloon called P.J. Clarke's, this Georgetown institution, which opened in 1963 as the first of the Clyde's chain, established the oversize hamburger as a staple of local upscale saloons. For years, Clyde's burger set the standard.

These days, Clyde's hamburger seems more a fixture on the menu than a specialty of the house. Ordered medium-rare but served well-done, the patty was overly compacted and juiceless. It was served on a toasted, institutional-quality sesame-seed bun so thick that it overwhelmed the relatively thin hamburger.

Although the sandwich was ordered with a thin slice of freshly cut onion, it was garnished with a pair of raw onion rings. On a second try, the kitchen sent out a slice of onion as thick as the patty.

The fries, crisp and virtually greaseless, were the best part of the hamburger plate at the original Clyde's.

Tastee Diner, 7731 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-3970. Hamburger, $2.95; fries, $1.50. Although its patty is shaped by hand--not one of those sliced circles of ground beef sandwiched between two squares of butcher's paper--the Tastee dishes up a classic diner burger, cooked under a press until its interior is as evenly tan as its exterior and every bit of its ground meat's moisture has evaporated.

This burger's proximity on the griddle to mounds of hash browns, sausage, bacon, and slices of ham did not augment its flavor. Its bun was warmed, not toasted, on the grill.

The fries were crisp but devoid of potato flavor.

Tune Inn, 331H Pennsylvania Ave., SE; 202-543-2725. Hamburger and fries, $5. Comprising equal parts small-town conviviality and grunge--decades of airborne grease have made the taxidermized wildlife on the wall behind the bar look as though they had been rubbed with Vaseline Hair Tonic--this beloved Capitol Hill joint is famous for its hamburgers. This derives mainly from the experience of eating a burger at the Tune Inn rather than from the virtues of the sandwich itself.

This is one of those places where, no matter how you order your burger cooked, you can bet it will be served thoroughly beige. Described on the menu as weighing six ounces, it's a thin, almost juiceless patty with a fresh, lightly beefy flavor and a tender texture. If dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle chips, and mayonnaise, it would be exemplary of the hamburgers served in Washington's neighborhood taverns 30 years ago.

In a place where every chair and booth and barstool was occupied for lunch, it was surprising that the fries had been left to dry out in a warming tray.

Majestic Café, 911 King St., Alexandria; 703-837-9117. Hamburger with fries, $8.75. Requested medium-rare, the Majestic Café's hamburger arrived well-done. When shown the uniformly beige interior of the cut-in-half sandwich, the bartender had the kitchen try again.

The second burger was every bit as overcooked. Majestic's menu says the patty is shaped from organic beef, but in its overcooked state, it had as little taste or moisture as the intentionally overcooked burgers at the nearby branch of Five Guys. A pile of perfect, golden-brown, piping-hot fries were the best part of the plate.

When the check was presented, it bore only the $15 cost of two glasses of Mark West Pinot Noir. The manager explained that it was the Majestic Café's policy not to ask its customers to pay for its kitchen's mistakes.

J. Paul's, 3218 M St., NW; 202-333-3450. Hamburger with fries, $8.50. This relatively tender but juiceless hamburger was ordered medium-rare but served medium-well. The dark grill marks across its surface impart a scorched flavor. Another burger, ordered medium, was so dry that it was rubbery. J. Paul's hot, crunchy, and copiously salted fries upstaged the burgers.

Also-rans:

Hamburgers at Five Guys (Alexandria), Annie's Paramount Steakhouse (Dupont Circle), Hawk 'n' Dove (Capitol Hill), and Joe Theismann's Restaurant (Alexandria) were so lacking in appeal when sampled that they did not warrant review.