Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Our column Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
95 N. Moorland Road, Brookfield WI 53005(map); 262-641-2313; redrobin.com plus 450+ other locations
The Schtick: Family-friendly chain with burgers and all-you-can-eat/drink options center stage
The Burger: Many varieties, bun and topping choices. Stick with a classic cheeseburger, unless you really think you'll like some of the crazier options
Want Fries With That? All burgers come with bottomless steak fries, and people eat them because they're endless, not because they're very good
Price: Bacon cheeseburger, $9.29; A.1. Peppercorn burger, $9.79; Bottomless very berry raspberry limeade, $3.99
Confession time: I expected to dislike Red Robin's burgers. I had been there one other time, a few years ago, and saw no reason to return. However, after my recent visit for AHT, I've changed my mind—at least somewhat. In fact, as much as it pains my food snobbery side to say it, I enjoyed the burgers more than some of the local restaurants I've been to. Red Robin serves a reliable, if slightly bland burger, and if I'm craving a burger in the middle of suburbia, I'd definitely choose here over other national chains.
You'd expect Red Robin to have better burgers than chains that have a more expansive menu, and I really think that's what this all comes down to. They've been working on burgers since the first restaurant opened in 1969. They have plenty of other items on the menu now, like chicken sandwiches, salads and apps, but burgers are definitely at the heart of their operation and it pays off.
Both burgers I tried—a simple bacon cheeseburger and a crazier A.1. peppercorn burger—were fresh and very well put together. They almost looked like their photos on the menu. I preferred the classic bacon cheeseburger though; the A.1. peppercorn burger had a little too much going on for me.
You might laugh at the way the servers phrase the doneness question: "Would you like some pink, or no pink?" I emphatically said, "PINK, please!" and I think she got the point. Both burgers were served medium, and the loosely packed, tender meat was juicy enough to soak the bottom bun in spots. But they were really small: Three ounces according to the restaurant, and 3.9 ounces according to the nutrition calculator on the Red Robin website. No wonder the patty size is not readily available on a menu or on their website. The patties were grilled, though strangely lacked that charred flavor. They could have used a bit more seasoning—perhaps that's what the shakers of seasoned salt on the tables are for?
The toppings on the A.1. peppercorn burger included applewood smoked bacon, two slices of pepperjack cheese, onion straws, tomatoes, and a A.1. peppercorn "spread." The spread appeared to be mayo-based, with a hint of steak sauce and a whollop of black pepper. It was definitely the thing that had the most flavor in the meal, but it was one that I think people either love or hate. The onion strings stayed surprisingly crisp, even after sitting on the burger for a while. Unfortunately, the burger's onion bun (one of their five bun choices) was slightly dry and its onions were harsh and slightly bitter.
Much better was the classic soft and lightly grilled sesame seed bun sandwiching the bacon cheeseburger. But the bacon on both burgers was disappointing—it was quite greasy and sliced very thinly, a shame because the flavor was pretty good. Better were the two slices of ripe tomato on each burger.
Overall, I liked the bacon cheeseburger better for its simplicity. This is really an all-American burger. The cheddar cheese was melted well, the shredded iceburg lettuce added crunch, and the bit of mayo (I ordered it easy on the mayo) was a nice addition.
Included with every burger are unlimited steak fries (because what red-blooded American doesn't like all-you-can-eat?!). I think the goal here is to fill you up on inexpensive, chunky but boring fries, to make up for the fact that the burgers are actually kind of small (and expensive, in my opinion). The fries were frozen and slightly undercooked, but I've certainly had worse. The seasoned salt on the table helps here, too.
Red Robin caters to families with children, as evidenced by the few arcade games, mascot roaming the restaurant, and bottomless, fancy-to-kids non-alcoholic drinks served in glasses shaped like a tornado. If I had children, I'd probably bring them here sometimes—the place was pretty fun. Also, pretty crowded for a weeknight, so other people must agree. I was expecting to rebel against Red Robin's kitschy, uniform mass appeal, but instead found myself succumbing to classic, well made burgers.