David Burke's Primehouse
I know I said the burgers are presented in no particular order, but this is the one exception. I'm not sure if it took one bite or two, but the realization that I was eating the best burger I'd ever had came early in my first experience with the "Burker" at David Burke's Primehouse. The exquisite creation has remained unchanged since I first reviewed it nearly three years ago. The prime beef, dry aged for 40 days, brings a nice funk with the intense beef flavor. The toppings—garlic spinach, crispy shallots, and bacon mayonnaise—help encapsulate the steakhouse experience in one sandwich. This thing would be great on a stale kaiser roll, but the excellent toasted potato bun is the appropriate bread for a burger this good.
I absolutely adored the burger at Vie, but that was a couple years ago and I hadn't been back to the restaurant since (due solely to its Western Springs location). Putting this list together inspired a return visit and I'm happy to report that the burger is every bit as good today, if not better. The beef has changed from Dietzler Farms to dry aged meat from Q7 Ranch. Cooked on a wood-burning grill that imparts a glorious crust, this is a patty that every burger-loving Chicagoan owes it to themselves to trek out to Western Springs to try.
Top Notch Beefburger
By far the oldest restaurant on my list, Top Notch Beefburger has been dishing up classic burgers since 1942. The fresh patties, made from cow legs butchered in-house, offer no frills other than delicious beef. But as good as the burgers at Top Notch are, the life-changing patty melts are even better. The fries cooked in beef tallow and the excellent shakes complete an exceptional meal.
Big Jones is like no other restaurant in Chicago. The menu features a range of southern foods with a heavy emphasis on decades-old recipes from the Carolinas and Louisiana. There are some exceptions to the theme, none more delicious than the burger. Made from coarsely ground beef, cooked on a wood-burning grill, and topped with housemade bacon, the burger is as simple as it is delicious. In the time since I wrote my review, the burger at Big Jones has only gotten better. When I go there now, I know I should order some of the more traditional southern fare, but I usually can't resist the allure of the burger, especially since I discovered that, upon request, you can add pimiento cheese for a world-rocking experience.
DMK Burger Bar
The brainchild of Chef Michael Kornick and second-generation restaurateur David Morton, DMK was destined to draw people in from the moment its doors opened. But while past success and marketing skills might get people in the first time, it's the burgers that keep people coming back. The five-ounce griddled patties are great on their own, but even better with the array of innovative toppings available. Best bet: the Big DMK.
The Bad Apple
Once upon a time, I loved Kuma's Corner (reviewed here). When I started with AHT, it was in my Top 5. I have not voluntarily gone back to Kuma's since I went to The Bad Apple for the first time. The comparison between the two places is inevitable. Both feature thick burgers with wildly innovative and delicious toppings, and both offer thoroughly impressive beer lists. But the beef at The Bad Apple, shipped in from Pat LaFrieda, is leaps and bounds ahead of what's served at Kuma's. The one drawback from my review, the mediocre buns, is now a thing of the past.
Owen & Engine
There are simply no flaws in the burger at Owen & Engine. The beef, a 60/20/20 blend of chuck, short rib, and brisket, all from Slagel Family Farm, is mouth-watering. The pile of melt-in-your-mouth caramelized onions and the optional crisp and chewy housemade rashers join forces to add sweet/salt/crispness/softness that somehow manages to elevate the magnificent beef. One-year-old cave-aged cheddar from Barber's in England (one of the best burger cheeses I've had) and the toasted housemade potato bun don't hurt either.
Sure, the entire menu at Sepia (annoying website alert) is enticing. And yes, the restaurant did earn a Michelin star. But no diner should hesitate at all before ordering the burger (only available at lunch). As with any great burger, the star is the beef, in this case a magnificent blend of short rib, sirloin, and skirt steak. But the lightly battered and fried onions and the thick strips of Gunthorp Farms bacon atop the burger elevate this thing into the upper echelon, and the cheese (Red Dragon, a buttery and tangy Welsh cheddar cheese made with whole grain mustard and brown ale) may well be the perfect cheese for a burger.
Inovasi is a higher-end restaurant in the North Shore that is open six nights a week, But if you want a burger for dinner, you need to go on Tuesdays, which is when the place works some magic with beef from Q7 Ranch. Diners have their choice of five different thick burgers from the grill or three thin options from the griddle, all of which come with an innovative combination of toppings. You can't go wrong with any choice, but if I had to just pick one, I'd get the Hobo Burger, a thick option topped with whatever the chef feels like putting on your burger at that moment. Note: Two much more straightforward burgers are available at lunch during the week.
Naha is the fanciest restaurant on my list and, not surprisingly serves the most expensive burger I've ever had ($20). But as I said in my review, you get what you pay for with this half-pound of mouth-watering prime beef that's cooked on a wood-burning grill. The roasted tomato served atop the burger, so soft that it's spreadable, adds a burst of umami that solidifies Naha's place in any discussion of the top burgers in Chicago.
If you want to try both burgers at Sola, you need to visit the restaurant twice, once at brunch and once at dinner. While the brunch version, served without a bun but with hollandaise and fried potatoes, is quite good, the one on the dinner menu is truly stellar. The juicy and peppery beef is, as I wrote in my review, the kind that makes you think to yourself, "This is what beef is supposed to taste like." Topped with house-cured bacon, arugula, cambozola cheese, and onions that are caramelized in bacon fat and pineapple juice, and served on a pretzel bun from Labriola Bakery, the burger delivers a spectacular combination of flavors and textures.
BIG & little's
Sometimes you just want a burger that reminds you of the best version ever made in your backyard (or anyone else's for that matter). On days like that, head over to BIG & little's. The hand-formed patties, made from ground chuck, are as basic as they come, with no frills other than the optional Merkt's cheddar and/or a fried egg. But the execution is flawless. The burgers are liberally salted while on the grill and every one I've had there has been cooked precisely as ordered. Not everything at the restaurant is quite so restrained. And if you leave without getting the foie gras-topped fries (perhaps the best order of fries in Chicago), you have done your stomach a disservice.