"Anyone who doesn't think that their home town has the best hamburger place in the world is a sissy."—Calvin Trillin
Disclaimer: Amongst the Boston burger joints that will be dissed in this round-up are R.F. O'Sullivan's and Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage. All opinions expressed are the author's alone, and all flames from die-hard fans should be aimed directly at him, not the website, its editors, or administrators.
I'll admit it up front: Boston's got a lot of great things going for it, but burgers is not one of them. Maybe having recently moved to New York—a good 211 miles closer to the Shake Shack—has colored my perspective a bit, but on average, Boston's burger scene is sub-par. R.F.O's? Lean baseballs, right down to the leather skin around them. Mr. Bartley's? Burgers as bland as the tourists that eat there are colorful. Eagle's? Worth going to if you are the kind of guy who likes to discover how many frozen beef patties you can eat in a single sitting without puking (I'm not).
Fortunately, there are a dozen or so places that bring Boston up from the black hole of burger banality—and that's really all any city needs. I'll bet most of you can count on one hand without using your thumb the number of home-town burger joints you're a regular at. Here are my five favorite burgers in Boston, in alphabetical order.
1. Craigie On Main
Rarely do I go for expensive chef-burger creations, but this is the first of my two exceptions. In line with the rest of the seriously delicious, funky, thoughtful, and local food at this high-end bistro, the patty is made from three cuts of sustainably-raised grass-fed beef ground together with bone marrow. A touch of dehydrated miso paste ups the umami-factor. Chef Tony Maws slow-cooks the burger to a medium-rare in a CVap steam oven before charring it on a Molteni plancha. Topped with aged cheddar, crisp fried onion rings, a shmear of sweet, house-made mace-flavored ketchup, newly-introduced red-wine vinegar pickles, and watercress dressed with the pattie's pan-drippings on a house-baked sesame-seed bun, this "cheffiest" burger on my list is not so much a burger, but more a composed dish on a bun. The shoestring fries are also excellent. [Review at GoodEater.org] 852 Main Street, Cambridge MA 02139 (map); 617-497-5511; www.craigieonmain.com
2. Flat Patties
Despite its horrible digs and the food court atmosphere of the Garage in Harvard Square (is there a worse food neighborhood in the world than Harvard Square?), the aptly named Flat Patties is the closest that Boston gets to the thin, griddled, west-coast style burger exemplified by places like Los Angeles's Pie N' Burger. The ultra-thin patties are griddled crisp and served with oozy American cheese and special sauce on a soft, squishy, buttered and toasted bun. A pickle bar which features good crisp cucumbers, hot jalapeños, and onions is essential for adding an acidic bite to cut through the rich beef (I go for the regular cucumber pickles). All that for about the same price you'd pay at a McDonald's. 81 Mount Auburn Street (in the Garage), Cambridge MA 02138 (map); 617-871-6871
Despite the white-linen atmosphere of his restaurant Radius, chef Michael Schlow takes a decidedly more down-market approach to his burger, turning out a monster 9-ounce grilled chuck patty (the excellent beef comes from Savenor's) that would be just as at home in his backyard. Keeping it simple, he tops it with two slices of yellow cheddar, a dollop of kicked-up horseradish sauce, and a big handful of fried onions. Add to that the best french fries in Boston, and the result is a dish that's actually worth the $18 price tag. [Review] 8 High Street, Boston MA 02110 (map); 617-426-1234; www.radiusrestaurant.com
An excellent Spanish tapas bar with a decent burger? I didn't believe it either until I tried the newly introduced burger on their lunch menu (not to be confused with the not-so-good mini kobe burgers on the tapas menu). Made from 100% ground short rib with a fat ratio of nearly 40%, this 5-ounce burger comes with an intensely crusty sear imparted by the 900-degree plancha. Order it plain and it comes topped with a slice of melty American cheese, a handful of shredded iceberg, a smear of their excellent house sauce, and a few pickled red onions, but for the true experience, ask for it "messy," and chef Jamie Bissonette will add a massive spoonful of the same finger-licking, garlicky alli-oli, cotija cheese, and espelette pepper mix that they use to coat their famous grilled street corn (which, for the record, is the best I've had anywhere—eat your heart out, Café Habana). The result is one of the most deliciously messy creations that has ever greased my fingers.1704 Washington Street, Boston MA 02118 (map); 617-536-4300; http://www.toro-restaurant.com/
5. Tory Row
For two decades, the names Chris Lutes and Matthew Curtis have been synonymous with good drinks, great burgers, and black slate bartops. I really could have picked any joint in their mini empire of Boston-area restaurants. Miracle of Science, Middlesex, and Audubon Circle all serve up great variants of the same juicy grilled burger made with high-quality ground chuck as Tory Row, but floor-to-ceiling windows coupled with bacon make their newest addition my go-to spot. 3 Brattle Street, Cambridge MA 02138 (map); 617-876-8769; www.toryrow.us