Madison’s Best Burgers
Dig into the 23 tastiest, juciest and most indulgent burgers in the city
There’s no food trend in America in the last ten years to compare with burger mania. From In-and-Out Burger’s cult following to the fifty-dollar (and higher) culinary monstrosities served in some of New York’s fanciest restaurants, burgers rule.
And people are passionate about the sandwich (as we learned in our Burger Madness poll—go here to vote for the winner). Burger fans debate, defend, dismiss and devour this epicurean icon with zeal typically reserved for politics and football. But Madison, despite the legendary status of the Plaza, Dotty’s and the Gritty, simply couldn’t compete.
We can now. The year 2011 was the Year of the Burger in Madison. Suddenly, we caught up. There are more than two-dozen places serving serious burgers in and around the capital city and more popping up every month. We can choose among burgers made with local meat, local cheese, house-baked buns, house-made ketchup, artisan pickles, imported mustard, BBQ sauce, pico de gallo, homemade boomerang sauce, garlic, cream cheese, goat cheese, bleu cheese, chipotle mayo, basil, walnuts, fried egg and onion.
While we stand by this month’s picks in the pages that follow, we know as well as you do that the best burger in Madison is the one you want right now, as you read this. The one you’ll now be having for dinner tonight. The one you can now get here in Madison because we have joined the ranks of the burger blessed. Pass the napkins.
Click here for our web extra—an up-close look at two of the city's favorite burgers.
A Burger and a Birdie
The burger at the Village Bar is a classic. Nothing fancy, this burger is straightforward, simple and—likely for those very reasons—delicious. This is what a bar burger is supposed to be, cooked on the flat top behind the bar, fresh beef, good cheese, soft bun. And it’s served on a paper plate. Its reputation is widespread and deeply felt, but based as much on the feel of the place in which it’s served—and the fact that most of us have been eating burgers like this for our entire lives—as in flashy ingredients or preparation. It’s hard to imagine playing nine holes at Glenway (which can be seen through the window) without one.
How many of us have celebrated a birthday with a Grittyburger? We know the members of Jefferson Airplane aren’t included, because Nitty Gritty founder Marsh Shapiro didn’t get around to creating the famous Gritty Sauce until 1980 or so, long after ’60s rock bands stopped making the Gritty a regular stop. But today the Gritty is one of the two Madison burgers where the sauce is as important as the beef, bun and fixins. Like the Plaza’s namesake sauce, Nitty Gritty chefs could tell you what’s in it, but then they’d have to kill you. Suffice to say it’s a variation on a theme and it’s multiple napkins good. While the bun at the Gritty is darker than most with a hint of molasses-y sweetness, and the burger comes with lettuce, tomatoes and onions, it’s the sauce that makes this a Grittyburger and makes it the signature dish at Madison’s official birthday bar. Another of Madison’s original burgers, as a visit on any home football Saturday will prove.
It’s one of the originals, the three or four iconic Madison burgers that competed for the title of best burger in the hearts and stomachs of Madison students, visitors and citizens. The Plazaburger’s distinguishing feature is its Plaza sauce, invented by Mary Huss in 1963. There’s nothing extraordinary about the meat or the bun, but smother that patty in Plaza Sauce and patrons go weak in the knees. The recipe is a closely guarded secret. The Plaza’s website says over two million of these beloved burgers have been sold as the business approaches its fiftieth anniversary. That’s a lot of mystique.
Not So Blue
Sometimes, if you think you’re the best, you just have to say it. The Blue Moon Bar & Grill has a half-dozen burgers on its menu, including its Best Burger in Town, and Best Cheeseburger. It all started when the Schmock family branched out from the legendary Madison steakhouse Smoky’s to remodel the nearby neighborhood tavern into a clean, friendly place with good bar food. The Best Burger is a little bigger, a little juicier and a little messier than some of the others in this category, but it’s as tasty as can be, leaving no mistake you’ve had a burger.
V for Me
As a whole, we love Brasserie V for being a friendly neighborhood tavern where you feel right at home, with a slightly worldly air. What also feels like home? The tasty V Burger, because it’s made with Fountain Prairie Farms’ dry-aged Highland beef—from only thirty miles away. And you can taste the freshness in the six-ounce patty, topped with beer-battered onion straws, Muenster cheese, lettuce, tomato and aioli. What’s also delicious is that it’s on Madison Sourdough bread, making it more sandwich-like and emphasizing that it ain’t no mass-produced order passed through a drive-through.
The Stable’s Best is one of the more creative burgers in town and Quivey’s Grove isn’t exactly playing it safe. Gruyère is an unusual choice of cheese. This burger’s got a thin slice from local Roth Käse. The two slices of bacon and crispy onions are a nice touch, and one half of the ciabatta-style roll has mayo and the other side is slathered with BBQ sauce, not your ordinary burger condiment combo. But put it all together and it just works. A little tangy, a little sweet, a little creamy, a little salty and a whole lot of Kobe beef flavor. Get it medium rare and let the good times—and juices—roll.
Double the Fun
Any burger that’s composed of two Knoche’s quarter-pound patties and topped with three-year cheddar, Widmer’s brick cheese, bacon, Tipsy Sauce (a smoky Thousand Island) and pickles would qualify in our book as indulgent. And that’s what the Tipsy Cow’s Tipsy Burger brings to the table. Die-hard fans have already professed their love for this beefy burger—it was second runner-up for a write-in winner in our Burger Madness poll!
A Lakeside Love
One of the best things to happen to one of Madison’s best restaurants is happy hour at Sardine, or more accurately, the happy hour bar menu. The oysters are delicious and the drinks are reasonably priced. But the bar menu is also where you’ll find Sardine’s burgers, and the house burger is the one to look for. All of the ingredients are good: Angus beef, crisp bib lettuce, red onions and top notch cheese choices on a bun with just the right chew. But the housemade aioli puts this meal over the top in a creamy, slightly spicy signature kind of way. The burger at sister restaurant Marigold Kitchen is pretty darned good too. This one’s special.
Take a Number
The No. 30, as it’s known on The Old Fashioned’s menu, is the delightfully savory house burger. Not only is it topped with fried onions, Bavaria’s hickory-smoked bacon, aged cheddar and garlic sauce, but the secret’s in the soft-cooked egg that crowns this behemoth and infuses each bite with just a little something extra. Forget your diet for one night when you order this bad boy—and heck, order a Lazy Susan full of goodies and cheese curds while you’re at it, too. Mmmm, tastes like Wisconsin.
Say Cheese … Three Times
With thirteen beef burgers on their menu to choose from (and of course you can build your own, too) Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry is perfect for one who likes options. But allow us to narrow down your ultimate decision: choose the Melting Pot burger. It’s the restaurant’s no. 1 selling burger—and it’s probably no surprise for a city like Madison, given that it’s topped with three cheeses—cheddar, Swiss and provolone—plus bacon and English garlic sauce. Dotty’s has always been mysterious about their meat vendor, stating it’s “local” and “delivered and pattied fresh daily,” and buns are delivered daily by Colonial Bakery. We like that they have a local bent, given that they’ve been in town for thirty-plus years, and we hope that they’re around for much, much longer.
It’s no secret that many local chefs name one thing as their favorite ingredient to work with: pork. Yep, bacon, sausage, ham, bacon fat … the list goes on. So why pork in a burger story? Because The Coopers Tavern uses a melt-in-your-mouth type of pork on its Coopers Burger: pork belly. This meat is certainly popular right now with restaurateurs nationwide, but it’s hard to find on other burgers around Madison. The flavor ooze when you bite into this sandwich is worth the trip. The burger’s other ingredients are relatively tame: lettuce, onion, mayo, pickles, aged cheddar. The meat is from Black Earth Meats and the bun from Clasen’s. So go and pig out.
At a pause-inducing nineteen bucks per sandwich, the Graze Burger is Madison’s answer to the fancy-pants whoppers that have dotted the New York scene for the last ten years. And for similar reasons: it’s a mix of fresh ground sirloin, ribeye and shortribs mixed together into rich, flavorful, beefy goodness. Here it’s topped with cabernet jus and caramelized onions. The bun is sesame seed brioche. After all, the burger’s nineteen bucks (with fries.) But it’s really good. Sort of steak tartare good but with a burger-y texture. You realize that this isn’t just any ordinary hamburger. And of course somebody will come up with the twenty-dollar burger before you know it.
Don’t order the Harmony Bar’s walnut burger on a first date. Other than that, there are no rules on how to enjoy this big, hearty—and sometimes messy—nutty patty’s goodness. The standard order comes topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo. Choose onions, fried or raw, and if you really want to break bad: American, Swiss, cheddar or bleu cheese. The burger, made with cheeses, onions, walnuts, spices and an egg-and-bread combo to hold the whole works together, is a force to be reckoned with and craved by vegetarians and meat-lovers alike. Add the fresh, fluffy Colonial Bakery Kaiser roll and you’ve got the perfect complement to the flavors inside—flavors that don’t bother trying to imitate meat like some sorry excuses for a veggie burger. Says one fanatic, “It’s its own thing.”
The antithesis to the frozen, packaged veggie patties offered on many restaurant menus is Bluephies Restaurant & Vodkatorium’s black bean burger. A mix of beans, onions and corn served with cheddar-jack cheese, sour cream and guacamole—and offered on both lunch and dinner menus—the burger is flavorful with a hit of spice. As messy as it is delicious, this is a burger to dig into with abandon—and you will—with guacamole smearing on your face, burger separating from bun, and your fingers picking up bits of bean that have dropped.
They don’t serve the latest nose-to-tail entrées or a carefully crafted artisan cocktail. But that’s why we love our favorite dive bars—and their remarkable burgers, too.
Middleton’s Village Green serves their burgers on wax paper—just how we’d expect (and they’re tasty). Alt ’N Bach’s Town Tap is tucked away in a curious location behind Todd Drive—hard to find, but the burger’s worth it once you do. Tony Frank’s is a converted house and has always been known as a hidden gem for their burgers—although its fans might not want it that way. Two other neighborhood establishments include Brothers Three on the east side and Echo Tap downtown; both are no-frills hangouts with good grub. Mickey’s Tavern is one dive where the food is certainly a step up from basic; its “sexy fries” and burgers go right along with the thrift store-chic décor. The Caribou Tavern (or the ’Bou, as the regulars call it), has a following with its ’Bou Burger. It’s also a place where, as one online reviewer notes, “it has a bartender that I thought was Irish, but just ended up being from Iowa. I think you understand what kind of time I have at this place.” Hmm.
The quality of the meat has fueled the burger’s recent hyper-popularity. In Madison alone one can get burgers made from grass-fed Angus beef, Fountain Prairie Farms’ dry-aged Highland ground beef, single source Black Earth Meats ground beef, Kobe beef from Snake River Farms, ground beef from Knoche’s, Neesvig’s and Metcalfe’s, and “100% certified natural, humane, wet aged, whole chuck meat.” We’ve got some very, very good beef in this city, a lot of it raised close by. You can draw your own conclusions. In fact, most of you already have.
Burger Madness Continues!
You didn’t think our contest was over, did you? After three weeks of competition, fifteen burgers and thousands of votes, we’ve tallied it all up and The Weary Traveler Free House’s Bob’s Bad Breath Burger and AJ Bombers’ Mad Sconnie burger are YOUR two finalists in Burger Madness. Amazingly, the Weary’s burger was a write-in favorite from round one and advanced all the way to our last round. Apparently Bob’s bad breath didn’t deter burger lovers! Show us in the ultimate burger showdown which burger you think should win!
Go here to vote. And watch for our April 2012, where we'll reveal Madison's burger champ!
And did you know that almost all of the burgers featured in this story were also in our Burger Madness poll? That’s right, even if they didn’t win, they’re still winners in our editorial opinion—and yours too!
Neil Heinen is editorial director and Shayna Miller is multimedia/style editor of Madison Magazine.