Hamburgers are simple to make and yet some restaurants are still taking shortcuts. Cheap ingredients, pre-cooked patties, dry mealy patties, sad toppings. When a burger arrives, it should never be room-temperature. Burgers are easy to dissect at your table. Just open them up and you'll be able to spot all the shortcuts and disrespect an establishment has for you and for its food.
I have a simple rule: Everything on a menu is worthy of the restaurant's name.
Sure, there will always be signature dishes that are the best in the city. I cannot expect everything on the same menu to be the best in the city. What I can expect, is that the standards that go behind making signature dishes are the same standards that go into everything they make. Cheat me on a burger and I know you're cheating me on every single thing on your menu.
A friend of mine had a restaurant, The late Saint's Diner, with one of the best burgers I've ever eaten, "The Deuce". What made the burger great was the fact that it was fresh and that all the ingredients were fresh. Several toppings had to be cooked (it was complicated burger) but every topping was cooked AFTER I ordered the burger. It was hot, it was messy, it was great. A small restaurant with a big delicious burger. I was sorry to see it go.
Then there's the insults I had this past weekend. Two restaurants 80-miles apart. Both were advertised as Bar-B-Que/Grill restaurants. The first, Clay's in Marksville, the burger was simply okay. It left me wanting. What got me, though, was the toppings. Limp lettuce and tomatoes tell me you've given up.
The second restaurant, Bergeron's in Port Allen, had the smell of smoked ribs and brisket. Oh, hope of hope. It smells like they may have respect for meat. I may have to make note of this place if I'm passing here with the family. No. I made note to never eat there again. The burger was ready in UNDER FIVE MINUTES. Awwww, crap. You can't make a burger that fast. Not if you respect meat. The patty was barely warm. It was obviously cooked earlier. Earlier in the day, or earlier in the week was anyone's guess. The patty really was that bad. The toppings were fresh, but the meat was mealy. No respect for me or the meat. I was very hungry and ate about half the burger before my hunger was replaced by sadness. The burger made me sad. Not sad, as in "Aww, I wasted my money and time on this," but sad, as in "What have I done in my life to deserve this?" The only thing good was the battered fries. I wish I had saved some for after the burger. I hated finishing on a bad note.
A few weeks ago, my coworkers asked me to come along for lunch. "Bill, we're going to River Shack for lunch. They have great burgers." I'm up for a recommendation like that. I was disappointed. The burger was barely warm and the meat was dry. Did they cook it for me? Likely. But I don't know what they did to it after that. I'll never go back.
In December, we visited my parents in California. I've heard nothing but great things about In-N-Out Burger. I'll put it at the top of the list of fast-food burgers. However, beating McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, What-a-Burger, Rally's, and so forth, is not a proud achievement. My wife and I gave them a rating of "Enh." Don't make it a destination, but if you're given a choice, pick them. Oh, and whatever you do, don't eat the fries.
The cafeteria here at Loyola has a grill. They make better burgers than I can get at any fast-food location. Fresh meat they have to form by hand, cheese, ketchup, mustard, happy. You can get them right as they come off the grill. It's not a complicated thing to make. This is why I'm so sad when it's done wrong. And why I'm happy these cooks are doing it right, right here on campus.
On the road, I eat at Five Guys. It looks like fast-food, but it's not. It is a chain-restaurant, and I'm not a fan of chains, but I'm a bigger fan of good. They make the burgers ONLY after you've placed your order. The ingredients are fresh and crisp. The french fries are fantastic (an understatement) and only begin cooking after you order them. The people at every Five Guys I've eaten at in 6 different states are exactly the same: Happy, courteous, a pleasure to be around, and accurate. If you have a problem with an order, they over-compensate to correct it. The food is not cheap, but then, the food is not cheap. There has to be something about the attitude of the employees being so consistently wonderful that makes the food so consistently wonderful. My wife is actually mad at Five Guys. She used to be able to eat burgers from McDonalds or Wendy's. Now she can't eat anywhere else.
One last reference: One vacation, more than 10 years back, I searched Panama City Beach looking for the best burger. I found a couple of places that weren't all that bad. On the last day, we hung out by the hotel pool and I remember feeling that my good burger quest had gone unfulfilled. But then, I noticed the pool-side grill. They made me the best burger of my vacation. More than a decade later, I can remember that burger. Good God, it was great. Why? Because the guy making it took no shortcuts. It's so simple to make if you only have a little respect for it.
It all fits. If you want to assess a restaurant and burgers are low on their menu, order it. Examine it. Eat it. Judge everything else on the menu by it. If they care about food, they'll care about the burger. If they don't care about the burger, they didn't care about you.