Fiola's BLT burger
accents such as
crisp pancetta and
Red Apron's classic burger is
distinguished by its beef butchered
in-house and Nathan Anda's special
Good Stuff Eatery's farmhouse
At first, Red Apron Butcher’s “Original” burger is quiet and unassuming. The patty is neither oversize nor overly charred. Its toppings of lettuce, tomato, pickle, and Thousand Island dressing wouldn’t be out of place under a fast-food bun. But a closer look—and a big bite—will cause your first impression to crumble. The expertly cooked meat under the brioche bun is actually a strategic mix of ground chuck, brisket, short rib, sirloin, and top round. The pickles and dressing are made in-house. In the end, you will find that the quiet burger is lovingly crafted and truly delicious.
“It’s a whole-animal burger, because we butcher our animals in-house,” explains Red Apron (1309 Fifth St. NE, 202-524-6807) chef and butcher Nathan Anda, whose succulent proprietary mix is created from the large-scale butchering process he oversees at Red Apron. “We are able to build a burger around everything we do in the store.”
Anda is a prime example of Washington’s new normal, in which the dining boom of the past five years begat a great leap forward in burgers. The pace of expansion has been staggering, with dozens of new burger joints and hundreds of new offerings entering the scene—and thriving. The DC burger boom has centered on high-quality beef that carries menu descriptions like prime, grass-fed, and dry-aged, and noteworthy toppings like bone marrow, fried eggs, homemade pickles, and ultra-rich cheese, along with condiments made in-house.
Decadence has found its way into a world that was once built around the idea that speed and simplicity were all that mattered. For instance, chef Fabio Trabocchi also takes a lush approach with the BLT burger ($18) served at Fiola (601 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-628-2888), his upscale Italian restaurant in Penn Quarter. Beef tenderloin, the most tender and expensive part of the cow, is ground daily for the burger, which is heaped with Italian accents like smoked provolone, crisp pancetta, slow-roasted plum tomatoes, and butter lettuce. “‘High-end’ for us means the highest-quality ingredients in whatever we make,” Trabocchi explains.
Other luxury restaurants are in the game as well. In addition to its regular beef burger ($18), Central Michel Richard (1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-626-0015) has excellent chicken ($17), lamb ($21), ahi tuna ($21), and lobster ($30) offerings. Bourbon Steak (1800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-944-2026) chef John Critchley’s decadent oak-fired prime steak burger ($19) has stiff menu competition from his Korean barbecue salmon burger with kimchi ($17).
But part of what makes Washington’s burger boom great is that quality ingredients aren’t solely the province of high-enders. Starting around the time Top Chef’s Spike Mendelsohn opened Good Stuff Eatery (303 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, 202-543-8222) on Capitol Hill in 2008, a parade of more affordable, burger-centric restaurants—like the fabled and defunct Ray’s Hell Burger, BGR: The Burger Joint, Bobby’s Burger Palace, Elevation Burger, Burger Tap & Shake, Smashburger, Shake Shack, and others—came onto the scene boasting bolder offerings such as prime and aged beef.
“We spent about a year tasting different combinations,” says Mendelsohn of the meat mix he developed with his family before they opened the first Good Stuff Eatery. (A third location, in Georgetown, opened this summer.) “Early on, we understood that you can’t sacrifice freshness or quality, because the quality of the meat is what makes our burger great.”
Even with the recent growth, it’s worth noting that Washington wasn’t a complete burger wasteland in the old days. Former White House chef Frank Ruta has been serving his Palena burger ($13), with its famous Italian truffled cheese and garlic mayo, since 2000. And the area’s signature burger chain, Five Guys Burgers and Fries (multiple locations)—known for its messy, softball-size burgers and addictive fries—was founded in 1986 in Arlington, Virginia. It’s since spread nationwide and has annual sales of $1.1 billion.
“We have quality at both ends of the spectrum, from cheap to upscale,” Nathan Anda reflects. “This is a great burger town now.”