Burgers—the quintessential American fare—are no longer relegated to the backyard barbecue. Instead, they’re taking center stage at restaurants across the country and are being transformed into artfully crafted main dishes that pair well with a variety of wines.
The artisan burger trend began some years ago and can be linked to famed restaurateurs like Danny Meyer, CEO of the New York City-based Union Square Hospitality Group, whose Shake Shack burger concept in a downtown park redefined the fast food burger in New York City, and Daniel Boulud, who memorably charged $75 for a burger topped with truffles at DB Bistro Moderne in New York and the Daniel Brasserie in Las Vegas. Enter a down economy and a general population looking for more comfort food options on its nights out, and you have an entire industry creating top-of-the-line burgers at (sometimes) affordable prices.
“There has been a general awareness or concerted effort in the restaurant industry to not just treat burgers as an afterthought,” says Chris Santos, executive chef at Stanton Social in New York City, a modern American restaurant. “Across the board, chefs are using similar techniques to those they use to create other dishes for their burgers and customers really respond to it.”
When you start down the path of top-quality burgers, people immediately start experimenting with new quaffs and wine is inching up on beer as favorite pairing. “A gourmet burger is a steak between two great pieces of bread,” adds Ashli Cohen, beverage director for the two-location Big Daddy’s Burger Bar in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Burgers pair really well with a great glass of wine.”
The burger and wine trend is helping revitalize an industry hurt by the down economy and is giving consumers the comfort they are looking for in an accessible and surprisingly often upscale way.
A New Take on Pairings
Beer, the traditional go-to drink for burger lovers, is getting some healthy competition from wine as consumers seek out new pairing synergies and look to add a more complex flare to their meals.
At Big Daddy’s, Cohen recently updated the burger bar’s wine list to encourage more experimentation. The new menu, which was redesigned to show off the new wine options, touts “It’s a BIG burger, so it’s a BIG glass of wine.” The menu features 17 wines, served by the eight-ounce glass ($6 to $13) and bottle ($17 to $38).
It was a complete success. “We saw wine sales increase by three percent in the first week of the new menu,” she explains. “Previously people who had the desire for a great glass of wine were defaulting to iced tea.”
Big Daddy’s doesn’t have specific burgers paired with specific wines at this time—instead it’s something of a hand sell. Cohen suggests something from her red wine selection for the heartier meats, including the Trapiche Malbec ($7) or the Rock & Vine Cabernet Sauvignon ($10). Light pinot noirs also work with turkey and chicken burgers, but she has three full-bodied Chardonnays that can also pair with the offerings. “A riesling or muscato also offers a nice contrast to the hearty burgers,” she notes.
The Perfect Blend
At Morton’s The Steakhouse, the burger trend was definitely sparked by the economy, says Tylor Field, III, vice president of wine and spirits at the 76-location chain. “It’s the quintessential low-cost comfort food in America,” he explains. “If you have a luxury brand, you need to update the concept of [the burger] to attract new guests in the down economy with a lower check [average], but still maintain your brand.”
Burgers at Morton’s are made with 100 percent beef from Stockyard Packing or Allen Brothers Packing in Chicago. The most popular form of hamburgers, according to Field, are the three mini cheeseburgers served during “Power Hour” at the chain’s bars, usually between 5 and 7 p.m. or after 9 p.m., depending on the location. They are priced at $6 during the promotion.
As chefs start thinking of artisan burgers, the meat is taken very seriously. Just ask Clement Wong. Looking to create the “ultimate burger experience,” as director of food and beverage at the Grand Victoria Casino’s Prime Burger House in Elgin, IL, Wong experimented with many different blends of meat before picking the perfect combination. “Our burgers are a chuck rib eye and short rib mixture to get the flavor and texture we wanted,” he says. “We built a butcher shop into our restaurant and hired a butcher to freshly blend and grind the meats daily.” A popular option is the Surf & Turf ($23), which features this specially crafted burger, topped with Maine lobster, asparagus, tomato, basil aioli and frisée on an onion brioche bun.
Wong has found that wine with burgers was a tougher sell than anticipated. “We are trying to do some pairings with wine, but it hasn’t been that successful,” he says. “Our clientele is more beer oriented.”
That said, Wong still plans to promote some wine and beer pairings with his extensive burger menu. “We are rethinking how we are going to market the wines,” he notes. “We will do wine and beer pairings to capture some interest from our clientele whether they want beer or wine.”
A moist burger is key, and some chefs find that adding a bit of butter to the blend does the trick. At Stanton Social, chef Santos has found success with this combo in the one burger option on his menu—Kobe beef sliders ($7), a blend of beef, butter and seasonings. “The Kobe burgers are a huge hit,” he says. “We sell about 2,000 a week and that’s with 45 other items on the menu.”
Burgers will have a leading role at the two new places he’s planning to open this year. The first, a yet-to-be-named, 300-seat restaurant that is slated to open in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood in October, will feature what Santos calls the “best burger I’ve ever come up with.” The signature burger is blend of short rib, brisket and lamb. The second restaurant will be a more casual burger tavern that plays off the burger craze. “We’ll offer several signature burgers and then a make-your-own option,” he says.
Where’s the Beef?
Beef or a beef blend remains the top selling burger across the country, but savvy chefs are finding success with other “protein” options.
Two years ago when the more than 60-location, Newport Beach, California-based Fleming’s created a burger bar menu in response to the down economy, they took a liberal interpretation of the word. “Burger is a loose term—they are all served on the same bun,” says Russell Skall, corporate executive chef.
Fleming’s offers five burger variations, including Fleming’s Prime Burger ($12), made with ground chuck, and a sliced filet mignon burger ($18), which is topped with sautéed mushrooms and béarnaise sauce. The three non-traditional options are the jumbo lump crab cake burger ($16), an Ahi Tuna burger ($12) and a Portobello mushroom burger ($10).
How you cook the burger is key whatever the meat, says Skall. “It’s important to get a good sear on them,” he says. “You also need a good bun. It has to absorb any moisture and be firm enough to hold up against the meat.” All Fleming’s burgers are served on a fresh Challah bun they ship to all locations from Chicago.
For Fleming’s burgers, wine is a clear no-brainer for customers who flock there for the extensive wine selection. “We don’t do any specific pairings, but we do try to steer people through our extensive 100-bottle wine list,” explains Skall. For example, he says a chardonnay or sauvignon blanc works well for the Portobello and Ahi tuna burgers, while he suggests a fuller bodied red—a cabernet sauvignon or shiraz—for the Prime Burger.
Fleming’s also promotes its Prime Burger on its “5-6-7” promotional menu, offered where legal. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. each night customers can pick from a special menu that offers five appetizers and the Prime Burger, along with five wines and five cocktails all priced at $6. Here many people may choose a flight of wines. “There isn’t one wine that will match with the burger and appetizer,” he explains. “The flight allows you to get a nice mix.”
At the Square One Burgers in Tampa, Florida, burgers come in many different forms. “People are looking for something unique when they come here,” says Bill Milner, director of operations. The full-service burger restaurant offers various “proteins,” including 100 percent Meyers Natural Angus beef, Kobe beef, chicken, buffalo, ostrich, Portobello, veggie, sashimi tuna steak and a quarter-pound Angus hot dog.
The menu features 22 specialty burgers and sandwiches, priced from $7 to $14. A top seller at the restaurant, closely behind the All-American Angus patty, is the Buffalo Bob ($11.99), made with ground buffalo meat topped with hickory smoked bacon, onion rings and spicy beer cheese sauce on a sesame bun.
Wine is big with burgers at Square One. In fact, wine makes up six percent of sales at the one-location. “We have a no rules philosophy about wine,” says Milner. “Today, wine consumers drink what they want. We just keep our selection of reds and whites fresh.” They currently offer 20 wines by the glass and bottle, 12 reds and eight whites, priced at $4.50 to $8 a glass.
That said, Square One does train its staff to offer wine suggestions to customers looking for advice. “If they are getting a burger in our salad bowl, we might offer a riesling,” he says. “For our medium rare All American, Ole Ole or Rise and Shine [which pairs an Angus burger with bacon and eggs], we might pair those with a nice cabernet [sauvignon] or syrah. They don’t currently pair wine on the menu, but it is something they may consider in the future after the opening of two new locations in Sarasota.
Although 70 percent of the burgers sold at Big Daddy’s are ground beef, they also find success with a variety of meat options. Customers can substitute the beef burger for a buffalo burger, chicken breast, chicken burger, turkey burger, Asian pork burger, Portobello cap or a black bean burger.
“Quality is what leads the [burger] category to success,” says Cohen. “All of our burgers are made by hand to order, nothing is pre-done.” Top burgers include the Classic Southern Burger ($9), which is topped with chili, American cheese, relish, mustard and slaw, and the Sam I Am ($9.50), which features American cheese, a fried egg, rosemary ham and pesto.
Once you have your protein down, the burger should be a cinch. Not so fast, say many operators who know that what goes on top of the burger is as important as the meat itself. The build-your-own burger concept is gaining momentum with consumers yearning to show their creativity.
Square One takes topping its burgers very seriously. In fact, the caramelized onions they offer on numerous burgers are slow cooked for 12 hours, says Milner. The menu also features a “Build-a-Burger” section, where customers can pick from the 10 protein options and choose their bun or the healthier option of having their meat over greens. Next they choose from 11 sauces, 10 cheeses and various other toppings including roasted corn and black bean salsa and grilled pineapple rings.
“A lot of people try to get creative and come up with something different for their burger,” says Milner. “Regulars like to come in and one-up themselves on what they had before.”
A similar scene occurs at Big Daddy’s, where premium toppings include rosemary ham, jalapeño bacon, applewood-smoked bacon and crispy onion straws, among dozens of cheeses like Brie, white cheddar and homemade mozzarella.
At Stanton social, however, Santos doesn’t allow any variation to his Kobe sliders except opting for the sauce on the side. Though he will offer a build-your-own option at his soon-to-open burger tavern, he admits there is a down side. “If customers pick things that don’t really go together, it leaves a bad impression of the restaurant,” he explains. However, “if you build the menu correctly, you can make sure that most combinations will go well together.”
Milner doesn’t have any concerns about customer combos. “If they have a certain desire that includes a specific cheese and sauce, we’ll let them try it,” he says. After all, “it may taste good to them.”
Wong at Prime concurs. “Everyone has a different interpretation of what his or her ultimate burger experience looks like,” he says. “We do try to guide people by training the wait staff on what goes well together. Most people who build their own know what flavors go well together. If they go too far off the reservation, we guide them through it.” Prime offers 11 different sauces, eight cheese and 20 toppings for its six different patties.
With a little creativity and fun with toppings, operators continue to find success with high-quality burgers. And pairing them with wines is proving to enhance the dining experience while increasing beverage sales and interest.