After I tell people I get paid to review burgers, the next question is almost invariably, "So what's the best burger in Atlanta?" With four-plus years of being a professional cheeseburger-eater under my belt (literally—just check my pants size), I've stumbled across dozens of pleasant surprises, and my too-long answer to that simple question usually includes mentions of at least five different joints. I mean, it all depends on what you're looking for, right? A simple diner-style burger? A sophisticated gourmet double stack? An over-the-top culinary Frankenstein of crazy toppings?
I haven't tried 'em all by any stretch, but I've got a good sampling that I keep in my head as my own Top 10. Some are old standbys, some are relative newbies making a surprise appearance; some are traditional in style, some stray toward my personal penchant for crazy. You don't have to agree with all my choices (in particular, one burger's omission from this list will undoubtedly raise some healthy commenter ire), but trust my palate enough to know that every burger on this list is worth seeking out, whether you're a lifelong ATLien or just passing through on a long layover.
The Vortex Bar & Grill
The Little Five Points location may be the best souvenir from the city's pre-Olympics facelift; the 20-foot-tall skull façade remains as iconic a landmark today as it was in '96. But the Vortex still holds its own against the hipper burger-boom boutiques that have since inundated the city's restaurantscape.
The place is all attitude, from the pierced-and-tatted-up waitstaff to their 20-plus burger varieties, sirloin half-pounders that are flame-grilled and then garnished with almost everything imaginable. It's cliché now, but the Vortex was the first place in town to go all batshit with burger names and WTF-caliber toppings. The Fat Elvis, for example, features bacon, fried bananas, and peanut butter. And has for years.
They're all stellar, but my go-to is the Double Bypass. This behemoth is dressed with six slices of American, eight bacon strips, a pair of fried eggs, LTO, mayo on the side...and served between grilled cheese sandwiches for buns. It's excess on a plate, and it's not even the biggest burger on the menu. It's not the trendiest pick, and self-professed culinarians will dismiss it as an excessive stunt, but the Double Bypass from the Vortex is still my favorite in town after all these years.
Ann's Snack Bar
A much-ballyhooed Wall Street Journal article in 2007 called the Ghetto Burger at this eight-seat shack the best in America, and I'd be hard-pressed to argue that it doesn't certainly belong in the conversation.
Made by hand by the seventysomething Miss Ann herself, the Ghetto Burger is pure dinner theater—at your cranky Grandma's house. In between yelling at customers who have the audacity to not wait their turn for a barstool, whip out a cellphone, or try to pay with plastic, Miss Ann grabs fistfuls of ground beef (easily three-quarters of a pound each) and smashes them into a scorching hot griddle. They're seasoned liberally, flipped repeatedly, and draped with American cheese. Homemade chili is ladled onto open-face buns, bacon is deep-fried, condiments are swirled.
Two of those monster patties make up each Ghetto Burger (the 'Hood Burger swaps out lettuce and tomato for slaw), and it all makes for one of the sloppiest burger experiences you'll ever have. But I defy you to not inhale it and then tell me it is life-changing.
The General Muir
A Jewish deli may not be where you'd expect to find a spectacularly killer burger, but the two on The General Muir's menu are no joke. Alongside true-blue delicatessen fare that pays homage to his East Coast roots, like matzoh ball soup and seriously-stacked Reubens, chef Todd Ginsberg serves burgers that share DNA with one of Atlanta's best, the famed double stack at Bocado (which Ginsberg himself created while there).
The lunch version of the burger is a pair of thin patties—check out that craggly crust—with a layer of shaved griddled onion in between. On top, melty American, sweet-and-sour pickles, lettuce. Underneath, tangy Russian dressing. All presented on a pillowy onion roll. Every element shines. It's simple, sexy, and sensational.
But at dinner, Ginsberg rolls out an arguably-superior version with Gruyère, caramelized onions, Russian dressing, pickles, and the thick, chewy, fall-apart pastrami that The General Muir has become known for. The pastrami is so good that it's also used as a topping for the poutine: a pile of perfect fries drowning in gravy, cheese curds, and huge chunks of that succulent deli meat. The burger is rave-worthy; the poutine is the stuff of secret food fantasies.
Meet Hank. He's a big boy, twin 7.5-ounce patties of brisket, shoulder, and other fatty cuts. He's got textbook char from the flat-top and intensely beefy flavor. He's got two slices of American for maximum meltage, iceberg lettuce, sweet onions, housemade pickles, a totally-from-scratch special sauce, and a sublime buttered-and-toasted pain de mie bun. He's over five inches tall; you'll have to manhandle him a bit and go to work on him from several angles. He's drippy and messy and juicy, and once you've got a hold of him, you can't let go or try to readjust your grip. But Hank is so worth the effort.
And this leviathan of totally-legit burger badassery comes out of...the cramped kitchen of a tiny arcade bar. Husband-and-wife team Steven Lingenfelter and Laurie Dominguez created The Hank as a tribute to the backyard burger they'd grill up for friends. Now it's available every night from Illegal Food, their one-time pop-up that's taken up permanent residency at Joystick Gamebar in the Old Fourth Ward. Far from mindless pub grub, the menu is loaded with outrageous-yet-cheffy burgers and seriously habit-forming snacks, most notably the okonomayaki-style fries, with shredded cabbage, green onion, bonito flakes, okonomi sauce, Japanese mayo, fermented chili sauce, sesame seeds, red pickled ginger, and seaweed heaped onto already-superb spud sticks.
The Bocado Double Stack is perhaps best known (unfairly) as the copycat of Holeman & Finch's overhyped burger. But Bocado made this Top 10 list; the other one didn't. (Gasp!) I love some good buzz and don't mind jumping though the occasional hoop, but H&F's whole schtick of only offering 24 burgers a night, and only at 10 p.m., and only after you've snagged a table at least an hour before, and only after somebody comes out of the kitchen with a bullhorn and announces, "Burger Time!" like it's a damn game show...c'mon, man.
Bocado's version doesn't come with the bells and whistles, but you can get it any time. And to me, it's better, even if remarkably similar. Two thin patties, each dressed with American, and housemade pickles nestled under a squishy bun. It's astonishingly Spartan, but the taste is anything but. The beef explodes with flavor, a blend of grass-fed chuck, brisket, and short rib. The pickles offer tang without being overly salty, and there's plenty of juiciness from the melted cheese and what I would swear is a tiny swipe of mayo.
And if just one of these beauties doesn't do it for you, order the secret trio of them called The Wimpy Plate.
Muss & Turner's
"Object of adoration." Those were the words—from a list of readers' favorite local burger restaurants published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—that convinced me to sample this burger. And I'll stand by that description of the six-ounce Big Green Egg-grilled burger at Muss & Turner's, a deli by day, a restaurant by night, and a specialty food store in between—with a secret speakeasy hidden behind the door of a fake walk-in freezer.
The beef (and just about everything else here) is locally sourced, and they'll cook it any way you want it. (My server even suggested the burger "rare." You go, girl.) Topped with melted white cheddar, a roasted poblano pepper, and red onion slices, slathered with cilantro aioli, and tucked into a squishy French bun, this one is just different enough to stand out from the pack—and it's way better than the vast majority of the pack. Creamy, crunchy, squishy, and flavored with a gentle heat, this burger is on the pricy side ($11.53, fries not included), but "objects of adoration" shouldn't come cheap.
Blink and you'll miss this tiny joint tucked into a nondescript strip mall in the extreme northern 'burbs. That would be a shame, because you'd also miss out on the exceptional burgers at Scratch Fresh. It's a mom-and-pop place in the literal sense, where Kelley Hughes and her family provide ridiculously personal customer service and make as much of their menu as they can in-house, just as if it were their own house.
The patties are an 80/20 blend, rolled into 3.3-ounce balls that are patted out when you order. The thin diner burgers are seasoned nicely and available as a single, double, or triple. You tell them how you want it dressed, choosing from six cheeses, meaty add-ons, and an impressive list of sauces. The one you want is called Burger Sauce, a phenomenal Worcestershire-and-soy base that has 17 other ingredients—a recipe so complex that Kelley's own daughter still can't make it without the written directions.
But the burger that makes my list is one you have to get up early for. The Cheeseburger Biscuit is a single patty with your cheese of choice slipped into a fluffy homemade biscuit. Oh, and the patty is actually cooked in that over-the-top Burger Sauce for a crazy-good morning meal that blows a boring McMuffin out of the damn water.
Edgewood Corner Tavern
Burgerizing a buffalo chicken sandwich rarely works. But instead of just painting a beef patty with wing sauce and calling it a day, Edgewood Corner Tavern's Mike Rabb took it a step further. Several steps, actually, for a walk on the wild side called The Carpetbagger.
He and his staff spitballed for two months before breaking an eight-ounce patty in two, flattening out the meat, and crimping it back together over a mound of blue cheese crumbles. With essentially a Blue Jucy Lucy on their hands, they then dunked it in a batter made of flour, Cajun spices, and PBR (yes, really), then tossed it in dry salted-and-peppered flour. Then it's fried in oil and finished with a quick swim in some housemade buffalo sauce.
A burger that's treated like a buffalo wing may not appeal to some. Fine. More for the rest of us with occasionally (and admittedly) whack job tastes. The Carpetbagger has crunch, heat, and creaminess, and a big, beefy taste that never lets you forget that, despite the hot chicken cross-dressing trick, this is, at its heart, one righteous burger.
One Eared Stag
"Meatstick." If you saw that word listed on a menu—with zero accompanying description—would you tempt fate and order it? Let's hope so, 'cos the One Eared Stag's not-exactly-secret burger with the kooky codename (which comes from a never-released Phish song; how's THAT for obscure?) is well worth the leap of faith.
Chef Robert Phalen takes grass-fed chuck and mixes in ground slab bacon, but the Meatstick isn't overtly porky. Two four-ouncers are griddled up with a nice crisp char, and each patty is blanketed with an honest-to-God Kraft Single, which he calls "government cheese" while simultaneously gushing over its great melt and nostalgic flavor profile. Delicate shaved rings of onion replace the too-typical slices found elsewhere, and the kitchen's own bread and butter pickles complete one of the prettiest burgers in town.
If there's a weakness to this burger, I'd say the housemade brioche bun is just a touch too dense. With a slightly airier, squishier model, the Meatstick could make a real run at this list's #1 spot.
There are plenty of upscale restaurants-with-a-capital-R in town that rock a top-flight burger, but my favorite of the city's white-napkin set comes from Miller Union. If you're not in the mood for super-cheffy (I've seen duck breast, whipped rutabaga, and chicken liver mousse on the menu), go with the "Daily Grind" Cheeseburger.
Executive chef Steven Satterfield and his staff can cook to perfection, even knocking out a custom "extra-rosy medium-rare-plus" order without blinking. That back-of-the-house skill deftly lets the loosely-packed-and-practically-fall-apart grass-fed beef shine as the undisputed star of this show. Sharp cheddar is piled on top, along with "all the trimmings" that happen to be local and in season. Even the housemade ketchup at Miller Union is noteworthy: slow-cooked all day with a complex mix of spices like coriander, garlic, and cinnamon that managed to impress this kid who never developed a taste for ketchup.
It's easy to feel guilty for ordering a cheeseburger when you find yourself at a fancy-pants restaurant that earned "Best New" accolades from heavy hitters like Bon Appétit, Esquire, and Southern Living all in the same year. But when the burger is as freaking good as Miller Union's, you can leave the rabbit and prune terrine to the next table and let your burger flag fly with pride.