The greasy ones and the gourmet ones. The sentimental favorites and the splashy upstarts. The iconic shoo-ins and the controversial long shots. We considered them all in the course of our burger research, called on experts statewide, stuffed our faces until they bled -- and finally narrowed the list down to 23. Here they are: the Colorado burgers to beat. (And speaking of beatings, if we missed your favorite, bring it in the comments.)
What you’re getting: The 60/40
Everybody knows the golden ratio of lean beef-to-fat in a standard patty is 80/20. So you might be asking, "Why would I want a burger that’s only 60% actual burger?" But at Big Al’s, that’s like asking, "Why don’t you just make ten louder?" The answer is: because the other 40% is bacon -- that way, says Director of Operations Alan Jantzen, "You get bacon in every bite," along with American cheese and all the classic fixings on a toasted bun from Aspen Baking Company. The answer, in other words, is that these babies go to eleven, backed by sour cream-and-onion fries.
What you’re getting: The C.V. Burger
When Katy Vaughn, co-owner of Steamboat’s acclaimed Bistro C.V., tells you that her chef-husband Brian has stopped topping his burger with foie gras because the purebred Wagyu beef they’re sourcing from Walden’s Emma Farms is so luxurious that fattened goose liver is "no longer necessary," you’d better believe you’re in for a treat. Seasoned simply with shallots and fines herbes, the exquisitely medium-rare patty gets decked out in shredded romaine, sliced tomato, pickled red onions, and garlic aioli on a fluffy Smell That Bread bun alongside a crock of potato purée; it’s like a special-occasion steak dinner, but double the fun and half the price.
What you’re getting: The house-grind burger
This is Hosea Rosenberg’s place -- of course the chuck/sirloin/short rib mix is ground in house for the burger, which of course comes criss-crossed with house-cured bacon and an optional fried egg (from Blackbelly’s own farm) over Tillamook cheddar on a Grateful Bread bun. But here’s what’s not so predictable, nor even noticeable until a sheen of joy begins to coat your lips: the patty’s brushed with freaking bone-marrow butter.
What you’re getting: The Butcher Burger
Actually, you never know exactly what you’re getting when you order the burger here, because it changes all the time, according to the dry-aged cuts Chef Tyler Holzheimer happens to be working with and the toppings, from Polish sausage to Parmesan, that his crew decides to pile on the sturdy-but-soft City Bakery bun. Sometimes the daily grind isn’t beef at all, but the juiciest ground Colorado lamb you’ve ever sunk your teeth into, accented by tangy goat cheese and brilliant mint pesto. In any case, it’s further evidence that this place is one of Denver’s most sensational newcomers by far.
What you’re getting: The off-menu bacon-cheeseburger
Officially, the St. Regis Aspen’s swank signature restaurant serves as a showcase for Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs from around the country, who help design the menus. But secretly, locals sneak in for the ace up Exec Chef Todd Slossberg’s sleeve -- a mile-high monster starring a mixture of chuck, sirloin, and short rib from Emma Farms (perhaps you’ve heard of it?). Nothing but the best for this beef: Slossberg sources bacon from Nueske’s or Benton’s, brings in buns with the right "density and texture" from New York’s Tom Cat Bakery, lays on the aged cheddar and house sauce, and finally garnishes it all in high style -- with fried onion strings and seasonal pickled veggies, from beets to green beans to fennel.
Cherry Creek, Denver
What you’re getting: The Cricket Burger
Leaving The Cricket off any list of Denver’s best burgers would be like leaving Casablanca off a list of the greatest movies ever made: a painfully obvious d**k move. The grill-cooks here are as seasoned as the 80/20 chuck itself, so even if you went out of your way to come up with the weirdest topping combo ever placed on a sesame-seed bun -- say, green chile, grape jelly, and sauerkraut (see: “d**k move”) -- the foundation would still be pretty damn solid. Here’s looking at you, Cricket burger with peanut butter and a fried egg, the way it should be.
Castle Rock/Colorado Springs/Highlands Ranch
What you’re getting: The garlictastic Love Stinks or The Luther with egg, cheddar & glazed doughnuts
You think porn’s NSFW? Try poring over Crave’s menu sometime. These guys candy bacon, glaze onions in bourbon, and fry cream cheese in beer batter; they bread pork, pull lamb, smoke brisket, and grill up bison as well as beef patties. And then they pile it all, in one nutty combination or another, onto a bun -- or between two doughnuts, or two grilled-cheese sandwiches. Yeah, there’s a good reason this local franchise has garnered so many nods at the Denver Burger Battle over the years... and it’s the same reason your boss had better not catch you looking for love/lunch on the job.
What you’re getting: The Avocado Burger
Go ahead and insist that we’re just seduced by the setting, a last bastion of the People’s Republic pre-invasion of the Whole-Foodier-than-thou cyborgs. We won’t even argue, except to point out that there’s a contextual difference between a flawless burger and a perfect one. Then we’ll plant our faces that much deeper into our glorious mess of a third-pounder fired up with pepper jack and green chiles, cooled by mashed avocado and sour cream, and accompanied by retrograde curly fries. And then we’ll knock back some cheap beers and smile.
What you’re getting: A double, "wild style"
Some folks (cough... Californians... cough) whine that without an In-N-Out, Colorado’s just a flyover state with better skiing -- and beer, and weed, but never mind. The point is that other folks just laugh and go to Drifter’s, where the menu rings bells right down to the double cheeseburger that comes with mustard-crusted patties and extra dressing as well as plenty of grilled onions, if you order it right. Meanwhile, founder Richard Beaven brings his own brand of substance to California style with locally processed Callicrate beef and GMO-free buns, not to mention addictive boysenberry shakes.
What you’re getting: A cheeseburger, period
Tai and Molly Jacober don’t just get their beef from Carbondale’s own Crystal River Meats -- they run Crystal River Meats. Talk about cutting out the middleman. As you’d expect from a no-frills quick stop operated by ranchers, the menu gets right to the meat of the matter: you’ve got your choice of a simple cheeseburger or an even-simpler cheeseburger to emphasize the grass-fed patty -- a blend of chuck, short rib, and brisket that’s pressed into the flattop for a nice crust to contrast the juicy interior. Of course there are fries and shakes, and occasionally there’s a special, like salad with kale straight from Tai’s mom’s garden -- but mostly it’s all about the love affair between you and your cow.
What you’re getting: A slopper
First of all, this place was founded back in 1934 by Adolph Coors himself -- on the site of a former brothel. So there’s that. Second, it looks exactly like the 80-year-old bar you’re picturing to yourself right now: dark and creaky and small-town friendly, cluttered with neon signs and baseball memorabilia. And third, Gray’s is the proud home of the Pueblo slopper -- an open-faced double completely coated in kicking green chile or red chili with beans and more beef, plus loads of cheese and chopped onions. (You can ask for the crispy, salty, hand-cut fries on top too, but better that you get a full side order and add them yourself.) You want a burger, go just about anywhere; you want a full-on, old-time, only-in-Colorado experience, come here. A cold bottle of Banquet will never taste so good.
What you’re getting: The Onion-Fried Burger
What’s better than eating a fried-onion burger in its birthplace of El Reno, Oklahoma? Eating a fried-onion burger without having to set foot in El Reno, Oklahoma. Good thing Chef-Owner Bobby Couch has brought his hometown specialty -- distinguished by the copious onions that are browned, seasoned, and smashed right into the patties for an intense, earthy-sweet savor -- right here to Colorado, where he cooks them up in a retro-toned diner that doesn’t serve much else except killer chili-slaw dogs and fries from lunchtime until well after midnight.
What you’re getting: Check the specials, and make it a double
Sure, the good old all-American cheeseburger is primo -- starting with a house-ground, flattop-smashed mix of Crystal River Meats chuck, brisket, and short rib -- but variety and creativity are what separate Grind from the herd. We’re talking buffalo, lamb, pork, and chicken burgers (the latter done right, with dark meat and skin) as well as not one but two veggie alternatives -- all tricked out with globally inspired garnishes like raita and tandoori seasoning or Vietnamese caramel, Sriracha mayo, and pickled carrots, bánh mì-style. Factor in daily specials, like duck in red wine-cherry reduction with blue cheese and mushrooms, and you’re gonna need a beer before you even attempt to make the right choice (good thing there are 20 on tap).
What you’re getting: The 100% Wagyu cheeseburger
This property’s full name is Devil’s Thumb Ranch Resort & Spa, but the key word here is "ranch": the beef comes from the cattle that range right outside the door of its soaring, hexagonal, mountain-chic dining room. The kitchen honors their sacrifice by keeping the focus squarely on the extremely fresh, pure savor of the patty, nestled in a house-baked sesame bun with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and crisp homestead pickles.
What you’re getting: The TAP Burger or the Shroom Luva’s
As dazzling as the Shroom Luva’s may be -- all velvet and cream with Swiss, sautéed mushrooms, truffled aioli, and optional (but not really) slivers of melting foie gras -- you just can’t eat something that rich every day. Enter the TAP Burger: a tower of power that draws its sweet-salty strength from root beer-marinated pulled pork, pilsner-battered onion rings, and both cheddar and American cheese, while its tender beefy core still shines through. (Okay, you couldn’t eat that every day either, but not for lack of desire.)
If the chandelier-strung tavern at this 19th-century landmark was good enough for John Wayne and Hunter S. Thompson, it’s good enough for you. The question is, are you good enough for it and its fat, famous burger, fashioned from 7X beef out of Hotchkiss, slicked with house 1000 Island dressing on a brioche bun, and topped with anything from pickled peppers to lobster salad? Knock it back with an Aspen Crud (essentially a bourbon milkshake) and they’ll probably give you the benefit of the doubt, especially if you spare them your corny impression of the Duke (or, for that matter, Raoul Duke).
What you’re getting: Uh... a Larkburger?
Of course, there are approximately a zillion locations now, but the flagship -- not far from Larkspur in Vail, where Chef-Owner Thomas Salamunovich created the prototype -- still has that new-brand smell, that sparkle from back when it was still a local’s secret. Of course, it also still has that archetypal black Angus burger, the one that looks exactly like a fast-food ad -- only better, because it’s IRL, and it’s dressed in a creamy, house-made lemon-Dijon sauce, and no fast-food franchise offers happy-hour deals on Colorado craft beer.
What you’re getting: The JCB or the Johnny Burger
If there were a college course called Denver Burgers 101, a) that would be awesome and b) you’d get an automatic F if you didn’t answer at least one test question with a reference to My Brother’s Bar. Probably the one that asks, "Which historic watering hole smears its legendary burgers with jalapeño cream cheese on an old-school sesame-seed bun?" or "Where do the burgers come wrapped in paper with a fully loaded condiment caddy?" or "Where were you last night?" (Extra credit if you really were here last night.)
What you’re getting: The Emma Farms Wagyu burger
On paper, it looks like just another high-end hotel-restaurant cheeseburger -- yet more purebred-Japanese beef, locally baked brioche bun, blah blah blah. But listen now, believe us later: this is one special sandwich. If it sat naked on a bare plate, the thick, ultra-succulent patty would stand out; instead it’s dressed to kill in two-year-aged white cheddar along with house-pickled zucchini and onions, just waiting for you to ravish it with your hands and mouth (discreetly, please, The Nickel’s a classy place).
What you’re getting: The O’Neill or the Toadster
Here’s how beloved Park Burger is: It’s about to open its first branch in Kuwait, because two former DU students decided they couldn’t return home without bringing Jean-Philippe Failyau’s entire operation along with them. Damn shame they can’t serve booze over there, because the bar program is mighty fine, especially at the two locations we’ve singled out -- each of which also happens to make a brilliant burger that’s not on the regular menu. At the brand-new RiNo outlet, there’s the O’Neill, a crowd-sourced creation featuring smears of salty Brie contrasted by the sweet-and-sour zing of caramelized onions, sliced green apple, and balsamic-drizzled arugula. At Uptown’s Park & Co., the Toadster with bacon, Swiss, and luscious mushroom duxelles will make your eyeballs do a 360. Of course, those toppings would be worth jack without the righteous third-pound patty leaking its nectar into a butter-soft Grateful Bread bun.
What you’re getting: The Brunch Burger
Red vinyl booths and Formica tabletops, photos of Johnny Cash and Elvis, and a golden-oldies soundtrack: what kind of sick joke would it be if this shrine to Americana in an Arvada strip mall didn’t make a mean burger? And this one’s not just a mean burger, it’s a star-spangled nod to roadside-diner breakfasts too, heaped with thick-sliced bacon, cheddar, hash browns, and a fried egg (or, as pictured, roasted green chiles for a regional spin). That the bun holds strong under the weight of all is a goddamn testament to American ingenuity, while the fresh-fried, just-greasy-enough onion rings will make you want to stand up and do The Watusi while saluting the flag.
What you’re getting: The All-American Double Cheeseburger
When the Bean debuted its lunch-only burger last year, everyone kind of lost their marbles, in part because it was just so unexpected from a kitchen that excels at, well, the unexpected (miso-cured snakehead, lamb heart al pesto) -- and in bigger-part because it was just that delicious. A simple-yet-substantial number, it comes layered with American cheese, slow-cooked onions, pickles, and Chef Theo Adley’s zesty homage to McDonald’s special sauce on a well-textured bun that soaks up most, but by no means all, of the drippings from the meat. Get the combo with fries, a salad, and the apparently requisite Coors Banquet, and consider your marbles gone for good.
Congress Park, Denver
What you’re getting: Rocky vs. Godzilla
A few short months ago, we counted Troy Guard’s ground rounds among the 33 best burgers in the whole damn country, and nothing’s changed since. Except, that is, a menu tweak or two that includes the launch of the Italian Stallion with Andouille sausage, giardiniera, and garlic-Cholula aioli, leaving you to ponder: could Rocky beat Godzilla (shiitakes, tempura flakes, teriyaki sauce, and smoked mayo) in a fight? Or would Andrew Jackson step in and take them both with its insane heap of pork belly, fried chicken skin, Brie, egg, and shaved truffles? Our money’s still on the fearsome daikaiju, but we’re up for a wager.
Still not satisfied? OK, here are 9 more worthies:
Bud’s Bar (address and info)
If the cowboys and bikers who’ve been thronging this joint for 60-plus years swear Bud’s burger -- a McDonald’s clone, steamed bun and all -- is something special, who are we to argue?
School House Kitchen and Libations (address and info)
It’s too early to tell whether this brand-new arrival will live up to its promise, but the burger we scarfed down at a preview was textbook-quality, and the list of nearly 40 toppings -- from bologna to chimichurri to cranberry relish and poached pears -- irresistible.
Ajax Tavern (address and info)
The Little Nell’s double cheeseburger: still the ultimate après-ski happy meal.
Bingo Burger (address and info)
Come on, there are green chiles in the patty. Genius.
Bully Ranch (address and info)
The Sonnenalp’s Definitive Burger lives up to its name with fried onions, candied bacon, and, get this, blue-cheese butter.
Humboldt Farm-Fish-Wine (address and info)
Read all about it here... and here, for that matter.
Mateo (address and info)
Zut alors if this low-key Provençal bistro doesn’t turn out one of Boulder’s finest burgers -- on brioche with Gruyère and garlic-herb aioli, bien sûr.
Williams & Graham (address and info)/Ste. Ellie (address and info)
Weirdly, two of Denver’s best bars also make two of its most formidable fresh-ground burgers -- and you'll never have better cocktails to pair with them.
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1. Blackbelly Market1606 Conestoga St, Boulder
2. Butcher's Bistro2233 Larimer St , Denver
3. Chefs Club315 E Dean St, Aspen
4. The Cherry Cricket2641 E 2nd Ave, Denver
5. Highland Tap and Burger2219 W 32nd Ave, Denver
6. J-Bar at Hotel Jerome330 E Main St, Aspen
7. My Brother's Bar2376 15th St, Denver
8. Park Burger1890 S Pearl St, Denver
9. The Squeaky Bean1500 Wynkoop St, Denver
10. TAG Burger Bar1222 Madison St, Denver
After his Top Chef victory in 2009, Hosea Rosenberg could have run off to join the celebrity-chef circus. Instead, he generously spread the roots he’d already put down in Boulder by launching Blackbelly Farm, Blackbelly Catering, and Blackbelly Market - the intimate, mod-rustic restaurant and butcher shop. Charcuterie is kind of Rosenberg’s jam, so a sampler’s a no-brainer, but don’t stop there. Don’t stop, in fact, until you’ve had meat at least three different ways (say, duck rillettes, raw beef, and smoked lamb), along with some delectable apple brioche pudding, you know, for balance.
This butchery-themed eatery gets the meat-party started with snacks like beef-heart crostini and short rib-stuffed potato skins, then seals the deal with tricked-out cheesesteaks for lunch, thoughtfully executed dinner entrées, and the option to choose your own cut from the retail case. Vegetarian tidbits like the spinach croquettes are just as great as the menu's meat options, and the steak offered here is some of the best in Denver. We highly recommend stopping here for lunch or dinner.
Opening this weekend to coincide with both the Aspen Food & Wine fest and the St. Regis Aspen Resort's hella pricey remodel, the hotel's Club has an open kitchen, a ceiling set off with giant, decorative inlaid snowflakes, and, most notably, a selection of seasonally changing dishes designed by a rotating team of chefs, all of whom have been dubbed "Best New" by Food & Wine mag at some point.
Backed by 50 years of burger history, Cherry Cricket's patties are a true legend, and its wings, sandwiches, and chilis are pretty damn good too. A champion of local beer, the bar is stocked with 27 taps of locally brewed craft beer.
A patio with a fire pit might draw crowds during the colder months, but 16 52" TVs, an exclusively Colorado tap list, and significant happy hour deals keep them coming the rest of the year. Of course, some people do come to Highland Tap and Burger for the food itself, which constitutes surprisingly original takes on the usual pub grub. Fair warning: most of the crowd is college-age.
This hotel bar puts others to shame, pouring specialty cocktails and craft brews for the masses in Aspen.
My Brother's Bar, off 15th and Platte, is a city institution that has been pouring booze for Beat Gen folks like Neal Cassady (who still has a tab there) and plenty of other thirsty Denverites forever. MBB also flips a mean burger -- pair that with a solid beer list, and it's no surprise this place is still going strong.
Park Burger in Platt Park is just waiting to hook you up with fancy burgers (like the ahi tuna, truffle burger, and croque burger), as well as regular ones. Delicious guilty pleasures, too --- like their bacon ranch fries and Irish cream shake -- are available to enjoy.
The Squeaky Bean, based in Denver's LoDo neighborhood, is an American restaurant whose menu changes with the seasons, to the heightened satisfaction of your taste buds. If you visit their website, you can even get a 360° peek at the farm on which their ingredients are grown. And while their menu varies from crispy cauliflower one day to sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi another, it's always served in a light-filled space where the intersection of warm wood and orange brick offers your meal a homey context.
TAG's burgers are fully customizable, from the meat and bun (or lack thereof) all the way on down to each individual topping. Paired with the awesome selection of draft beers, adventurous souls are pretty much guaranteed to never have the same meal twice.