Editor's Note: This story is the 12th entry in Thrillist's Burger Quest, Kevin Alexander's yearlong mission to find America's best cheeseburger. Follow along @ThrillistBurgerQuest, and use #ThrillistBurgerQuest to let Kevin know places he needs to hit.
Detroit is a fine burger city, and though everyone seems to recognize it for its Coney dogs and certain style of increasingly popular pan pizza, it makes sense that the city would possess a rich burger history, considering burgers and cars go together like, um, two things that go together relatively well.
And because Detroit is such a car-friendly city, the burger love is spread all around, which meant I basically spent my entire 48 hours in Detroit driving all over the place, from Dearborn to Royal Oak to St. Clair Shores, to Corktown, Southwest Detroit, and Hamtramck. I felt like I really earned each burger I ate. Also, it helped that I had former Tasting Table editorial director Karen Palmer there with me as a co-pilot, and lovely hand model for burger photos.
In case you’re new to my rankings, here are some guidelines: if the restaurant had multiple burgers, I tried to order its signature burger, or if that was too outlandish and stunt-y, the closest to a classic cheeseburger. If it came with options, I always picked American cheese and grilled onions. If you think I missed something, please yell at me in person, or fax me some swear words, but until then, here is my ranking of the 10 best burgers in the Detroit area:
10. Cheeseburger sliders
Green Dot StablesAddress and Info
Green Dot is basically just a slider spot, OK? It has 22 sliders on the menu (including a mystery-meat option, which sadly, or thrillingly, wasn’t cafeteria mystery meat) but we had many other burgers to eat, so we just got the cheeseburger sliders (and maybe the fried chicken ones too because of sage maple syrup).
All in all, there is not a lot to write home about here, honestly. The sliders were fine -- the meat was overcooked and a bit dry, but the bun was soft and the actual flavor of the meat and cheese blending together with the onion and acid from the pickle was also... fine. There just wasn't a ton of action.
9. The Classic with American and grilled onions
Mercury Burger & BarAddress and Info
Positioned right across the street from where I stayed in Corktown, Mercury is a cool spot that has a lot of solid food (get the fried bologna sandwich) and an extremely pleasant outdoor beer garden. It also has an extensive menu of burgers, and I think it suffers from what a variety of places with lots of crazy burger options suffer from: consistency in just nailing the basic model.
There were some good elements -- the special sauce was tangy and the meat was of a good quality and grind, but it just wasn’t griddled or seasoned enough. The grilled onions were also a little light on the grilling side, and though the bottom bun was griddled, it still ended up getting soggy. This is by no means a bad burger, but a few of the different elements need to be shored up before it’s on par with some of the other contenders.
Telway HamburgersAddress and Info
Telway actually seems more like a Cash 4 Gold type situation when you walk into the place, especially thanks to the bare-bones metal takeout counter and what may or may not be bulletproof glass. The cheeseburgers here are McDonald’s-level cheap, at about $1.10 each, with a patty that is as thin as you can possibly make meat. Envision something along the lines of a meat Fruit Roll-Up. But I have to say, the flavors were all there: the mustard, ketchup, pickle, and fried onion on the cheeseburger made it seem like a much better version of a White Castle slider. For the money, it’s a great deal, even if you now have to contend with visualizing meat Fruit Roll-Ups for the rest of the time you’re reading this. Sorry about that.
7. GCG Burger
Gold Cash GoldAddress and Info
While Telway felt like a Cash 4 Gold, Gold Cash Gold is actually in a former version of that venerable city institution, though you couldn’t tell that now thanks to its sleek design. The burger here is good in a lot of ways -- great seasoning on the double patties, well cooked, good char, homemade pickles, and a nice contrast between the salty pimento cheese and the pickle's acid. Pimento cheese as a burger topping always creates an issue; the cold mess doesn't melt without some broiler action, so it slides off of anything hot, which meant biting into this burger had the immediate effect of launching cheese out the other end (though that was actually kind of delicious when it fell on the chips).
My main issue, though, was the pretzel bun. It was too salty and dense, and not toasted, so that the outside was crunchy but the inside got really soggy thanks to all the cheese and Thousand Island and everything else. As pretty as the pretzel bun is to look at, I think Gold Cash Gold should trade that for a more traditional bun, and then I’d say it'd have winner on its hands.
Motor City Sports BarAddress and Info
There are no windows on the front of Motor City Sports Bar. But the awning does have a picture of a burger on it, so that was a good start. On a relatively gritty block, Motor City is a spacious, traditional sports bar, with pool tables and lots of TVs throughout. When we came in on a rainy Wednesday, everyone in the mostly empty bar was watching Champions League soccer and bullshitting, so I immediately felt happy.
After ordering, one of the guys watching soccer got up and made the burger behind the bar on a little griddle (a move I’d end up seeing quite often in Detroit, and which was reminiscent of Matt’s Bar in Minneapolis). The burger itself was great -- a really well cooked medium, bright green lettuce, red tomato, and a sesame seed bun that was toasted enough to mostly hold up to the juices pouring out of the salty meat. All in all, it tasted like a delicious backyard burger: nothing out of the ordinary, but each element done well enough on its own to make you come back for another.
Nemo's BarAddress and Info
God, I loved Nemo’s. Everything about this classic Detroit bar energizes you: the intricate design on the ceiling, the well-worn wood bar, the neon Stroh’s sign, the papers hanging up celebrating Detroit sport successes of the past (my personal favorite read “Go Home, Yankees”), the free shuttle to Tigers games. The bartender who took our order also cooked the burgers on the grill behind the bar, much like at Motor City.
And in many ways, those burgers remind me of each other -- sesame seed toasted buns, juicy well-cooked meat, perfectly melted cheese (he puts a little metal bowl over the burger to melt it quickly). The difference maker for me was that Nemo’s has these pickles that nearly taste like fresh cucumbers; they’re salty and briny, but have a great snap, and the way that the pickles balanced out the meat was a home run for me. And yes, that was an intentional sports reference.
Miller's BarAddress and Info
There is no menu at Miller’s Bar. And the waitress got a little surly when I asked her a question. But the mix of business men, old, retired regulars, and chubby guys wearing Eric Ebron Detroit Lions jerseys during the lunch rush didn’t need menus. Everyone was eating burgers. And for good reason too; the Miller’s burger is extremely flavorful, cooked perfectly and simply, with a thick wad of Velveeta cheese poking out of the bottom, and some raw white onion as well. The execution of all of those elements is nearly flawless, especially if you add a couple of the hamburger dill pickles into the mix.
But what kept it from moving higher on this list was the bun, which was not toasted at all and got mushy very quickly from the juicy, perfectly cooked medium cheeseburger. If I wasn’t scared to say something, I might quietly urge the good people of Miller’s to consider lightly toasting those buns just to give their incredible burger a chance to shine even more. Just please don’t yell at me.
3. Double cheeseburger with extra fried onions
Motz's BurgersAddress and Info
In what honestly feels like the middle of nowhere in Southwest Detroit sits Motz’s, a legendary, tiny shack of a place. When I showed up on a sunny Tuesday, the clientele was diverse; the only two people in there were a man wearing a suit, and two dudes who came in a Jeep with those giant, comically hilarious tires, and what we used to call Sprewell spinner rims.
The burger itself is almost like a fried onion burger from El Reno, Oklahoma; the onions set into the meat, and the buns steam from the heat off the meat and onions and cheese. The cheese seemed to be put on cold at the end, and though the middle melted, the ends of the cheese remained relatively uncooked. I didn’t really have a problem with that, especially when I bit into the melted middle and got a few bites where everything came together: the melty cheese blending in with those deliciously charred onions and salty, flavorful meat. I just wished every bite was as good as those three or four where all the elements did their “with our powers combined” Captain Planet magic.
Travis Coffee ShopAddress and Info
As this was the 12th city I’d traveled to for Burger Quest, it’s easy to get in a little bit of a rut, or look for ways to dismiss burger joints that are far out of your way or aren’t universally lauded. I didn’t want to go to Travis Coffee Shop in St. Clair Shores. It was too far away on the map. It was a rainy day. Our Senior Editor Andy Kryza had recommended it, and I openly try and avoid listening to him.
But in the end, Karen and I ended up there, and thank God we did. Travis Coffee Shop is a throwback, one of the old guard of coffee shop diners that used to exist in most middle-class suburbs of Eastern cities. Family-run (pictures of different members of the family hang above the counter), with insanely cheap prices (a cheeseburger is $1.85 and you can get six of them for $9.50 if you take them to-go), it is the burger steal of the century.
The burgers are the perfect diner-style burger: super-thin, with incredibly flavorful grilled onions. The bun is soft and well-buttered and griddled too, and everything blends together in that cheesy, onion-y, meaty way. It is the closest burger I’ve found that can replicate what I love at the White Hut in West Springfield, MA, and that is one of the highest compliments I can pay. After eating at Travis, I wanted to buy a dozen burgers, drop a $20 on the counter, and retire for the rest of the day. Unfortunately for them, we had one other burger place to go to north of the city.
1. Classic Burger with Sharp American
Redcoat TavernAddress and Info
This is not my style of burger at all. I am a Travis Coffee Shop man, a diner-burger lover, and so I often take on more traditional, bigger pub burgers with a weary resignation. And that was the case at Redcoat, a place in Royal Oak I was told I couldn’t miss by nearly everyone I asked.
We walked in for lunch on that rainy Wednesday and, despite being there before noon, the place was almost full. Our hostess, speaking with what might’ve been a faux-English accent, took us to a red booth bathed in red light. Redcoat takes its color scheme seriously.
Anyway, when I took a bite out of the burger, I was a changed man. The meat in the Redcoat Tavern burger is seasoned and cooked perfectly. There was a garlic undertone, great salt & pepper flavors, and a perfect, crispy char on the outside, holding together a juicy, loosely ground, perfectly cooked burger. The “special sauce," which is just really good mayo with minced onion in it, combined with the shredded lettuce to offer the perfect complement for the fatty meat and melted sharp cheddar. The bun is toasted well and stays out of the way without getting soggy. It was so good that I kept taking bite after bite even though Karen told me, “You’re going to regret that.” But, even after eating five other burgers that day, I never did. It’s really that good.
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1. Green Dot Stables2200 W Lafayette, Detroit
2. Mercury Burger Bar2163 Michigan Ave, Detroit
3. Telway Hamburger System6820 Michigan Ave, Detroit
4. Gold Cash Gold2100 Michigan Ave, Detroit
5. Motor City Sports Bar9122 Joseph Campau St, Hamtramck
6. Nemo's1384 Michigan Ave, Detroit
7. Miller's Bar23700 Michigan Ave, Dearborn
8. Motz's Burgers7208 W Fort St, Detroit
9. Travis Coffee Shop23500 Greater Mack Ave, Saint Clair Shores
10. Redcoat Tavern31542 Woodward Ave, Royal Oak
You expect sliders to be on the bar menu. But how about 22 different kinds of them? Lansing's Greed Dot Stables takes the slider staple and brings it to its most elaborate end with a selection of playful takes. You can always get a buffalo chicken or cheeseburger slider (which are on offer, don't worry), but try out the unexpected combos: the Korean hosts kimchi and peanut butter atop a beef patty while a PB&J is given a savory zing with chipotle-raspberry jam. And because surprise is the spice of life, you can always order the mystery meat. The rest of the wood bar, designed to recall a horse stable, feels familiar as any neighborhood drinking hole... just with fried baloney on the menu.
Mercury is a diner-style burger joint that serves a long list of creative, greasy burgers and milkshakes among other American cuisine staples like hot dogs, tater tots (poutine tots are by far the best), and the coveted Fried Bologna Sandwich. In our opinion cheese is king, so we favor the Juicy: a beef patty stuffed (and topped) with cheddar cheese with all the fixings. Swig some of Michigan’s finest craft brews at the wrap around bar that, along with the low ceilings and plethora of booths, reminds you of every iconic diner on TV. It’s notoriously hard to find a seat in this lively Corktown favorite, especially on the weekends, so plan accordingly just in case you get seated on the spacious patio beer garden.
The Telway Hamburger System is open 24 hours, serving you sliders, fries, and coneys for ridiculously cheap prices. This counter serve takeout joint is the type of place that sells burgers by the bag from it's unapologetic, squat home in the middle of a parking lot. Nothing about Telway is about fine presentation, especially its uniquely thin patties that pack a fat flavor wallop, but they still make one hell of an impression. While you're there, keep your motor running with some of their famously delicious and equally cheap coffee.
Gold Cash Gold, named for the pawn shop that previously occupied the space, serves up farm-fresh American fare in the cleverly repurposed space. GCG kept the shop’s iconic exterior murals and signage and even used salvaged wood from the old shop, along with warehouse windows re-welded and set with stained glass, and serves a menu just as timeless and unique. Whether you stop in for brunch or dinner, expect to find upscale dishes like Buttermilk Soup au Lait (pistachio dumplings with a pecorino crisp), dry-aged duck with tequila red beans, pork sausage, sweet potato purée, and chilis, and pickle-brine fried chicken and waffle with homemade ranch. Keep an eye out for the fresh-baked daily doughnut that’s definitely worth the calories.
Motor City is the definition of a dive bar: no front windows, dark interior, a pool table, and genuinely good, cheaply priced comfort foods that you order from a folded, laminated menu. The fairly limited options range from more common sandwiches like a BLT to pita sandwiches like gyros, Chevapi (European sausage that is cooked to optimal juiciness), and really greasy burgers. Our favorite thing to eat while we, and the staff, sit at the bar, pop a domestic, and watch the game is the Bacon, Mushroom & Swiss Burger because it has a good balance between sweet, tangy swiss cheese and crispy, salty bacon … plus you can’t beat the taste of intermingled mushroom and burger juice that soaks the bun.
Nemo’s is a charmingly divey, Detroit mainstay featuring a host of America’s favorite bar foods like its world-famous chili, stacked club sandwich, hot soup, and hearty list of juicy, griddle burgers. The good ol’ reliable Cheeseburger, with gooey cheddar and standout fixings like crunchy, briny pickles, is our choice for best in grease. Have a can and enjoy a game at the bar in the cozy, weathered, and beloved watering hole — or take a free shuttle directly to the Tigers game. All aboard!
Miller’s is a long-time Dearborn watering hole with a list of American diner delicacies so short that they don’t even have physical menus. Among the options are grilled cheese sandwiches, baked beans, corned beef sandwiches, and, of course, big fat burgers. The cheeseburger, dripping with melted cheese and grease, is topped with all the typical fixings and piled high with crunchy pickle slices; trust us, it goes nicely with a basket of fried onion rings that are delightfully crunchy on the outside but soft and greasy on the inside. Both locals and visitors flock to this dark and somewhat dingy dive to enjoy a cold beer and a hot bite at the room-length bar under the warm glow of tiffany lamps.
Motz’s is an American short-order joint that can only be described as a burger-slinging shack in the middle of nowhere. Motz’s is the home of the original Detroit slider, and almost exclusively serves sliders, specialty burgers (beef, salmon, veggie, and grilled chicken), and sides like chili cheese fries, onion rings, and jalapeño poppers. It keeps its impressively long, greasy history alive with fresh patties cooked to order on a griddle just behind the stainless steel diner counter. Sitting upon our retro, chrome diner thrones we sunk our teeth into the double cheeseburger slider cooked medium for optimal tenderness making every mouth-filling bite alive with the combinations of salty beef, gooey cheddar, and soft, sweet onions along with the crunch of fresh fixings. Pro tip: Motz's is cash only, so hit the ATM first.
Less coffee shop, and more retro diner, Travis is the go-to, cash-only spot for heaping portions of greasy, breakfast, lunch, and dinner comfort food options. Half of the two-page, laminated menu is dedicated to breakfast favorites like omelets, bacon, and short stacks, while the second page is an impressively long list of sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers, homemade chili, milkshakes, and sides (including chicken strips and fried clams). Surrounded by laminated wood and clear plastic condiment bottles, we stuffed our faces with a loaded patty melt burger: a thick, juicy beef patty drenched in melted cheese and sautéed onions and topped with fresh, crisp lettuce and a fat slice of tomato between grease-soaked potato buns.
From the Colonial pub exterior and aggressive red glow of the interior lighting to the questionable English accents, Redcoat takes its English pub status very seriously even though they serve mostly American cuisine. They offer menu items like Scotch eggs (boiled egg wrapped in spicy sausage served with mustard), salmon, mac and cheese, prime rib, and huge burgers that you can build yourself; they also have a hearty list of American craft brews. We sat in the happy din of this almost always crowded joint and had the battered mushrooms that were sweet, salty, soft, and crispy all at once before ordering the Brasserie beef burger that came stacked with tomato, crisp bacon, caramelized onions, fresh watercress, melted Gruyere, and dijonnaise on a brioche bun.