The Best Burgers in Manhattan, According to Our National Burger Critic
Manhattan is the Everest of burger cities. The idea of even trying to narrow down this city's best burgers into some sort of manageable list daunted me, and I put it off for a long time. But eventually, my editor yelled at me in a public place, and so I put together a plan. Most heavily, I relied on our Editorial Director Andrew Zimmer (himself a longtime NY burger aficionado), our NY editor Lucy Meilus, and our Chief Creative Officer Ben Robinson for recommendations. But I also talked to food writers at other publications, friends who grew up in the city, and chefs who've been cooking in NY for decades. In fact, if I met you in the past year and found out you were from NY, chances are I asked you your favorite burger in the city. And at the very end, I managed to narrow the list to 17 spots, which I visited over the course of four separate trips to New York. (Note: If you’re looking for my opines on the best burgers in Brooklyn, you can read them here.)
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 stunty, the closest to a classic cheeseburger. If it came with options, I always picked American cheese and grilled onions. If you think I missed a place, please take the Knicks City Dancer Class offered by Madison Square Garden Tours, impress the dancers with your technical know-how and style, become a Knicks City Dancer, and next year during halftime of a game against the Celtics, hold up a sign belittling me and detailing the places I should've included. But until then here are the 18 best burgers in Manhattan.
17. Upstate Burger
Yes, I know Whitman's is known for its Juicy Lucy, which I noticed it spelled correctly. If we were in Minneapolis, that would put it in the 5-8 Club camp, which is the wrong camp to be in (Matt's Bar for life). BUT ALAS, I have had enough burnt tongues from Juicy Lucys to last an eternity, so I opted for the Upstate, a more traditional burger. And look, the burger is good. It is a solid standard burger with a nice salty, clean meaty flavor in the patty. But this is New York, so the bar is high, and there were some issues. The "new pickles" didn't have quite enough acid to balance out the rich, fatty texture of the beef short rib blend. The seared onion was underdone, and the bottom of the potato bun ended up soggy after a few bites (perhaps the toasted sesame seed bun from the Juicy Lucy is better). Good, but those easily fixable problems keep it from moving any higher on my list.
This is the first cheeseburger I ever remember having in NYC, on a trip to the big city from college in Hartford, Connecticut. It was the first place that made me feel like I knew the "city," mainly because my friend who grew up in Brooklyn had heard from his friend who grew up in Manhattan that his mother remembered reading Mimi Sheraton's review of the Bistro in 1977 and said we should go eat burgers there. That's a long way of saying that Corner Bistro holds a dear place close to my heart. Unfortunately, the burger didn't quite hold up to the nostalgia (and even though that 1977 review is oft cited in a bunch of publications, I combed the Times archive and didn't find anything from Sheraton mentioning the burger in 1977 -- only a passing compliment in 1978. SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT'S HAPPENING, EVERYTHING I ONCE THOUGHT TRUE IS A LIE).
For one, the bun flakes and falls apart. It's toasted, but it doesn't hold up to the double hockey puck of meat, which is so thick it overwhelms any other flavor sensations. The meat itself is perfectly cooked and juicy, but the thickly cut raw onion and decidedly not-fresh tomato don't help out. I still am a fan of the burger, but perhaps certain elements of the execution have slackened with age.
15. Single Stack Burger
This place, known mostly for Eben Freeman's ironic "high-low" cocktails, is part of the new guard of burgers opting for a high-low style: the kind that look like they come from a diner but are made with the upscale ingredients of a fine-casual restaurant. The burger is good -- salty, loosely ground meat remarkably well-cooked for the thin patty, good acid from bread-and-butter pickles, a little bit of heat in the special sauce. My quibbles with it are minor -- the bottom bun broke down rather easily, and the burger itself didn't seem to have a ton of char, but overall this is a standard good burger to order while drinking.
14. Bacon cheeseburger
Little Owl was just becoming a foodie darling right when I started to get into food media in 2008, and for a while it was one of the toughest lunch reservations in the city. Nearly 10 years later, it is still very popular (and worth reserving in advance), but the amateur food paparazzi have since moved on to newer and flashier joints. It is essentially the Josh Hartnett of NYC burgers. Fame is so fleeting and fickle.
Anyway, there are no tricks or special moves accompanying the bacon cheeseburger here, but that wasn't my problem. My problem was twofold: The burger was extremely overcooked, but the bacon on top of it was undercooked and tucked under the cheese, so the cheese didn't fully melt. Despite that, the burger was actually quite flavorful, salty with a loose grind and really pure meat taste. I almost think it would've been better without the bacon, which sort of overwhelmed that fresh beef flavor with salt. Little Owl should know that the Josh Hartnett of burgers need not be held down by unnecessary accoutrements. Let his purity shine, dammit.
What a novelty! A very simple diner-style burger that actually comes from a -- gasp -- diner. Joe Jr. has long been the dark-horse favorite of food writers in NY (Eater's Nick Solares calls it the best in NY) and so I was very eager to try it out.
When I got there around midnight on a weekday, Spanish-language soccer was playing on the TV in the corner. Most of the vinyl booths were inhabited by people dining alone. The place was grimy, but in an endearing manner. The burger itself was cooked to a perfect medium, pink and juicy. The Maillard reaction (aka the chemical reaction that browns the meat and makes the flavors more complex when amino acids and reduced sugars do their dance at around 300 degrees) on the beef was exquisite, and the two pieces of cheese melted to the top of the bun instead of the patty make you feel like you're eating a grilled cheese with a burger stuck in between it. And let me tell you, friends: That's not a bad feeling.
12. The Classic with American
Since 1884, P.J. Clarke's has been a scene. I'd never been before, so I was excited to visit the original on East 55th during a winter weekday around 9pm. I hoped by that hour the party might've slowed down. I was wrong. The front bar at P.J.'s is basically on a permanent spring break filled with oysters and Guinness and secrets. You have to fight your way through the crowd to the hostess, give your name, and pray that you hear it at some point when the hostess comes back into the bar and mildly shouts it out.
When I eventually got back to the dining room and managed to order the burger, it came quickly with a really pretty char, a relatively loose grind, and a salty, pure meaty taste. It was cooked a little over the medium requested, but that ended up being a slight blessing because P.J. does NOT toast its buns, which is one of my biggest burger pet peeves. Miraculously though, the bun somehow stayed intact and didn't get too soggy until the end. But come on, P.J., I know you've been around since pre-Spanish-American War, but we all evolve.
Oh, also: Drink lots of liquids. Going to the bathroom in one of the giant antique porcelain urinals is a must.
11. The burger "Lure Style"
Lure sits right around the corner from the Thrillist NY office, and -- for a long time -- served as a de facto power-lunching station for my bosses. I was usually invited to these types of lunches a few times, usually as an afterthought, or because I was pathetically hanging around trying to make eye contact as they contemplated their lunch options.
Either way, I've had the Lure burger six or seven times before, and it always satisfies, mostly because it reminds me of the upscale version of the In-N-Out-esque, Cali-style burgers I hold so dear: The shredded lettuce is crucially important, as it serves as a vehicle for the special sauce and doesn't slide around like leaf lettuce. The pickle offers up plenty of acid to combat the juicy, well-cooked, seared blend of salty meat melded with the cheese, and though I don't really like tomatoes on my burgers, these were basically neon red and fresh-tasting. My one complaint is really the brioche bun, which -- while squishy -- seemed to absorb a lot of the juice from the burger and get that familiar pink damp stain a few bites in. But for that meld of cheese and beef alone, the Lure burger still has it. Now please, bosses, invite me to more fancy lunches.
10. Dry-aged beef burger
If you're somehow still reading this 40,000-word diatribe, you'll realize we're now reaching the upper middle class of burgers, which seems to be an island filled with extremely fatty blends of beef from the LaFrieda cartel. The burger at the NoMad bar is no different, especially because it is packed with suet, bone marrow, and dry-aged chuck to give the beef a distinct funk. Blending that funk with a more subtle white Cheddar was smart, but the almost tartare-esque texture threw me off somewhat, and you need to bite into the pickles on the side to get the proper acid balance. Nonetheless, this burger is delicious, though best split, as it offers an intensity that's more enjoyable in small doses.
9. Chargrilled burger with Roquefort cheese
I'm going to start with the burger review and then tell a story. I shouldn't like this burger at all. I don't like brioche buns, and yet this bun is somehow a superior, softer, less sweet brioche clone. I don't like blue cheese on burgers, and yet the Roquefort is subtle and soft enough not to overpower everything else. I don't like grilled giant burgers, and here is a half pound of grilled smoky, salty, fatty beef suet, brisket, sirloin, and short rib nearly falling apart with its grind. The only reason this burger doesn't move higher on my list is because all of those rich umami flavors aren't balanced by any real acid. And yet, it's so good that it almost doesn't matter. Anyway, here's the overhyped story!
Once, 10 years ago, a friend of mine who lived around the corner from The Spotted Pig (and was a regular) managed to get us into the famous third floor to hang out. As I was walking up the stairs, Chelsea Clinton was walking down. Sitting around a table drinking wines I didn't understand, I commented on the Nas song playing. An older man bantered with me about the song, and which album was best. Like any 24-year-old, I spoke with absolute undeserved confidence and made at least three audacious claims I couldn't back up or verify. When he politely excused himself and left, my friend turned to me and said, "Did you know who that was?"
"No," I said. "Who?"
"Ken Friedman," she said. "The owner. He's friends with Nas." She looked around, and then back at me, disappointed. "Now we need to go."
Ken, if you're reading this, sorry for the boasts, but I still think It Was Written is better than Illmatic.
8. Black Label Burger
Once, while eating this burger with my buddy Joe, I told him that I wanted to crawl inside the burger, like the tauntaun in Empire Strikes Back. Joe ignored me, and began discussing the business side of funeral homes. It was an interesting lunch.
Everyone knows the Black Label, one of the most famous of Pat LaFrieda's curated meat blends. Like the NoMad burger, the Black Label comes medium-rare, and has more of a tartare texture than anything, though you get that salty, buttery sear on the outside. The onions, which have been griddled in beef juices, are delicious but heavy. The Balthazar Bakery bun is toasted perfectly and has a buttery finish. There is no real acid balance here. In fact, the entire burger feels like a decadent dare. But one that works.
I honestly can't believe you're still reading, so I'll try and keep JG quick and in haiku-like sentences: The perfect classic. Not very large. Griddled exterior with a great sear. Perfectly salted, perfectly cooked, perfectly toasted bun. The archetypal NYC burger joint (but better, because of all the watermelons).
6. The Fedora Burger
This was probably the most unexpected burger to make the list. I didn't go to Bar Sardine seeking out the burger. I just went there to drink. But then I saw the burger and thought, "What the hell, this is literally your job, be a professional," ordered it, and I'm so glad I did. This burger was delicious. The salty meat had limited char, which is usually a problem for me, but in this case it didn't matter -- the patty was cooked to a perfectly juicy medium, and the composition of the rest of the elements really elevated the final product: The bun was thin, griddled extremely well, and didn't get soggy despite the juiciness of the patty; the Cheddar had just a bit of tang that you don't get with American (but still managed to melt consistently); the onions gave an extra punch to the mixture of smoky BBQ sauce/mayo on top; the pickles provided acid; and the kicker was truly the crispy potato strings, which played the DL great role of being stuffed into the burger. If I lived around this bar, I would probably eat this burger three times a week and pretend I was friends with the bartenders and try and text them a bunch.
5. Classic cheeseburger
Everyone gets the Bronte burger at Ruby's, because it is an Australian joint and loves including sweet chili on things (I spent my junior year at University of Sydney, I KNOW ABOUT SOME AUSSIE STUFF). And look, the Bronte burger is delicious. You should get it. But somehow the Aussie take on the American classic is better than most American versions. It starts with the shredded lettuce and finely cut onions, which both taste like they're tossed in mustard for some instant acid. Combine that with an overindulgence of three slices of American cheese, a squishy bun, and a salty, well-cooked patty (that could use just a bit more griddle), and you have one of the dark-horse great burgers in NY.
4. The Happiest Burger
I got to the Happiest Hour within 20 minutes of its 5pm opening and it was nearly full. When I got one of the last seats at the bar, plus a Belle of the Ball with mezcal and a burger, I felt like I'd truly accomplished something, which is sort of sad now that I see it typed out. Anyway, this burger is absolutely delicious. The double patties Voltron themselves together via the American cheese and meld in with the confit onions, pickles, and sauce to basically create a stronger, more handsome burger. The composition is completely on point. I now fully understand why everyone sprints to this bar at 5pm on the dot.
3. Single burger with American
If the Fedora Burger was a dark-horse pick, the Boilermaker burger is a pitch-black horse in a pitch-black room wearing dark sunglasses. I knew nothing about this place when I walked in with a couple of co-workers. I just figured it was a Purdue bar or something. But then I ordered the burger, and good Lord, friends, have you had this burger? The salty patty is griddled nicely and a little pink, the American cheese melts predictably, and the bun is soft and fresh and stays out of the way. But the true secret weapon here is the addition of "Jeepney's Atchara," which are shredded pickled vegetables spiced with a touch of curry that play on the idea of shredded lettuce, but offer up an acidic, tangy texture unlike any other I've tasted during this burger trip.
Most stunt burgers opt for different plays on flavor but end up masking the true texture and taste of the burger. The Boilermaker burger doesn't go for tricks. It plays by nearly the same rules as the basic cheeseburger, but offers a creative way to give you those same textures and flavors, augmenting them past most of the standard fare.
2. Sebastian's Steakhouse Burger
"It's a thick burger that eats like a thin burger." This is a quotation I wrote down and attributed to my brother as we sat around stuffing our faces at Brindle Room earlier this year. At first, I was confused by what he meant since he doesn't always speak with crystal-clear logic, but now I've come to realize he might just be a genius. Brindle Room is far and away the favorite burger place of the Thrillist Editorial staff. Four different people mentioned it to me as the clear-cut winner, in their opinions. And I must admit, it's nearly perfect. The caramelized onions are perfectly cooked -- just a touch of crunch and deep, nearly soup-rich flavor. The bun is well-toasted and never gets soggy. The well-griddled patty is studded with peppery elements. The American cheese somehow tastes better than the American cheese on all other burgers.
As for my brother's cryptic quotation, I think I know what he means. Thin-patty burgers tend to have that crispy element you crave, the way the patty melds with everything else. The thin patty is the group act, while the thick patty is the solo singer with the other elements doing background vocals. Brindle Room doesn't work like that. It may be a thicker patty, but the way it settles into all the other elements, it truly becomes one singular experience. In almost every other city in America, the Brindle Room burger would be best going away. But, alas, this is New York.
1. The burger
My aforementioned friend (and former editor) Joe told me to go to Raoul's. "I don't care where else you go," he said. "But if you don't go here, your entire list is stupid and meaningless." I don't usually listen to Joe, because his palate is unpredictable and alarming, but on the final day of my last Burger Quest trip to Manhattan, I snuck over there at 5:05pm on a Wednesday, and just barely got the last seat at the bar. I wasn't sure how to order, so I immediately told the bartender my intentions. "I'm here for the burger," I said, louder than I meant to. He was patient. "I know you are, but the kitchen doesn't open until 5:30, so why don't we start with a drink?"
And so I drank wine and made small talk with the coat-check girl, who had just moved to NY from Oregon to pursue acting. When the burgers eventually came out a hush fell over the bar. Raoul's only makes 12 burgers a night. It's not some sort of Holeman & Finch-style move to create scarcity, it's simply that the chef doesn't want to turn this classic NYC French restaurant into a burger-only zone. The 12 burgers at 6pm is almost like a warm-up, the chef and cooks clearing their throats before they really get down to business. But it also feels a bit religious, like a ceremonial burger sacrifice to the Food Gods. And once I tasted the burger, I knew why. Raoul's makes the best non-diner burger in America. The brisket-heavy patty is seared like a steak, giving it a thick crust dotted with peppercorns and salt. If it'd then just added the rich triple-cream Saint-André and called it a day, this burger might be up with the rest of the hyper-fancy custom LaFrieda patties. But Raoul's recognizes balance perhaps better than 99% of the country, and so it adds thinly sliced red onions, cornichons, and some peppery greens to give it acid, bite, and some extra peppery elements. The challah bun is squishy and chewy and does not fold in the face of intense moisture. And the cream-and-cognac au poivre sauce served on the side makes for one of the all-time best dipping sauces, if you truly want to go for it.
As I was awkwardly inhaling my food, I noticed the coat-check girl glancing at my burger. I asked her if she'd ever tried it. Her eyes got big. "No, I haven't had the chance yet," she said. Without thinking, I immediately broke off a piece of the burger and held it out to her. Her eyes shot quickly towards the bartender, but he'd just turned around to serve customers on the other side of the bar. She nervously glanced back at me, then the burger, then gracefully took it from me with two fingers, spun 180 degrees, stuffed it in her mouth, and busied herself with the coats. When she emerged a few seconds later, her smile was triumphant.
"That burger," she said, "is absolute heaven."
Sign up here for our daily NYC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun New York has to offer.