I knew Pittsburgh was going to be a good burger town. I knew this not only because several people told me, “Pittsburgh is going to be a good burger town,” but also because of its reputation as a land of people serious about meat.
For my second leg on this journey, I ate alongside Thrillist Editorial Director Ben Robinson, who’d visited PGH many times while his brother attended U Pitt, and has a fondness for the 'Burgh that is perhaps greater than the mass of his giant beard. Over the course of 36 hours, we drank with several local chefs, had amazingly awkward conversations with strangers about posing nude for magazines, talked about Hot New Food Towns on 90.5, and hit 11 spots around the city, from local burger chains, to fancy restaurants with limited-edition off-menu burgers, to classic dive bars. A few guidelines here: if the restaurant had multiple burgers, I tried to order the closest to a classic cheeseburger, and if it came with options, I always picked American cheese and grilled onions.
Urban Tap | Kevin Alexander/Thrillist

11. The Tap Burger

The Urban Tap

Address and Info

South Side

I went to The Urban Tap just as they opened for lunch on a rainy summer Thursday. On the whole, the place was great: roomy, welcoming, unfazed by me ordering a beer at 11am on a weekday. The burger, however, left something to be desired. The bun was good -- looked homemade, and they did a fantastic job grilling it -- but the actual burger lacked any real oomph. Its structure (basically a big ball) necessitated that it be slightly undercooked to avoid turning into a meatball, but that didn't happen, and thus the meat was a little dry and couldn't be bailed out by the solid roasted garlic aioli. 

Burgatory

10. Standard Deluxe

Burgatory

Address and Info

North Side

Burgatory is Pittsburgh's small, local, hip burger chain. I was admittedly conflicted as to whether or not to include it, seeing how there are eight locations (including one in Heinz Field and the Consol Energy Center) but everyone seemed to agree that omitting a central burger presence in PGH would be a huge mistake and I would be ostracized.

I got the Standard Deluxe, which is their most basic cheeseburger (already comes with American, yay!), and I have to say I was impressed by the size of the patty, a "private label blend of sirloin, chuck, brisket, and short rib." The burger was flavorful and the House Burger Sauce meshed nicely with the meat and cheese, but there were two issues: 

1) The aggressive raw red onion had a tendency to overpower the rest of the flavors. 
2) There was just too much bun. The actual flavor of the bun was good, but -- especially on the bottom -- there seemed like an excess of bread in my mouth with each bite and that made me weep a little bit. 

Still, a solid local chain. 

WingHarts | Kevin Alexander/Thrillist

9. Cheeseburger with American and grilled onions

Winghart's

Address and Info

South Side

Winghart's has a great reputation among the chefs I talked to in Pittsburgh. Almost everyone mentioned it as a must-stop, and so I hit up the Southside location on a Thursday afternoon. I was tempted to get one of their crazy creations, but I am a purist and a professional (dammit), and so I stuck to my guns and custom ordered a cheeseburger with American, grilled onions, and all the fixings.

The burger patty was medium-thick, with a little bit of crust, but did nothing to really stand out against the toppings. The grilled onions were a little young and lacked that flavorful caramelization, but the chopped pickle combined with the mayo for a good fatty/acid duo. It was fine, but I can't help but wonder if all of their delightful, crazy permutations take away from focusing on the genuine article.

Over the Bar Bicycle Cafe | Kevin Alexander/Thrillist

8. The Hard Tail with American

Over the Bar Bicycle Cafe

Address and Info

South Side

Another place known for its stunt burger game (like the Dirt Rag Delight with peanut butter, pickles, and bacon), this can backfire when you're forced to show your true meaty colors. And yet Over The Bar Bicycle Cafe performed admirably -- there was good peppering on the medium-sized patty, and the bun was soft, thin, buttered, and griddled. The only real issue was that it was overcooked and so that flavor through the middle was a little dry. But honestly, this was a solid burger. 

Also, they put Hidden Valley ranch dry seasoning on the fries and that is delicious.

Also also, I'm almost 100% positive our waitress at OTBBC was a delightful woman named Barbie who told lots of stories I mostly can't repeat here. 

Industry Public House | Brian Henry/Thrillist

7. Entry Level Burgher

Industry Public House

Address and Info

Lawrenceville

Industry Public House is in Lawrenceville across from the amazing Arsenal Bowling Lanes where I rolled maybe an 80 later on that night, much to the embarrassment of my editor. But enough about my lack of bowling acumen! The burgers here are square and thick, making them look almost like building blocks made from meat. The burger itself was a true medium, juicy with a good crust on a bun that was super-pliable and squishy, though not toasted enough on the bottom. All in all though, you could tell the folks here know much more about burgers than I know about bowling. 

Butcher and the Rye | Kevin Alexander/Thrillist

6. The (Off-Menu) Burger

Butcher and the Rye

Address and Info

Downtown

I didn't think to make a reservation at Butcher and the Rye. I was going on a Wednesday night, and I figured it might be half-full, because that's a school night, dammit. I was ever so wrong. It was jumping, but luckily, Ben and I managed to squeeze ourselves into the bar and order up one of the last of the 20 special secret burgers they whip up per night. 

These things are packed with a dry-aged steak and brisket blend that gives the meat a serious funk. Like Parliament Mothership Connection with Jerome Brailey on the drums-level funk. And some aged cheddar to add some twang to that funk. And some delicious house-made pickles for acid, and slightly underdone grilled red onions.

Taken as a whole, this was easily one of the most unique tasting burgers I had in Pittsburgh, and delicious from a strict beef standpoint. The issue was the bun. The sesame poppy bun (very similar to the one at Richard DeShantz's other spot on this list) wasn't toasted on top; it was merely buttered. And the bottom was so lightly toasted that the juicy hulk of a burger soaked through its mild defense, rendering it useless. Nevertheless, with a little bun griddling, I'd definitely eat this burger again. 

Tessaro's | Brian Henry/Thrillist

5. Cheeseburger with American

Tessaro's

Address and Info

Bloomfield

One of my favorite anecdotes of the trip happened at Tessaro's. I brought along a talented local pro photographer named Brian F. Henry to shoot a couple of the burgers, and, seeing how Tessaro's is a little dark, he asked me to hold a portable light while he was shooting the burger. So we're basically doing a giant impromptu photo shoot in our booth at 5:30pm on a Thursday and our waitress walks by and seems completely unfazed. "Our burger is famous," she shrugged, and moved on to fill some other table's water cups. 

And it is. The name Tessaro's rings out to anyone from PGH. What was, in its earliest form a neighborhood bar from Rich Tessaro, was purchased by legendary local bartender Kelly Harrington in the '80s, and Harrington tweaked its focus to include burgers. And those burgers became a Pittsburgh culinary landmark. I was told numerous times that if my list didn't include Tessaro's it would be "rejected" and "no one would respect a single thing I said" and I would be "banned from Pittsburgh" and forced to "live out my life in shame."

So here we are. And really, thank God I liked this burger, because I was a little worried about what might happen if I didn't. The burger was giant. A half-pound, easily, maybe even more. The beef itself is the win here. It's loosely packed, salty, juicy, and cooked to a perfect medium. It tastes like a burger your dad might make, if he quit all his other hobbies and dedicated himself to backyard grilling. But, as with most giant juicy burgers, the bun couldn't hold up. Without any toast on the bun, it quickly became a soggy mess and fell apart before our eyes. Not that that stopped us from eating a lot more. 

BRGR | Elise Ramirez Sloan/BRGR

4. Cease and Desist Burger

BRGR

Address and Info

East Liberty

I'm not a huge fan of removing vowels in the names of restaurants (the exception being my forthcoming pizza place PZZ), so I first approached BRGR with a little unease. But then I tried the Cease and Desist (also famously the name of Houston Chef Chris Shepherd's burger, after he received such an order from In-N-Out) and I stopped caring about vowels and pretty much anything else. 

The burger speaks to all of my favorite burger elements -- American cheese, Thousand Island, caramelized onions -- and manages to combine them skillfully, reaching that meat, cheese, grilled onion, aioli sweet spot. Honestly, the only thing keeping this from moving higher on the list is some acid from pickles to cut through all that greasy glory.

Butterjoint | Kevin Alexander/Thrillist

3. Hamburger with American and Caramelized Onions

Butterjoint

Address and Info

Oakland

Our meal at Butterjoint was one of the last things I remember from Wednesday night. Ben and I made the crucial error of thinking we could keep up with Chef Bill Fuller of the Big Burrito Restaurant Group, and Dinette's Chef/Owner Sonja Finn. We could not. 

But before memories faded, I managed to have a fantastic burger made using Jubilee Hilltop Ranch beef that was incredibly flavorful, with just the right amount of char blending in with that melted American and buttery marinated grilled onions that made me feel decadent and wealthy. And though I normally complain about the bun not being grilled, this one managed to hold up to the burger as long we ate, though honestly -- given the flavor -- that wasn't very long. 

Meat and Potatoes | Kevin Alexander/Thrillist

2. Plain Jane Burger

Meat & Potatoes

Address and Info

Downtown

When I first went to Meat & Potatoes, I didn't realize just how nice it is. The entire horseshoe bar and the space are elegant in a way you wouldn't really expect from a place named for a protein and a starch. I'm just trying to say that I wish I was dressed nicer, is all.

Anyway, Ben and I found a place at the packed bar and immediately sought out the Plain Jane. It came on a perfectly toasted homemade poppyseed and sesame bun that somehow felt lighter than the one at Butcher and the Rye. Before we added any fixings, I took a bite of the burger in its purest and most Plain Jane form and gave a deep contented sigh afterwards. The burger was juicy, a true medium, with a great char. The meat was salty and peppery, crusted in the right places. The American cheese was even unique, and -- as Ben put it -- almost tasted like "non-spicy queso poured into an American cheese mold." 

It's one of the most purely satisfying cheeseburgers I've had anywhere in the country, and I think you should probably go there right now. Just maybe put on a nicer shirt. 

Stinky's Bar and Grill | Brian Henry/Thrillist

1. Classic Cheeseburger

Stinky's Bar & Grill

Address and Info

Lawrenceville

During my travels for this Quest, I tend to get a little cynical and down when I see the same sorts of things happening all over the place. But then I get to a place like Stinky's Bar & Grill and all of a sudden life is glorious and fresh and new again. Stinky's is a sports bar in Lawrenceville. From the outside, it looks like the type of place where outsiders might be frowned upon, a deep-cut locals-only spot. And in many ways it is. But the friendliness from both the patrons and the bartenders and servers was nearly unnerving. I'm not sure if that's just a Pittsburgh thing (Side note: on the whole, the people in PGH were downright delightful), but for whatever reason, no one batted an eye.

And then we had the burger. I usually dislike the 1/2lb weight burgers because I worry that the cooks will clump the meat together and overcook it, but Stinky's was cooked perfectly, a fine char tucked under a gooey blanket of American and a distinctly fresh-tasting, lightly toasted bun that got the hell out of the way and let us enjoy the meat, but did its part in not breaking down. Combine that with their "special sauce," pickles, and torn lettuce and you've got my favorite burger in all of Pittsburgh. And that is BEFORE I mention their fresh cut, impeccably seasoned Stinky chips and Stinkers wings. If there is a sports dive with a better food menu in the country, I haven't visited it yet.

And now, as a bonus, here is me artfully holding the Stinky's burger in front of a brick wall: 

Stinky's Bar and Grill | Brian Henry/Thrillist
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1. The Urban Tap 1209 E Carson St, Pittsburgh, PA 15203 (South Side Flats)

At The Urban Tap in Pittsburgh’s South Side, you'll find 40 beers on tap with plenty of great options from well-established breweries such as Founders and Dogfish. It also features a large, industrial interior and plenty of flat-screen TVs, making it a popular spot to watch the Steelers and Penguins on game nights. Whatever you do, though, don't leave before you try demolishing the Tap Burger, a thick, rare patty with roasted garlic aioli.

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2. Burgatory 299 W Bridge St, Homestead, PA 15120

You don't want to spend an eternity in Purgatory, but Pittsburgh's Burgatory is not such a bad place to pass a few millennia. The only problem is that there's no waiting here: the hip burger chain boasts create-your-own burger combos that you can order via an app before you even arrive. This waterfront location proves that not all fast-food is found along the highway, and that not all fast-food has soda as the only option. A craft beer and cocktail program puts Burgatory ahead of it's more corporate rivals.

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3. Winghart's 1505 E Carson St, pittsburgh, PA 15203

What began its run as a small counter in Market Square eventually became Winghart's, a must-stop when in Pittsburgh. This spot is the fresh and innovative answer to bar foods made from frozen or boxed ingredients. Winghart's serves up fresh and never-frozen burgers, ground in-house daily, that can be customized with nearly a dozen toppings, along with homemade pizza from their wood-fire brick oven. You can wash down all that goodness with whiskeys from all over the world, local beers and hand crafted cocktails.

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4. Over the Bar Bicycle Cafe 2518 E Carson St, Pittsburgh, PA 15203 (South Side Flats)

Bikes, burgers and beer — that's the name of the game at Over the Bar Bicycle Cafe. It's burgers are just as flashy as its decor (full-size bicycles hang upside down from the ceiling amidst painted depictions of bmx stunts) with bike-themed names like The Dirt Rag Delight (American cheese, dill pickles, creamy peanut butter, bacon and ground beef). Pair them off with a batch of fries dusted with powdered ranch dressing mix and a cold one from their constantly rotating draft list.

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5. Industry Public House 4305 Butler St, Pittsburgh, PA 15201 (Central Lawrenceville)

Located in Lawrenceville, this popular drinkery features American comfort food, delicious artisanal cocktails, and a great selection of craft beer in an industrial-inspired space. The prohibition-era architecture, open brick walls and metallic surfaces will draw you in, but the Entry Level Burgher (a stocky and thick square patty between two buns that are just crispy enough) and the full-service bar providing endless international drafts, cocktails and whiskeys will keep you there.

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6. Butcher and the Rye 212 6th St, Pittsburgh, PA 15222 (Central Business District)

It's hard to miss Butcher and the Rye's emphasis once you enter: a huge two-story wall lined with some 600 whiskeys makes it very clear that this New American restaurant is mostly about the amber elixir. And people have noticed: the mixology program earned a James Beard Award semi-finalist assignation for two consecutive years. Oil lamps and antler chandeliers gesture to a rustic Americana past here, while a meat-heavy menu sings to carnivores, featuring dishes like dry-aged steaks, duck broth, bone marrow with oxtail jam, and smoked lamb neck with mint chimichurri. The spot's proximity to the theater district makes it an obvious pre- and post-show visit, and also served as a suitably dark cocktail den with a lineup that would impress even Holden Caulfield.

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7. Tessaro's 4601 Liberty Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15224 (Bloomfield)

This All-American bar and grill is known for its giant burgers, ground in-house and cooked on a hardwood grill stocked with oak, maple, ash and hickory woods. The massive half-pound patties are cooked to medium, so they really drip (sometimes right through the slightly toasted bun), but that's never stopped anyone from enjoying their smokey, salty taste. Their scent lingers through Bloomfield and has been drawing in new and repeat customers alike for decades.

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8. BRGR 5997 Penn Circle S, Pittsburgh, PA 15206 (East Liberty)

BRGR's mouthwatering burgers are a handcrafted blend of Angus, chuck, ribeye and New York Strip (unless you opt for kobe beef or salmon instead). The best of the best is the Shrooms Burger, with forest mushrooms, caramelized onions, brie cheese and mustard aioli, but the Cease and Desist in all its thousand-island glory is a serious contender for the best burger in all of Pittsburgh. You can wash either (or both, no judgement) down with an adult root beer float made with root liqueur, local seltzer and vanilla bean.

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9. Butterjoint 214 N Craig St, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 (North Oakland)

This cozy cocktail spot offers draft beers, ciders, wines and all kinds of spirits from around Philadelphia along with tasty bar bites like pierogies, sausage and cheese plates and one of the best burgers in the city (made with Western PA ground beef, charred just a touch and placed on a hearty, crisped bun). If you want the full culinary experience (and you show up before 9pm), you can have your pick from next-door neighbor Legume's menu, which changes daily and is chock full of vegetable-centric dishes.

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10. Meat & Potatoes 649 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15222

With a name that evokes simplicity and the essentials, Meat & Potatoes makes good on its promise of wholly satisfying, back-to-basics American fare. Chef Richard Deshantz serves seasonally inspired, artisanal comfort food, featuring highlights like bone marrow with gremolata and pickled red onions and burgers with fresh homemade buns. Factor in the Prohibition-themed cocktail menu and contemporary speakeasy ambience, and you’ve got an upscale gastropub that is both hip and approachable at once.

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11. Stinky's Bar & Grill 4901 Hatfield St, Pittsburgh, PA 15201

Good burgers, beers, televised sports and casual vibes—if these are a few of your favorite things, look no further than Stinky’s Bar & Grill. This family owned bar is a neighborhood hot spot for its affordable drink specials and extensive burger menu, which includes the award-winning Southwest burger, a glorious combination thick bacon, onion rings (both layered inside and finished on top), American cheese and barbecue sauce.