The Best Burgers in San Francisco, According to Our National Burger Critic
I've been putting this off for a long time, friends. Because I live in SF, Burger Quest in the city meant something different to me. In every other city I've gone to, I've had one to three days to get in, evaluate the burger opportunities, go on an epic meat-fueled binge, get out, and write the piece. But here it was different. In a year-long quest, I had all the time in the world to sit back and sample what I could. And so I went a little overboard.
In all, I tasted around 40 burgers in this city. I tracked down random recommendations from Uber drivers, talked to chefs, went on small binges in particular neighborhoods -- anything I could do. As you might imagine, not all the burgers were great. Some, in fact, were aggressively not great. When it finally came time to put together this ranking, I decided to narrow it down to 24 places I could actually vouch for. Twenty-four spots where you could order a burger and say, "OK, this'll work." Extra note: This review is only dealing in beef burgers. So the hoopla over the Impossible Burger will have to be settled in a different story.
For most of this journey, I was accompanied by my childhood friend and photographer Grant Condon. He gamely showed up at bowling alleys, piers, and outdoor biergartens. Hell, he even went to SoMa. 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 believe I've committed an injustice of sorts, please render your complaint visually into a Bay to Breakers costume and find me. I'll be the one definitely not dressed like a burger. But until then, here is my ranking of the 24 best burgers in San Francisco.
Three of the old-school legends on this list do burgers in a way that I've found to be somewhat unique to SF, and that is to put the burgers on a sandwich roll (in this case sourdough) and shape the patties into some sort of oblong rounded rectangle to fit those particular dimensions (to a more extreme extent, you also see this with the famed Olympic Club burger, which we'll discuss later on). Anyway, Red's sourdough version is a solid Embarcadero staple, but has a tight, nearly snappy grind and tends to get soggy if not consumed quickly. Best to eat it fast and then slowly nurse your beer looking at that view.
23. Maven's Burger
I've always liked this burger -- a longtime Lower Haight favorite known for having Angostura bitters in the patty -- but upon my checking it out twice for the story, I felt the execution was slightly off. The patty, which sits in that middle ground size-wise, has a nice loose grind and unique flavor, but it was overcooked (both times) and the bun was bulky and a little dry. Solid, but not quite what I remembered.
22. The Perry's Burger with cheese
Perry Butler opened his namesake restaurant and bar in 1969 on Union St, and it quickly turned into one of the original West Coast "fern" bars (basically places to drink that were friendly, safe spaces for single women), a la the original TGI Fridays in New York. It's now simply a landmark with several iterations across the Bay Area (downtown, in Larkspur, at the airport, etc.). I decided to try the burger on a whim while waiting to get my hair cut across the street. When I realized I'd be late for my appointment, I took the burger with me, and had the surreal experience of sharing a Perry's hamburger with my opinionated, 60-year-old SF-native barber. And damn if it wasn't really good.
The burger is famous with a certain older set, and you can see why. It is a classic pub burger with a bulky, loosely packed, well-salted patty, a buttery toasted bun, and all the standard fixings. The crunch of the raw onions gave it a tang to balance the fat, and the bun stayed where it should: safely out of the way. As my barber said (after his third consecutive bite), "I'll be damned, they've still got some moves over there."
21. Wednesday Burger
This was a tough one to include because, as a special, the burger's toppings tend to change every week. I won't speak to those little details exclusively, but here's what I'll say: In the many times I've had the Wednesday Burger, the composition tends to be thoughtful, and the Prather Ranch beef is excellent. I'm not a big fan of the flaky egg bun, and there tends to be an overabundance of salt. But sitting outside eating this burger with one of the big-ass beers on a rare warm day is basically a San Francisco rite of passage.
20. Joe's Famous Hamburger Sandwich with Cheddar
Number two in the subgenre of old-school SF spots that tend to make their burgers in a similar style, OJ's stuffs a half-pound of meat onto nicely toasted French bread and, well, that's basically it. The meat is flavorful (my buddy Grant mentioned it had a certain "meatloaf" element to it) and well-cooked, but the main issue is that juice pours from the meat after the first couple of bites, soaking the bottom bun and leaving the final bites kind of a soggy mess. Yet another classic burger that begs expedient consumption.
19. Deluxe 1/2lb Burger with American and grilled onions
If you're liquored up in the Tenderloin and just want a quick and easy, classic cheeseburger for relatively cheap, you can't beat Pearl's for quality. Expertly cooked with better-than-you'd-expect composition and no tricks. Also, it has an app?
18. The Tipsy Burger with American
I used to really dig this burger when you could get it with the smoked Cheddar beer cheese that's usually served with the pretzel bites appetizer. And perhaps you still can, but my server when I went to review the burger was not feeling that move.
"No, I'm sorry, we don't do that anymore," she said, with just a hint of glee in her voice. "BUT I'VE DONE IT SO MANY TIMES, WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO RUIN MY NIGHT, I'M SO SAD, HELP ME, I'M CRYING OUT FOR HELP," I shouted internally, but in real life I merely nodded glumly and accepted my American cheese consolation. The burger is still good, the caramelized onions have that French onion soup element, and the pain de mie bun was fresh, it just needs more of an acid element to combat all that fat and dairy.
17. Monk's Burger
I sampled the Monk's Burger, a surprise addition to the list, while enjoying one of many sour beers and pretending to read a New Yorker. The blend of brisket, NY strip, and chuck was cooked to a perfect medium and featured an aioli that blended well with Gruyere, which is definitely the most melt-friendly cheese outside of American. The onion jam offered up a tangy sweet/salty element missing from a lot of burgers, but the bun was under-toasted on both sides and by the fourth bite, the sogginess started to overtake it. Despite that, the burger is definitely worth ordering based on flavor alone.
16. Mission Burger
By far the best burger located in a bowling alley in the city, this has a damn big patty and probably boasts the most flavorful caramelized onions of any burger in SF. It is juicy and flavorful with a decent char on the patty and a nice acidic brine in the caper aioli, but there are a couple of issues that keep it from jumping higher. For one, the bun needs more toast to hold up to that giant juicy patty, and picking Monterey Jack as the cheese seems like a mistake. Unlike the tough and brave mouse on Rescue Rangers it was obviously named for, Monterey Jack is such a timid cheese flavor-wise, and it doesn't really add (or subtract for that matter) from the experience of the burger. It's like the Switzerland of cheeses, which is ironic because even Swiss cheese might add a little more tang. Still a very solid burger.
15. Zuni Burger
Another in the legend category, Zuni has been a lunchtime stronghold since 1979 thanks to that irresistible roasted chicken, oysters, and this burger. The grilled focaccia is light and salty and actually holds well up as a burger container, and the pickled onions and other veggies on the side add an acidic kick that balances the juicy meat and cheese. The grind is a little tight and snappy, but the burger was cooked to a perfect medium, and the composition is just too damn good to mess with the overall product.
14. Balboa Burger with grilled onions and Cheddar
The infamous over-a-hundred-year-old bar/restaurant deep in the jungles of the Marina scene just happens to serve the best of the old-school torpedo-shaped burgers. The French baguette allows it to avoid the sogginess seen in some other old-school styles, and the mix of grilled and pickled onions offers up contrasting points of astringency that balance well with the meat and cheese. It's worth ordering even if you have to casually deflect inappropriate comments from divorced dudes driving yellow Porsche Boxsters.
13. Marlowe Burger
Many years ago, Marlowe was just a small joint run by a couple of Kiwis, doing decent business by the ballpark in SoMa. And then SF High Food Lord for Life Michael Bauer came in, declared the burger the best new one in the city, and basically turned the place on its head, creating a Gold Rush-esque run on the damn burger. It's since expanded to a bigger space (and opened more restaurants serving high-quality burgers et al.) but the original burger is still a contender. I've eaten it likely 30 times, but the last two were for review. Both times I also drank gin cocktails, and I wanted you to know that because I want our relationship to be based on honesty.
Here are some nice things about said burger: the shredded lettuce, the perfectly cooked medium patty, the balance of the horseradish aioli's tang and subtle heat against the salty meat, the crunch of the bacon.
And here are some less satisfactory issues: The bun wasn't toasted well enough either time and started cracking across the top, plus the patty itself didn't have a great griddle.
And here is my overall conclusion: I am going to continue eating this burger and drinking gin.
12. Burger and fries
I ate this burger on my birthday, by myself, before I went to an actual birthday dinner with other people. Sometimes I like to do things alone and I don't want you to judge me.
But I will judge this burger, and say that it's one of those upscale classic burgers I love. It came with so much American cheese that I used half of it on my fries. The thin pickles, shredded lettuce, solid aioli, and good char on both sides of the well-cooked patty gave it a great balance and flavor, mixing meat with acid and cream in equal proportions.
The bun was a little bit crumbly despite being well-grilled (damn you, brioche!); the grilled onions were only kind of grilled, which left some of that raw onion flavor; and the tomato was so thick (thicker than the patty) that I could only muster two bites before losing it, at which point, the burger was improved. But giant tomato slice or not, definitely a burger to keep in mind if you like a play on a classic.
11. Burger du Nord
Could anyone possibly still be reading this story? I think it's reaching Infinite Jest-level word count and I'm not even in the top 10. Anyway, I'll try and be quick: Cafe du Nord has a damn good burger! Great grill on a super-buttery, well-toasted bun; clean, natural-tasting beefy flavor in the meat, which was perfectly pink in the middle; an aioli made with chipotle to give it great balance and a little kick, etc. It's a basic yet beautiful burger. And yet it isn't even top 10 because there are SO MANY GOOD BURGERS IN THIS CITY OK?
10. Double cheeseburger
I'm combining Popsons with Causwells here, because A) Popsons is the burger spinoff of Causwells, and B) after several recent trips to both, I am opting to review the Popsons version of the burger, because I think it's more consistently the better one.
The patty at Popsons is so loosely packed together, it's almost like a sloppy Joe, or one of those loose meat sandwiches popular in Iowa. Luckily, the cheese acts as a binding agent, keeping all of that loose burger meat somewhat composed, and the results are pretty damn delicious, especially once you factor in the shredded lettuce and pickles. With a sesame bun that doesn't interfere, this is one of the more perfect late-night burgers in SF.
9. Pimento cheeseburger
Editor's Note: ABV now offers a "New Fuckin Burger" on its menu, so the availability of the pimento cheeseburger is currently up in the air. Will update soon.
The ABV burger is tiny, nearly slider-size, but I believe it is tiny for a reason. And that reason is pimento cheese. You see, pimento cheese is so super-salty and overpowering that no mere mortal outside the Deep South has the constitution or desire to take down an entire giant burger slopped with its orangey deliciousness. The great people of ABV realized this and decided to pack a flavor-bomb into a more palatable size, so you still get the pickled red onion, toasted potato bun, and super-juicy, medium-rare flavor (hard to pull off on a burger this size), but that salty pimento injection does not overwhelm and ultimately ruin your life.
8. The Hux Deluxe
Good Lord, this burger is so expertly constructed, it's like the exact opposite of the Millennium Tower (insert ba-dum-bum-ching drumroll here to signify local, timely joke). First of all, the bun is amazing. It's got a pickle brine and poppy and black sesame all mixed in, and the flavors are exquisite and distinct and somehow you get a little acid from the damn bun, which is something I've never experienced before. The dry-aged ground chuck was well-seared and had some funk to it, the fried onions blended together with the American cheese, the pickles added more acid, the frisee -- originally kind of a weird choice -- ended up being peppery and bright, and the MSG aioli and bacon tried to murder my insides, but cheerfully.
Of course it all kind of falls apart as you're eating it, but the beauty is in the mess, friends.
7. Spruce Burger
When I went to Spruce with a few friends on a Tuesday night, all of us dressed hyper-casually, I felt a little like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when she walks into that Rodeo Drive boutique in her lady-of-the-night clothing. Everyone in there, including at the bar, was dressed in Presidio Heights casual, which is basically tuxedos with the bow ties undone.
To the staff's credit, they didn't really care and we ordered two burgers: one with the "chef-recommended" Taleggio Il Caravaggio cheese, and the other with Gruyere. The fancy-cheese version was way too powerful -- the rest of the burger couldn't follow the cheese's lead because it was basically just screaming into the microphone. But the Gruyere one was, to use a Presidio Heights word, exquisite. The house-baked English muffin is one of the greater vehicles to use with a burger, as those nooks and crannies absorb a lot of flavor when you spread a sauce across them, and also manage to toast well. The pickled onion and zucchini gave the proper amount of acid, and the remoulade and Gruyere melted together to offer a tang alongside that loosely packed but thick and salty patty.
6. Wood Grilled Hamburger
How has this burger continued to be so good and so damn simple for so long? Allegedly, this destination spot that basically gave a name to the neighborhood sells over 20,000 of these things a year, but credit the variety of great dishes on the menu because I've been here many, many times and only had the burger twice before reviewing.
There are no tricks here. It's just a well-toasted, eggy brioche bun with funky, salty grass-fed beef, pickled red onions, and a side of subtly spicy aioli (for the fries). And yet each element plays such a key role. This might be the most balanced burger in the city and definitely one of the most well-executed.
5. Best Damn Grass Fed Cheeseburger
No big deal, but I've probably eaten this burger 30 or 40 times. I even took some British radio show host here and did an interview wearing a giant headset while eating the burger and he had us do a retake making audible chewing sounds to show how much we enjoyed it. For a long time, this was my go-to best burger spot not just in the city, but in California.
And look, it is still an amazing burger. Other than Huxley it probably has the best homemade bun in the city, well toasted and just a touch sweet. The thin patty comes medium-rare with good char and is fresh and loosely ground. The aioli gives a creamy texture with some tang and acid. It's delicious. But when I examine it further, there are some limitations: The raw red onion can, at times, be overpowering. And the leaf lettuce slides all over the place affecting the consistency of each bite. These are minor, minor quibbles, I know, but we're close to the top. EVERYTHING MATTERS NOW.
4. The Trick Dog
I genuinely believe that the hot dog-shaped burger known as the Trick Dog is the most underrated burger in San Francisco. Mostly because everyone focuses on cocktails at Trick Dog and how they change every six months, so they spend less time thinking about the food. But those people I just made up are all fools! FOOLS!
The house-ground chuck and brisket blend is so loosely ground it falls apart with each bite. It's buttery but has that pure meat flavor and blends well with the melted Cheddar. The sesame hot dog-sized bun is well-toasted and stays out of the way. The pickles and shredded lettuce blend in with the house sauce to give it the proper acid, and those chopped onions give it some bite. Despite its name, this burger has no tricks. It is a simple, straightforward, perfectly constructed vessel of deliciousness, and I may or may not be known for eating three in a night without really noticing.
3. The All-American
I went to a few of Wes Rowe's burger pop-ups in Nopa, and they were good, but I really didn't know what to make of them on a whole because each one was some sort of weird new stunt. So when he opened his actual brick-and-mortar, I was very curious how he was going to pull it off. And man, did he do it.
The All-American is the most standard burger on the menu (though I'm a huge fan of the fact that the place is doing an El Reno-style onion burger too), and it comes on a nearly perfect bun. Crispy, buttery, soft, and squishy, it is my bun soulmate. The patty was thicker than expected but was loosely packed and had incredible char -- a sort of char you rarely see on thicker burgers. The lettuce was shredded, which is always a plus. The aioli was tangy and almost electric orange. It's a truly great and consistent burger, and if I can quibble with anything, it's really just that it could use a tiny bit more acid from some pickles. But Rowe clearly wasn't messing around when he opened this place.
2. Black Sands Burger
I first went to Black Sands on a whim. I was at Maven eating the burger, and my friend casually said that Black Sands had a decent burger, too. It was later in the night, and I'd already had four or five burgers, so I wasn't really feeling like doing more, but I AM A PROFESSIONAL. Plus it had good beer.
The first time I had it I could not get over how good the burger was. In fact, I didn't actually believe it was that good, I just thought I was boozed up enough to start thinking everything was delicious. So I started going back. Once more, sober, to really dig in. And it was still damn good. And then again with a friend to test my judgment. And each time, the burger kept impressing. The bun is fantastic: soft, toasted, and buttered, it plays its part perfectly. The little smashed patties are super-thin and yet still pink and a bit juicy. The special sauce is peppery and acidic and balances well with the melt of the American and the meat. It's close to burger perfection. But maybe don't tell everyone until I come back 15 or 20 more times.
1. Drive In Cheeseburger w/ grilled onions
If I can be honest, I don't like SoMa. It doesn't feel or look like the rest of San Francisco. You could be anywhere -- Charlotte, Omaha, SAN JOSE. It just doesn't feel right. And so I went to Garaje with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Why am I even trying to go to a sports bar/taqueria/burger joint deep in SoMa? And then, of course, my burger came.
This is no-frills, Cali-style burger-ing at its finest. Shredded lettuce. Soft, pliable, lightly griddled bun. Special sauce. Pickles. Well-grilled onion. Lightly salted meat that has a great char and just enough pink to be juicy. Perfectly melted American cheese blending it all together. I kept looking for problems with it but none came up. Each element was done incredibly well, and the burger is a damn steal at under $10. I believe it is currently the best burger in San Francisco. My only complaint may be that you have to go to SoMa to get it.
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