As all matters of taste, burgers are a subjective business. In our first burger guide to Berkeley and Oakland in 2014, I outlined three criteria for what constitutes burger excellence in my book: sustainably farmed meat, consistent cooking to requested temperature, and simplicity of toppings (the fewer, the better).
Handlebar, Phil’s Sliders and Victory Burger were cut from this update because they have all closed since the first guide was published. Mua and Umami Burger have also been omitted here because neither is transparent about their beef sourcing. In the case of Mua, no one at the restaurant was able to give me any information about the beef, beyond their distributor. Umami is more complicated; everyone I spoke to, including a marketing representative, indicated that their signature beef blend is a secret recipe. So, this is not to say that this meat isn’t sustainable, just that I couldn’t readily access that information, so neither can diners. (Furthermore, every burger I've had a Umami in the past year has been overcooked.) As sustainability gets more important in the Bay Area dining scene—and in the larger context of global warming and our carbon footprint—we’ve been able to insist that, beyond tasting good, the meat we eat is sustainably farmed.
And of course, we know how vague and trendy the word “sustainable” is. For the purposes of this guide, we use the term in the broadest possible sense, to describe beef that is produced with considerations of environmental, social and economic outcomes (understanding that all beef production has a range of sustainability challenges).
It’s not typical that we would include a pop-up in a guide, but Bunaburger seems to have established relatively permanent status inside Blackwater Station in Temescal. It’s a spinoff on a successful breakfast-sandwich pop-up, Cracked, by Buna Babilla, and has taken up residence at the back counter of Blackwater Station, perfect for takeout or eating in with a cocktail at the bar.
The concept is throwback Americana, with homemade tater tots, chicken fingers and “special sauce,” and the five burgers on the menu constitute the bulk of the offerings, though there are also several entrée salads as well. We tried two burgers: the Buna Burger and the Classic. All beef is certified hormone- and antibiotic-free.
As intriguing as the creative Buna Burger is, we preferred the Classic, with red onions, lettuce, tomato, bread and butter pickles, and special sauce, which is akin to Thousand Island dressing. The Buna skewed more to the sweet side, with brown-sugar bacon mixed into the house-ground chuck, served with smoked onions, cheddar, and miso mayo. The server recommended medium for cooking temperature, so we went with it, and both were precisely so, juicy and ever-so-slightly pink. And the tater tots beat out the fries for their coarse texture and not over-salted crispness.
Bunaburger [CLOSED - some items moved to Cracked]
4901 Telegraph Ave. (inside Blackwater Station) [Map]
Oakland, CA 94609
Ph: (510) 520-4265
Hours: Tue-Thu, 11am-9pm; Fri, 11am-10pm; Sat, 5-10pm; Sun, 5-9pm
Price Range: $ (burgers $8-$9)
You’ve heard about their famous Bloody Mary with bacon; Chop Bar’s burger is of the same high caliber. House-ground chuck, distributed by Preferred Meats, chuck is cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on an Acme Kaiser roll with bacon, avocado, sliced heirloom tomatoes, and aioli. (Cheese and grilled onions are optional.) It comes with an arugula salad; I suggest also ordering a side of the jo-jos, crispy potato wedges with chimichurri. There’s a nice wine list that includes several sparkling wines by the glass that pair well with a juicy, bacon-topped burger. The space is indoor-outdoor rustic, and the servers are chatty and welcoming.
247 4th St. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94607
Ph: (510) 834-2467
Hours: Mon-Thu 8am-10pm; Fri 8am-11pm; Sat 9am-11pm; Sun 9am-10pm
Facebook: Chop Bar
Yelp: Chop Bar
Price Range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17, Burger $13)
Clove and Hoof
We wrote about Clove and Hoof in December 2014, just before it opened, in a story about the local restaurant construction boom. More than two years later, the butcher shop/restaurant venture by Analiesa Gosnell and John Blevins has solidified its space in both departments and has nailed the burger, in particular. The C&H Burger is made from grass-fed beef from Jenner Farms in Etna, CA: two four-ounce patties slathered with pimento cheese and topped with caramelized onion, sweetly tart pickles, and pickle mayo on a potato pepper bun. (A gluten-free bun by Mariposa Bakery is available for an extra $2.)
I ordered my burger medium-rare, and it arrived perfectly cooked. I would suggest that, since this burger is comprised of two small patties, as opposed to one large, it might be better cooked medium so that the outside of each patty gets more seared. But the meat itself is fantastic, pasture-raised, dry-aged, and all grass-fed. The pimento cheese is another nod to the retro trend we’re observing in burgers across the Bay Area.
We covered Nora Dunning’s exquisite cooking at Drip Line a few months back, and the chef’s ingenuity makes the cut once again with a “blended burger,” launched as part of a project by the James Beard Foundation to make more sustainable burgers by blending mushrooms into the beef.
Dunning’s version blends 60% grass-fed beef with 40% shiitake mushrooms, seasoned with dried shiitake powder and served on homemade brioche buns. Sambal aioli gives it a little kick, as does arugula, and the homemade lotus root chips on the side are downright addictive. As with everything on the menu at Drip Line, the burger bun is homemade, in this case from a sourdough starter with the addition of koji, fermented rice like that used to brew sake, which makes the bun ultra-light.
The claim to fame of the Duchess burger is Wagyu beef, from the cattle breed first imported into the U.S. in 1975. Highly regarded as a delicacy in Japan, the meat from Wagyu cows is very marbled, with a higher ratio of mono-unsaturated to saturated fat than beef from other breeds.
The presentation here is straightforward: American cheese, “dijonnaise” (a combination of mayonnaise and Dijon mustard), caramelized onion and shredded lettuce. The server recommended a temperature of medium for the meat, but I went with medium rare, and was happy I did. Barely charred on the outside and thoroughly pink on the inside, the juicy burger was snugly held by a seeded bun, toasted and firm.
5422 College Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94618
Ph: (510) 871-3463
Hours: Sun, 10am-3pm and 5-9pm; Mon-Wed, 5:30-9:30pm; Thu-Fri, 5-10pm; Sat, 10am-3pm and 5-10pm
Price Range: $$ (burger $18)
While Farm Burger seems like a thoroughly local joint, it is, in fact, a growing chain, with nine locations across the country. The growth of the company doesn’t seem to have affected quality in the least, and each restaurant does its own local sourcing. In Berkeley, that means 100% grass-fed beef from California farms.
There’s a rotating daily special, but I recommend going straight for the Farm Burger, which, for $8.50, is the biggest bargain on this list. Free toppings include Farm Burger sauce (a variation on the theme of Thousand Island dressing), roasted garlic, fresh jalapeños, pickled jalapeños, iceberg lettuce, Duke's mayo, smoked paprika mayo, grainy mustard, red onion, house pickles, and tomatoes (in season), served on a locally made bun from Semifreddi's bakery in Emeryville. For just $1, you can add fancier toppings like arugula, chili, sautéed mushrooms, a beer-battered onion ring, fried egg, goat cheese, and other items.
As is my wont, I went simple, with house sauce, pickles, red onion and tomato, and added homemade fries for a hearty, affordable lunch. The burger was cooked to spot-on medium-rare. The service at this location is well more developed than one might expect at a counter-service restaurant, with friendly servers buzzing around offering water and hot sauce and asking how your meal tastes.
Chris Kronner is, arguably, the Bay Area’s most celebrated designer of the burger experience. After a hugely successful pop-run in San Francisco that created a carnivore’s sensation, Kronner went brick-and-mortar on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue in 2015, with a menu centered around his famous burger, grilled over oak wood and served on a homemade potato pain de mie bun, served simply with cheddar mayo, dill pickles, charred onion and lettuce.
What makes the burger special, for starters, is the dry-aged beef that comprises most of the blend, cooked rare and only rare, no exceptions. So, don’t bring your squeamish, blood-averse friends and relatives here! Unless of course, they want to try the vegan Impossible Burger, made by Impossible Foods, a company that has developed a completely meat-free “burger,” whose main ingredients are unlikely: wheat, coconut oil and potatoes, resulting in a burger that “bleeds” with the help of magic-ingredient heme, an iron-containing molecule in blood that carries oxygen. It turns out that heme is found in plants, as well as animals, so Impossible Foods has figured out a way to derive in from yeast and produce it in bulk.
There are many reasons one might want to eat this burger, sheer curiosity being one of them. And I’ll say that, if I hadn’t known what I was eating, I would probably have guessed it was meat mixed in with some kind of starchy filler. And I would have been wrong, of course. That’s how closely the burger approximates real meat. That said, when I was a vegetarian, I didn’t particularly want meat replacements, choosing rather to eat vegetables for their own sake. So, I think this burger appeals to those who love meat, but can’t—or don’t want to—eat it. What’s interesting is that the Impossible Burger bleeds more than the KronnerBurger, whose dry-aged beef doesn’t really lose liquid, even when served rare. It’s more like eating fine steak tartare.
Rarely does a hotel restaurant make a best-burger list, but Limewood, in Berkeley’s Claremont Hotel (now owned by Fairmont), cooks up a mean burger and throws in a view for free. Despite the elegance of the space, you can walk in in your tennis attire, if you like—especially at lunch, when all eyes are on the panoramic view of the bay from high atop Berkeley.
A grass-fed burger, ground in-house, comes on a potato bun with sharp cheddar and creamed horseradish and lettuce. That’s it. Just three simple toppings that amplify the meat cooked perfectly to medium-rare. Sauntering in and ordering a burger is also an affordable way of enjoying the resort atmosphere of the place (though you can certainly order oysters and Champagne as well).
So many burger joints end up being neighborhood destinations, and Park Burger is one of those. It’s very laid back and welcoming, with a down-home feel. The menu is large, and consists mostly of burgers of various compositions, but there are salads and side, too, including exceptional hand-cut Kennebec potato fries. And the burger, though only $9.25 with cheese, is top-notch. Made from delicious grass-fed beef from Cream Co., a local purveyor of sustainably produced meat, and served on buns from Bakers of Paris that are akin to brioche, the classic burger with cheese comes simply with lettuce, tomato, homemade aioli and pickled onions, if you like. Counter service is fast and friendly, and there’s a good beer list.
4218 Park Blvd. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94602
Ph: (510) 479-1402
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11am-9pm; Sun, 11am-8pm
Facebook: Park Burger
Price Range: $ (cheeseburger $9.25)
Yelp: Park Burger
Known primarily as a great local breakfast spot, 900 Grayson, which looks like someone’s little house on the corner, is also a West Berkeley burger destination. Chef Nick Spelletich uses organic beef distributed by Golden Gate Meats, Acme buns, Nueske's bacon, and tops the whole shebang with batter-fried onion rings. Given the latter, it’s best to ask for a side salad instead of the fries.
900 Grayson St. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94710
Ph: (510) 704-9900
Hours: Mon-Fri 8-10:45am and 11:30am-3pm; Sat 8am-2:30pm; Closed Sun
Facebook: 900 Grayson
Yelp: 900 Grayson
Price Range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17, Burger $12)
Well loved among the artisanal-cocktail set, Sidebar, across from Lake Merritt on Grand Avenue in Oakland, is somewhat of a sleeper of a restaurant. It seems to do a steady lunch business, without filling up readily. But their burger is so good that there should be a line out the door. It’s a marvel in simplicity: Niman Ranch beef, grilled to precisely medium-rare, served on a classic white bun with lettuce and chipotle-laced Thousand Island dressing, with homemade pickles on the side, as well as oven-baked potato wedges.
And if you’re looking to pair your burger with a cocktail, I happen to know that the Caged Heat bourbon cocktail that features a Sidebar employee’s homemade ghost pepper syrup, can also be made with tequila. This is an important sidebar, pun intended.
Because there seems to be one of everything delicious at Swan’s Market in Old Oakland, it may not come as a surprise that one of the East Bay’s best burgers is found there, though it is a bit odd to have found it at the oyster bar. The Cook and Her Farmer is best known for its oysters, wine and beer, but they’ve also got it going on in the grass-fed burger department.
It starts with a big toasted Acme bun onto which goes a medium-thick patty grilled to precisely medium-rare, topped only with sharp cheddar cheese, sweetly tart, thinly sliced pickles, lettuce, and grilled red onions. The abundance of melted cheese serves to double as a sauce, so the burger doesn’t really need mayo or other condiments. There’s a bacon option I recommend because the kitchen serves it up crispy. Homemade potato chips on the side seal the deal.
The Golden Squirrel is what a gastropub was originally designed to be: a casual, inviting space with excellent beer that places equal emphasis on food. In the case of the burger here, the “gastro” moniker earns its status with the choice of Masami beef, an American Wagyu meat that is richly fatty and delicious at practically any temperature (though I recommend medium-rare to rare).
For only $14, this beauty includes bone marrow, homemade American cheese, aioli, tomato, Little Gem lettuces and thinly sliced red onion on a grilled, soft-white bun.
When we walked into TrueBurger, my wife immediately said, “This should be a drive-in,” which makes sense given the efficient assembly line of cooks systematically getting properly cooked burgers onto trays (a la In-N-Out) or tables. We noticed right away that the coarse-ground meat wasn’t flattened by the grilling process, and then identified why. The meat gets handed to the griller in the shape of a ball, and is only gently pressed down to be cooked; this process has a nice effect on the final burger, served in a white paper bag with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and a mildly garlicky aioli. At $6.50 a pop, this burger has the best value-to-quality ratio on the list. The beef here is pastured (though not grass-fed) with no hormones or no antibiotics, served on a Semifreddi's bun.
146 Grand Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94612
4101 Broadway (second location) [Map]
Oakland, CA 94611
Ph: (510) 208-5678
Hours: Tue-Sat 11am-9:30pm; Sun noon-8pm; Closed Mon
Price Range: $ (Entrees under $10, Burger $6.50)
Wood Tavern is one of Oakland’s longest-standing fine-dining restaurants, which makes it even more lovely that they serve a burger. It’s made with tried and true Niman Ranch beef on an Acme baguette (despite the round patty on a rectangular “bun,” it works), and more homemade shoestring fries than two people can rightly eat. Another plus is the excellent (if pricey) wine list.