Disclaimer #1: As all matters of taste, burgers are a subjective business. My priorities are as follows:
- Meat should be sourced with an eye toward sustainability.
- Burgers should be cooked consistently to temperature.
- They should not be too tricked out; classic condiments and presentations are best.
Disclaimer #2: I’ve spent the last month checking out the most highly regarded burgers in Berkeley and Oakland (16 spots), and I’ve narrowed these down to nine. I’ve just heard of three places I didn’t try (that sound like potential winners) and three new places that are soon headed our way. It’s time to stop the madness and publish this current list, which will certainly evolve.
If I’ve missed your favorite, please share in the comments.
Without further ado, here are my top picks, in alphabetical order:
You’ve heard about their famous Bloody Mary with bacon; Chop Bar’s burger is of the same high caliber. House-ground 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 Roederer Brut, a sparkling wine that pairs well with a juicy burger. The space is indoor-outdoor rustic, and the servers are chatty and welcoming.
Handlebar, the latest burger joint to hit the Berkeley scene, is a fabulous one of the artisanal variety, but served in a bar setting, so all the better (casual excellence). Roland Robles, of Fivetenburger food-truck notoriety, has gone brick-and-mortar with serious bartenders, a menu of hangover cures (including a “pig in a blanket,” which is a pancake-battered sausage) and a $14 burger that is worth every penny. Think grass-fed, dry-aged beef, cooked rare, served on a homemade bun with the simplest of fixin’s: pickles, tomatoes, red onion, and butter lettuce. It comes with lightly truffled tater tots.
984 University Ave., Berkeley [map]
Ph: (510) 984-2125
Hours: Mon 11am-11pm; Tue-Fri 5-11pm; Sat-Sun 11am-11pm
Price Range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17, Burger $14)
Though MUA is a full-service restaurant and bar, the dishes we tried—other than the burger—were underwhelming. But the burger is worth the trip. Chuck is coarsely ground in-house and seared, served on a toasted white bun that is thin enough to allow the meat to take center stage. Accompaniments are the standard lettuce, tomato, and red onion, with a homemade aioli twist, and the whole package arrives with a huge steak knife wedged through the middle, the better for sharing. The space is a beautiful 6,500-square-foot artist-designed loft, owned by Hisuk Dong, reminiscent of something you might find in Amsterdam or Copenhagen.
2442a Webster St., Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 228-1100
Hours: Mon-Thu 11:30am-3pm and 5:30-11pm; Fri-Sat 5:30-midnight; Sun 5-10pm
Facebook: Mua Oakland
Price Range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17, Burger $15)
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 beef from Golden Gate Meats, Acme buns, local Smokehouse 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.
The thorough goodness of Phil’s Sliders was a revelation to me. The restaurant, mixed in with a bunch of cheap college dives on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, looks like just another fast-food joint, but it’s not. These burgers are made with care, with Marin Sun beef, griddled to medium-rare and served on cute little sesame-seed buns with just iceberg lettuce (the right choice, as it is crunchy and unobtrusive in terms of flavor) and a secret sauce akin to Russian dressing. The “famous tots” are a work of art, perfect rectangular cubes fried to a decadent crisp.
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 on to 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 $5.25 a pop, this burger has the best value-to-quality ratio on the list.
146 Grand Ave., Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 208-5678
Hours: Mon 11am-3pm; Tue-Sat 11am-9:30pm; Sun noon-7pm
Price Range: $ (Entrees under $10, Burger $5.25)
I don’t usually go for chains, but this L.A.-based company has got it going on in the burger department. Umami's specialty is truffle-laced burgers; while they taste good, it’s not the kind of thing I’d choose on a regular basis. Their “original” is nearly too overwrought for me, but who can resist a “frico” (parmesan crisp) in any context? And the meat is always cooked to perfection. Big draws here are the fat onion rings and the pickle plate.
2100 Franklin St., #2190, Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 899-8626
Hours: Sun-Thu 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat 11am-11pm
Facebook: Umami Burger, Oakland
Price Range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17, Burger $12)
I have a fondness for Victory Burger, attached, literally and metaphorically, to Actual Café, because it is consistently delicious, low-key, and friendly. I always have to debate between the burger—made with Five Dot Ranch beef (grass-fed, grain-finished) on an Acme Kaiser roll with lettuce and onion and the chicken banh mi (with homemade pickles and chicken-skin mayo). While they are both excellent choices, the burger takes the edge, if for no other reason than the homemade ketchup. And it goes better with the obligatory Strauss vanilla milkshake. The fries, cut in-house and cooked in rice bran oil, are as good as fries get.
1099 Alcatraz Ave., Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 653-8322
Hours: Mon-Fri 11:30am-9pm; Sat 11am-9pm; Sun 11am-8pm
Facebook: Victory Burger
Price Range: $ (Entrees under $10, Burger $8.50)
Wood Tavern is one of Oakland’s longest-standing fine-dining restaurants, which makes it even more lovely that they serve a burger. It’s made with tried and true Niman Ranch beef on an Acme baguette (despite the round patty on a rectangular “bun,” it works), and more homemade shoestring fries than two people can rightly eat. Another plus is the excellent (if pricey) wine list.
6317 College Ave., Oakland [map]
Ph: (510) 654-4607
Hours: Mon-Thu 11:30am-10pm; Fri-Sat 11:30am-10pm; Sun 11:30am-9pm
Facebook: The Wood Tavern Restaurant
Price Range: $$-$$$ (Entrees $11-$24, Burger $13)