Sydney has a love affair with the burger that's not new and not stopping as burger joints continue to pop up at a rapid rate, many of them headed by chefs with a fine-dining background.
Why do we love these fancy burgers so much? Why are there queues at Mary's Newtown and Surry Hills Chur Burger every weekend? And why are burgers posted on Instagram at a similar frequency to sunsets, pug dogs, and green smoothies? Here are my theories:
- They require no mental effort to eat. A burger isn't beautiful, it's functional. Nothing more than a bit of meat between two bits of bread that keeps hunger at bay. You don't need to be 'foodie' to appreciate a good one. In fact as soon as you start banging on about subtleties in flavour and how 'piquant' the sauce is, you've missed the point. It's a burger. Eat it, enjoy it and stop saying 'piquant'.
- Sugar. Fat. Salt. The human palate loves this holy trinity of heart disease. And burgers are a perfect storm of all three - especially now with those bloody brioche buns.
- Childhood memories. For many of us, burgers were a treat growing up whether sourced from the pool kiosk or Golden Arches. In each bite there's a small bit of wistfulness from a time when the most stressful thing in the world was locating a blank VHS to tape Star Wars on.
This is our hitlist of the best burger joints to have hit our streets in the past 12 months. At each place I ordered the most standard beef burger, sometimes with cheese, sometimes without. No kimchi, fish sauce, pulled-pork or other funny business. I've also scored for 'togetherness'. The tastiest burger in the world is no good if it falls apart quicker than the English batting order. You want a burger that maintains poise and keeps it together all the way to the finish. James Bond, not George Costanza.
Burger Project, City
Rockpool's Neil Perry says he wants to make the burger he remembers from his childhood. From the time when a milk bar was on every corner not a McDonalds.
And by golly, has he nailed it.
The Burger Project cheeseburger ($8.90) is that classic cornershop burger that's all about fresh ingredients, quality meat, and nothing silly outside of a slap of chilli in its 'secret sauce'. The beef used is house-ground 36-month old grass-fed Cape Grim brisket and chuck steak and it's flavour is better than anything I remember from the white-bagged fish-and-chippery burgers of school holidays past.
It opened last weekend next to Din Tai Fung in World Square (and above Grill'd) and it throws down the gauntlet to every gourmet burger joint in Australia. It seats 100 guests and has a clean, casual feel about it. While waiting for your burger and house-made mandarin soda (or maybe a negroni slushie), you can stand outside watch your burger being ground through the shopfront windows.
Perry entering the world of takeaway burgers makes sense. The Rockpool Bar and Grill wagyu burger can be credited as starting the whole fancy-burger trend when debuted eight years ago. Without it, we wouldn't have McDonalds announce it would start serving 'gourmet' burgers on wooden boards across Australia (as one goodfood.com.au user noted, at least with McDonalds using wooden boards, we won't see them in actual restaurants anymore).
NP's BP is a game changer and more stores are planned for Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Perry says he isn't trying to compete with McDonalds. But when the standard burger on McDonalds' wooden-board-menu is $8.90 and the 'Classic' number at Burger Project is $7.90, if that's not competitive I don't know what is.
Rating: Taste 10, Togetherness 4, Value 5, Total 19/20
Fries: Hand-cut on premises and thrice-cooked with your choice of salt, salt and vinegar, or chipotle chilli. 8/10.
Funny business burger of note: The Korean ($8.90). Beef, kimchi, onion, lettuce and spicy Korean dressing.
Shop 11.06, World Square, 644 George St, Sydney, burgerproject.com
Batch Burgers & Espresso, Kirribilli
This American-Graffiti-sprayed diner is wedged into the blur of Thai and Italian joints on Kirribilli's Broughton Street. It's annoyingly cash only but the blonde-haired, blue-sweatered waitress could have told me anything and I would have smiled and nodded.
The cheeseburger ($10) is a fine all-rounder. A bit of mid-sized savoury fun with a nice crust on the patty and shiny top on the bun. Order it, pull up a stool, and take advantage of a $10 deal involving a bowl of pork crackling and a Budweiser while you're waiting for your wooden board of burger to arrive.
Rating: Taste 6.5, Togetherness 3.5, Value 3, Total 13/20
Fries: McDonalds-esque but with less life and more salt. 4/10
Funny business burger of note: 'The Californian' ($13.50). Beef with white cheese, tomato, lime avocado, red onion, pickled jalapeno peppers, and watercress (yes, watercress).
3A Broughton St, Kirribilli, 9929 8883, batchburger.com
Goodtime Burgers, Bondi Junction
Goodtime Burgers is located inside The Eastern and it's disappointing when I discover a phone box in the corner of the Bondi Junction mega-pub isn't piloted by Doctor Who and he can't transport me as far as Timelord-ly possible from the hotel's blaring dance music. Items even more offensive than the eastern suburbs doof include a taxidermy stag's head with a star painted over one eye (a la Paul Stanley from KISS), and a signs that reads "I like my pork pulled."
Good thing the Goodtime burgers are good. Really good. The one-centimetre thick wagyu pattie on the 'Good Ol' Time' burger ($10) isn't packed with flavour but that means you can taste the coral lettuce, red onion, and four slices of tomato it shares real estate with. Four slices is a very large amount of tomato in the burger world, by the way.
Rating: Taste 7.5, Togetherness 4, Value 3, Total 15.5/20
Fries: Thicker than a thumb, deeply golden, and full of fluffy potato and double-fried crunch. 8.5/10
Funny business burger of note: 'The Juicy Lucy' ($15.50). Similar to the 'Good Ol' Time' but the pattie is stuffed with mozzarella and cheddar. As silly as it sounds.
500 Oxford Street, Bondi Junction, 9387 7828, goodtimeburgers.com.au
Chur Burger, Manly
For a while there it seemed like Chur Burger was going to take over the world as Warren Turnbull announced a new outpost of his Surry Hills smash hit every five minutes. A Brisbane store opened in September and back in April Chur Burger fired up in a beach-shacky section of The Manly Wharf Hotel.
The thick pattie in a Chur beef burger ($10) is bloody good. Actually "pinkly" good is a better description as unlike many other burgers in town the meat hasn't been cooked to point of oblivion. It has a top-notch pickle, you can eat it with one hand, and although the mustard mayo likes to drip on everything within two postcodes, that's what serviettes were made for, right?
It's the burger you want to eat on the Sunday afternoon of long weekend.
Rating: Taste 8, Togetherness 4, Value 4, Total 16/20
Fries: The chips themselves aren't anything special but the meat-rub-like seasoning that leaves an after taste of KFC is. 6.5/10
Funny business burger of note: Grilled lamb with mint sauce, feta, red onion, and aioli ($10).
Manly Wharf, East Esplande, Manly, 9977 1266. Also at Surry Hills and Paddington.
The Tuckshop, Glenhaven
"Greetings from Glenhaven" reads a sign above the Tuckshop's counter. "Where it's not the city and you couldn't care less." Indeed. Sitting at one of the tables outside listening to gumtrees murmur and watching cars lull past is how all Sunday drives around Sydney's north west should finish.
Technically this canteen from Parramatta Eels legend Nathan Hindmarsh and the boys at Castle Hill cafe The Baron isn't a specialty burger joint (there's a couscous and blood orange salad elsewhere on the menu) but with the short-order grill in a constant state of hiss it might as well be.
The cheeseburger ($12) is a beauty. The meat has good fat content and a ridiculous amount of mustard means it's messy but you're rewarded with mouthwatering acidity in each bite. With no lettuce or tomato, it's essentially a Macca's Quarter Pounder but it's the best Quarter Pounder you'll ever have.
Rating: Taste 8.5, Togetherness 4.5, Value 3, Total 17/20
Fries: French and complimentary with the burger. They're doused in a version of Old Bay seasoning which reminds me of the "El Maco" shaker-fries sachets from the nineties. This is a good thing. 6/10
Funny business burger of note: 'Veg Burger' ($13) with grilled eggplant, zucchini, tahini mayo, roasted capsicum, lettuce and herbs.
Shop 1/78, Glenhaven Rd, Glenhaven, 8850 5549, tuckshopcoffee.com.au
Burgers and Brews, Bondi
The 'Brewburger' ($14) at this pop-up courtesy of the Paper Planes guys and Young Henry's brewery is a dense little weapon of a thing. Compact and delicious, I could eat two of them in 10 minutes without issue. The Angus beef pattie is bolstered by a 'special sauce' with a backhand of chilli.
Skateboard decks crosshatch the ceiling and longnecks have been turned into a vases on every table. I'm used to seeing this much Young Henry's paraphernalia in the inner west but in Bondi it seems more of place than a Camilla kaftan at Marrickville Bowling Club.
Brewburger is only with us until the end of summer so don't leave your burger and Real Ale run too late.
Rating: Taste 7.5, Togetherness 3.5, Value 2.5, Total 13.5/20
Fries: Shoestring and salty. 6/10
Funny business burger of note: Prawn burger ($16). Prawn with apple, chives, and yuzu aioli.
Shop 15, 178 Campbell Pde, Bondi, 9300 0673, burgersbrew.com
Parlour Burger, City
I think there's supposed to a saloon theme at Sean Connolly's burger den out the back of The Morrison but besides an Old West font used for the Parlour Burger logo, I'm not sure where it is. It certainly can't be found in the television playing FashionTV or the greatest hits of the nineties soundtrack.
The waitress asks if I wanted my burger cooked pink or all the way though. Pink. Defiantly pink. Giving benefit of doubt to the kitchen, maybe she mashed the 'well-done beyond all belief' button instead because that's how the 'Original Morrison' burger ($10) I received was cooked.
It wasn't horrible. The ground beef was still tasty, the chipotle mayo had some cheek and the lettuce and tomato did what they were put here to do. It was just all little too firm on the tooth.
Connolly's chips, however…
Rating: Taste 6.5, Togetherness 4, Value 2.5, Total 13/20
Fries: As good as a chip can get. Twice-cooked in duck fat they're crisp, golden and immensely scoffable. 10/10
Funny business burger of note: The Black Widow ($10). Similar to the 'Original Morrison' burger but with a charcoal-black bun and jalapenos. While visually striking I'm really at a loss to discern any difference in taste between the charcoal bun and its standard counterpart.
225 George St, Sydney, 9247 6744, parlourburger.com.au
Is it workshop, cafe, bar, or function space? Well, technically it's a museum, full of old workbenches, art deco lights, antique fuel pumps, and 10 of the 64 Crocker motorcycles ever made. Created in 1930's Los Angeles, the Crocker was a bike built for speed and if you can find an original for sale today expect to pay about US $1 million.
1346Venice is producing new Crockers for the market in 2015 (you'll still have to re-mortgage to buy one) and flipping burgers in the meantime. US-native Duncan Fitzpatrick works the grill. His aim is to produce an an American burger for the Australian palate - in other words something not too heavy on fat and queasy grease. The 'Juicy Lucy' ($16) is a big boss of a burger with the bare essentials of house-made barbecue sauce, mustard, pickles, and cheese. It's delicious and the use of wagyu shoulder in the pattie, gouda for the cheese, and luxe bread for the bun means you don't want to fall asleep on one of the reconditioned armchairs after eating one.
Rating: Taste 9, Togetherness 4.5, Value 3, Total 16.5/20
Fries: Crunchy, golden shoestrings with a sprinkling of mixed herbs. 6.5/10.
Funny business burger of note: 'Veggie Fritter' ($14). Fried zucchini, pea and herb fritter, grilled halloumi, lettuce and sweet chilli sauce.
24 Ameila St, Waterloo, 8971 8114, 1346venice.com
Other not-so-recently opened spots for a burger fix and one awesome food truck
Nighthawk Diner Food Truck, thenighthawk.com.au
The Fish Shop, 22 Challis Ave, Potts Point
Mary's, 6 Mary St, Newtown
The Oxford Tavern, 1 New Canterbury Rd, Petersham
The Burger Shed, 914 Military Rd, Mosman
James' Bistro, Cnr Smart St and The Crescent, Fairfield
North Cronulla Beach Kiosk, 1 Prince St, Cronulla
The Milk Bar by Cafe Ish, 105 Regent St, Redfern
Paper Plane Cafe, 5/2 Horwood Pl, Parramatta
Wombat Cafe at Riverlands Caravan Park, 615 Wisemans Ferry Rd, Gunderman (NB: It has a burger that is 2.4 kilograms)
THE BUSINESS OF BURGERS
The rush of toqued chefs into the burger market might appear a money grab, but the reality is it isn't the easy ticket many believe. In terms of food cost, the margins on producing a quality burger can be as tight as seen in fine dining.
Chur Burger owner Warren Turnbull says the food cost of his burgers run between 30-40 per cent of total cost, compared with a 33 per cent ceiling at Assiette, the fine-dining restaurant Turnbull operated in Surry Hills before launching Chur Burger at the site.
"Buns cost about a dollar, patties around $1.80. It is expensive if you are using good ingredients, it's a volume business," he says.
Not that Turnbull is complaining. Factor in sides and beverages and he says he's making more money than he ever did at the pointy end of Sydney dining. Turnbull sells a reliable 3000 burgers a week [at $10 a pop] from his Albion Street outlet.
Justin Hemmes has noticeably remained on the sidelines of the Sydney burger race. He's cautious of the food cost coupled with the public perception of burgers being a cheap food item.
"It'd probably cost me as much to buy a good bun as it costs McDonalds to make a whole burger," Hemmes says.
The lasagne burger Danny Russo created for Balmain's Bertoni Casalinga has a higher food cost than anything the chef has had on a menu in a career at the luxury end of the Sydney restaurant market. "It is 50 per cent. We use great meat and really good lasagne. If you had to price it for the right amount you wouldn't sell any," Russo explains.
Neil Perry forged his reputation in the burger game at Rockpool Bar & Grill where punters snack at the bar on a $24 hamburger made with David Blackmore wagyu, bacon, gruyere and zuni pickle.
Perry has shelved the wagyu at Burger Project, his foray into the standalone burger segment that rolled out its first burgers last week at World Square. The grass-fed beef burgers at The Burger Project start at $7.90.
"I'm shooting for the same food cost I do in all my restaurants: 34 per cent," Perry says.
The veteran chef calculates the operation needs to sell 500 burgers a day to break even. He's aiming to sell 1000.
"You probably make the most money from drinks. And I'm hopeful we'll be smart and make money on the roster. Wage costs are such a big factor and I've created my first restaurant without waiters. Yippee," Perry says.
Correction: the photogallery accompanying this story incorrectly labelled the The Juicy Lucy burger from 1346Venice. This has been fixed.