11 standout Madison burger restaurants
Start here to explore Madison’s stacked burger scene.
Hey. Want to grab a burger? It’s a simple invitation, really — one no self-respecting meat lover would ever think to refuse. But it’s what comes after that makes all the difference, because one of the food world’s greatest truisms most definitely applies here: A burger is never simply a burger. That’s especially true in Madison, where a range of grills, taverns and upscale joints have stamped their unique takes on this oh-so-American entree. While some like to go big with oversized grilled patties piled high with ingredients familiar and fantastical, others opt to pack a ton of flavor into a small smashburger, sweating every condiment. Whichever way suits your own burger-loving fancy, start here to explore Madison’s stacked burger scene.
Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry
We’ll start, as seems appropriate, with the OG: the late Jeff Stanley’s burger palace, now expertly run by his daughter and resident burger princess, Rachael Stanley. Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry has always understood what makes a burger great: Think tender hunks of grilled ground beef soaking the bun with greasy goodness in the best possible way. The Melting Pot Burger is the standard here, with its triple-cheese attack and old-style garlic sauce elevating the proceedings. Frankly, even though there’s no shortage of specialty burgers on the menu, a Dotty’s burger doesn’t require anything but the basics to blow you away with taste. Let’s put it this way: There’s a reason Dotty’s is closing in on its 50th anniversary in Madison. 317 N. Frances St., 259-0000, dottydumplingsdowry.com
Jonah Rademacher, the head chef at Alchemy Café, claims his bar and grill was merely trying to do “a good representation of a simple burger” when several years ago it debuted the Apple Rum Burger, one of Madison’s dark horse burger options. “It’s no frills, but well executed,” he says. We’ll definitely agree on the latter — the beef, procured from an ever-rotating list of local Wisconsin farms, is tender and perfectly cooked. The burger’s lone frill is the only one it really needs — the delicious sweet onion and rum relish that gives rise to the name. It’s so good that Alchemy regulars routinely order multiple refills. If spice is your thing, an extra $1 can punch things up with a house-made habanero basil aioli. As delish as that sounds, the rum relish still shines as the star. 1980 Atwood Ave., 204-7644, alchemymadison.com
Blue Moon Bar & Grill
Like some other burger joints, Blue Moon Bar & Grill opts for a ground beef mix sourced from Knoche’s Old Fashioned Butcher Shop. “Simplicity is the key,” says manager Doug Brown — but then again, so is hype. Blue Moon regards its mainstay burger on the menu so highly, it’s named Best Burger in Town. It’s also one of the biggest. At a half-pound, it feels and tastes even bigger when it comes off the Blue Moon’s compact flattop grill — and that’s before you add in ham, black olives, blue cheese or any other specialty burger ingredients offered here. Long-timers know the feeling. “Our customers have learned to order and split them,” Brown says. 2535 University Ave., 233-0441, bluemoonbar.com
For many of the burgers on this list, it’s all about the meat. With the V Burger, the centerpiece of Brasserie V’s Belgian-inflected sandwich menu, it’s certainly not not about the meat, particularly since the V is one of the only spots in town to use Scottish Highland beef from the Highland Spring Farm in Oregon, Wisconsin. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t give shoutouts to the two ingredients that really make this burger pop — toasted bread from Madison Sourdough that’s a tasty alternative to a standard bun, and the thick, house-made aioli that both powers this burger and serves as an amazing dipping sauce for the yummy Belgian frites you’d better order alongside it. Front of house manager Alex Soglin says that during the pandemic, the V has become the only burger option on the menu — but that’s OK. In this case, V is for vibrant. 1923 Monroe St., 255-8555, brasseriev.com
Brothers Three Bar & Grill
We’ll give the chefs at this homey, east-side tavern plenty of latitude to experiment when it comes to things like taco night and other weekly specials. The Brothers Three bacon cheeseburger, however, remains a straight-shooter experience, and for that, our taste buds are grateful. Talk about a solid big three ingredients: A half-pound of regionally produced ground beef, twin slices of double-cut bacon and a slab of melted cheddar cheese are all that’s needed to dial up a hearty experience that’ll quickly become one of your faves. “It’s probably the seasoning,” says kitchen manager Paully Rost when he’s asked what sets the Brothers Three burger apart — and he’s onto something. You can taste the heavy dash of black pepper, which brings all the flavors together. 614 N. Fair Oaks Ave., 244-6818, brothersthreemadison.com
It’s no small advantage for a burger joint to have a butcher shop parked right across the street, and the Oakcrest Tavern has leveraged its cosmic proximity to Knoche’s Old Fashioned Butcher Shop for decades. Oakcrest burgers aren’t made from run-of-the-mill ground beef, but from steak trimmings, resulting in thick, solid burgers that look tantalizing coming off Oakcrest’s sizable grill. This is a place where going basic means going big, which is why we’ll always opt for the Hungry Hamburger: a 3/4-pound beast on a toasted brioche bun. 5371 Old Middleton Road, 233-1243, oakcresttavernmadison.com
Weary Traveler Freehouse
You could easily argue that the alliterative Bob’s Bad Breath Burger needs no additional advertisement other than its name, especially when the garlicky odor of this entree knocks your nostrils sideways from at least 20 yards away — but allow us to respectfully disagree. The secret weapon here is not actually the copious amounts of garlic. And it’s not even the half-pound of delicious ground beef, nor the bun baked in the Weary’s basement ovens. It’s the cream cheese — an absolutely unusual choice that completely upends the concept of “cheeseburger.” Bartender Andrew Christensen, who was one of the Weary’s earliest customers back in the day, admits he was initially skeptical of the cream cheese as well, but, like so many, quickly converted. “People always tell us this is the best burger they’ve ever had,” he says. And as long as you eat it with an Empire State Building-sized tower of napkins nearby, you’re likely to agree. 1201 Williamson St., 442-6207, wearytravelerfreehouse.com
The “smashburger” — that tight package of thin ground beef that’s flash-grilled to a crisp to keep all those delicious juices trapped within — is proliferating at a smashing pace in the Madison area. We’re even at the point where we have enough key spots to fill out a separate list. So what are we waiting for? Let’s go get smashed.
Daniel Bonanno, co-owner and chef at A Pig in a Fur Coat, got a firsthand lesson on how popular the smashburger has become a few years ago at the 2019 Yum Yum Fest. Bonanno created a culinary burger masterpiece by adding bone marrow to a smashburger and sold a whopping 900. Now that same burger, the Bone Marrow Smash Double Cheeseburger, is a favorite at a place known for its small plates. It’s likely due to the marrow, which elevates the beef into the stratosphere. “We whip the marrow into the beef and it gives it a beefier, cleaner flavor,” Bonanno says. “The flavor really comes out.” With a tasty secret sauce and caramelized onions atop the burger, you can put the ketchup and mustard back in the fridge. “People want comfort in these trying times,” Bonanno says when asked to explain his smashburger’s rampant popularity. “They also want more fun, and honestly, a burger like this stays together during the takeout and curbside process [better] than some other things do.” 940 Williamson St., 316-3300, apiginafurcoat.com
Hey, kids, multiplication is fun! That’s the experience you get when you order a smashburger at Tipsy Cow, yet another local establishment that stakes its burger rep on Knoche’s beef. While manager Katherine Kehoe confides that most patrons smash it up with a Tipsy Burger (a two-patty masterpiece capped with Nueske’s bacon, Hook’s three-year aged cheddar, Widmer’s brick cheese, Mike’s pickles and spicy Tipsy sauce), you can also opt to build your own, stacking up to four perfectly smashed 1/4-pound patties and piling them with Hook’s cheddar. It’s like your very own Leaning Tower of Smashburgers. 102 King St., 287-1455; 2816 Prairie Lakes Drive, 318-0232, tipsycowmadison.com
DLUX, Food Fight Restaurant Group’s burger-banner standard-bearer, brings a more cosmopolitan approach to its double smashburgers, dressing them up with ingredients familiar and fanciful. A go-to is the Smoke Show, an upscale version of the bacon barbecue cheeseburgers most joints serve up. If your appetite’s a little greater than usual, you can order a bag of anywhere from five to 20 DLUX cheese smashburgers to go and instantly become the most popular person on your block. It’s a strategy we highly recommend. 117 Martin Luther King J. Blvd., 467-3130, dluxmadison.com
Ryan Huber, one of three friends who opened Settle Down Tavern earlier this year, has always been a hamburger guy. His first job, at 18 years old, was at Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry back when it was on Fairchild Street. His second was at the original Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. on Doty Street. “The first thing I learned to cook was burgers,” says Huber. “The best burgers are all about the little details.” Huber knew he wanted a cheeseburger at the center of the menu, so after long and deliberate collaboration with co-owners Sam Parker and Brian Bartels, and director of kitchen operations Joslyn Mink, they came up with the Good Idea Burger, a bangin’ smasher that leads with something nobody else in Madison uses — a smooth and creamy butterkäse cheese, the kind of thing you’d probably pair with crackers on a charcuterie plate. Fried onions, pickles, a mayo-based Settle Sauce and a potato bun close the deal. “We wanted a cheese that melts quickly because the burger cooks so fast,” Huber says. “Butterkäse has a good salt content and would melt the way we wanted it to.” The Good Idea Burger is a good size, and that’s by design. “We weren’t interested in creating a huge $15 burger,” says Huber. “We were more thinking, ‘You might want to eat two.’ A lot of people get two.” 117 S. Pinckney St., 442-6335, settledownmadison.com
Aaron R. Conklin is a contributor to Madison Magazine.
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