14 ‘best of’ Madison burgers

You voted and here were your top choices
14 ‘best of’ Madison burgers
Photo courtesy of Food Fight, Inc.

Hamburger beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s unnecessary and pretentious artisanal condiment is another person’s minimum requirement. Who are we to say? Fortunately, we don’t have to make those difficult decisions because every year Madison Magazine readers tell us who serves the best burgers in town in the Best of Madison poll. We publish the poll and tell you the top few vote-getters every spring in our Best of Madison issue. Listed here are the 14 top-nominated hamburger restaurants in Dane County according to you, the Madison Magazine reader, who cast your votes on the 2017 Best of Madison ballot. Democracy is imperfect. If your favorite is missing, don’t blame us. Blame rural voters. Blame Russia. No matter the results, we all just have to swallow them. (And these vote-winning burgers.)

Blue Moon Bar & Grill
Blue Moon Bar & Grill missed finishing third by one vote, but there is an item on the menu called The Best Burger in Town. It does the big things right and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. The buns at Blue Moon are buttered and toasted, and the beef for the half-pound burgers is ground at Knoche’s Market and Butcher Shop on Old Middleton Road. The Cajun burger is blackened and fried in Cajun spices. The Pile Driver burger has ham, three kinds of cheese and fried onions. Let’s face it, sometimes a hamburger is really just a french fry delivery device. It’s lunchtime, you want fries, but you would feel funny ordering just fries. Well, the fries at Blue Moon are crinkle cut and do a great job of holding onto the salt. The small order feeds one to two and the large feeds three to four–or one rather hungry person who wants to eat just fries. 2535 University Ave. $14 ‘best of’ Madison burgers

Brasserie V
Brasserie V says it serves “local fare with a French-Belgian flair.” It has two hamburgers on the menu at any given time, the V burger and the seasonal V burger. If there were a hundred burgers on the menu, you would probably only ever order one of these because they are that good. The V burger has Highland Spring Farm Scottish Highland beef, Muenster cheese, beer-battered onion straws, spinach, tomato and aioli on toasted sourdough bread. The Fall V burger is Highland Spring Farm beef, Brussels sprout slaw, made-from-scratch bacon aioli and Swiss cheese on a Madison Sourdough bun. During other times of the year, the Fall V burger is replaced by, you guessed it, the Winter V burger, the Spring V burger and the Summer V burger. Because Brasserie V is French-Belgian it doesn’t serve fries–it serves frites. Really, really good ones. It is also worthwhile to note that there are 26 beers on tap. Twenty-six! 1923 Monroe St. $

DLUX is Food Fight Restaurant Group’s representative on the list, and it serves as further evidence that those Food Fight people know what they are doing. DLUX has eight “beef burgers” on its menu and six “sorta burgers” that are founded on things like salmon, chicken and beans. The sorta burgers are all quite good, but something tells us the voters were thinking of the beef burgers at DLUX. Frito Bandito burger is the most fun. It has roasted poblano peppers, spicy Cholula cream cheese, white cheddar, chili-cheese Fritos and bacon. Porky’s Revenge has onion jam, American cheese, mustard aioli, pickles and crispy pork belly. The Farmhouse has the good sense to add fried green tomato with bacon, tomato jam and Monterey Jack cheese. No DLUX burger contains a fried egg, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. 117 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. $ BOM14 ‘best of’ Madison burgers

Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry
This “world hamburger headquarters” has often been among the top three burgers voted Best of Madison by readers. Dotty’s grills all of its burgers in plain sight and doesn’t mess around with a lot of bun. Indeed, the bun usually disintegrates by the time you’ve finished the burger and it has outlived its usefulness. The bun’s purpose is to deliver a delicious burger into one’s gob. At last count there were 15 burgers on Dotty’s menu. That breadth does nothing to reduce each item’s quality. One of the newest entries is the Pub, with melted Muenster cheese, bacon, peppercorn aioli and onion jam. An all-time favorite is the Heart Throb, with pepper jack cheese, bacon and Dotty’s own Heart Throb Sauce, made with cream cheese, cilantro, jalapeño and garlic. We would love Dotty’s even if it didn’t have amazing french fries, but Dotty’s does have amazing french fries, and awfully good cheese curds and tap beer, too. 317 N. Frances St. $ BOM

What won Graze a spot on the list of top burgers in Madison was its Pub burger. But this menu item at chef Tory Miller’s restaurant–which featured grass-fed Highland beef from Fountain Prairie Inn & Farms with cheese from Hook’s Cheese Co., tomato, onions and bacon inside a fresh, doughy English muffin–has since been retired. What? No burger on the menu? Take it easy–in its place now is the Graze burger, which takes the Capitol Square eatery’s burger game up another notch. The patty is ground short ribs and sirloin, which is then topped with bacon, caramelized onion-cabernet jus and Hook’s Swiss Emmental compound butter. This all comes to you on a SarVecchio brioche bun. While the Pub burger had a seemingly simple construction and didn’t try to dazzle you with its creativity, it overwhelmed you with its quality by breaking down every element of the cheeseburger and making it, in isolation, as good as it can be. Turns out, its successor is no different. 1 S. Pinckney St. $$

The Great Dane
Behold the Great Dane brat and bacon pretzel burger: seven ounces of grilled ground beef and a four-ounce grilled ground bratwurst patty, with stout-caramelized onions, applewood smoked bacon and sharp cheddar cheese. It’s served on a pretzel roll with a side of Peck’s Pilsner mustard. Let that all sink in for a second. Yes, it’s a hamburger and a bratwurst. You no longer have to choose. The Great Dane could have stopped there, but it didn’t. The Sustain-A-Burger is based on local, grass-fed beef or buffalo and local cheddar cheese. The Texarkana burger is seven ounces of broiled beef, with sharp cheddar, barbecue sauce, bacon, haystack onions and chipotle cream cheese. The Great Dane All-American burger is a newer addition: a half-pound of Angus short rib and chuck burger from famous New York butcher Pat LaFreida, topped with thick-cut bacon, white American cheese, lettuce, shaved onion, tomato, pickles, thousand island dressing and a butter-grilled seeded bun. There are not many famous butchers, but the Great Dane found one and put LaFreida’s work on the menu. 123 E. Doty St., 876 Jupiter Drive, 357 Price Place, 2980 Cahill Main, Fitchburg $$ BOM

Mickey’s Tavern
Mickey’s Tavern has not always been what you would call a culinary destination. But the Mickey burger now serves as the anchor for a menu that seems to keep getting better and better. The burger is one-third pound of ground round mixed with spicy giardiniera–pickled vegetables–and other herbs, chili aioli and buttermilk-battered fried onions. Accompanying the burger might be the Sexy Fries, which are hand-sliced potatoes tossed and pan-fried with white truffle oil, Parmesan cheese, chives and crushed red pepper, or maybe even the Super Sexy Fries, regular french fries with the same truffle oil, Parmesan and crushed red pepper and deep-fried. All of this is served up by bad-assed, friendly, tattooed bartenders in a space not much larger than the average kitchen and dining room. There are no waiters or waitresses at Mickey’s Tavern, possibly because they would take up too much room. 1524 Williamson St. $14 ‘best of’ Madison burgers

Nitty Gritty
Best of Madison voters apparently like the burgers as much as they like the unlimited free beer on their birthdays at Madison’s official birthday place. You can get a hamburger at Nitty Gritty that doesn’t have Gritty Sauce on it, but why would anyone do that? In all, there are 14 distinct burgers on the Nitty Gritty menu, but you can add Gritty Sauce–something like thousand island salad dressing, but creamier and more complex–to just about any of them without losing anything. The Pretzel Bender burger gives you onion rings, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and house-made horseradish mustard on a pretzel bun. The Wisconsinite burger has summer sausage, fried onions, cheddar and aioli. There are not a lot of burger joints with the wisdom to put summer sausage on a hamburger. 223 N. Frances St., 1021 N. Gammon Road, Middleton, 315 E. Linnerud Drive, Sun Prairie $$ BOM

Oakcrest Tavern
The one-third-pound burgers at Oakcrest Tavern are made with steak trimmings ground daily at Knoche’s Market and Butcher Shop. Many hamburger merchants in Madison get their meat from Knoche’s and make it a selling point. And with good reason because everybody loves Knoche’s. This brag carries more weight for Oakcrest Tavern, however, because Knoche’s is literally right across the street, less than 20 yards away. Indeed, an Old Middleton Road crosswalk connects the two establishments. That’s beyond local. It’s the home field advantage, and you are playing all of the games in the same place. Oakcrest doesn’t get too fancy with “the burgers that made Oakcrest famous,” but they do take the extra effort to toast the buns. A toasted bun is almost always a good idea. Oakcrest recognizes this the same way it recognizes the difference between local and right next door. 5371 Old Middleton Road $

The Old Fashioned
We might not think of The Old Fashioned as a burger joint, but those who answer the Madison Magazine poll seem to think the Old Fashioned is great at just about everything. Monday is cheeseburger night at The Old Fashioned, and the permanent menu has three burgers to choose from. For some reason, the Old Fashioned takes the trouble to number each item on its menu even though each item also has a name. The burgers are numbers 28, 29 and 30. Do with that information what you will. All of the burgers are grilled and come on a buttered, toasted bun. The Wisconsin burger has cheddar cheese, olive oil mayonnaise and raw onion. The Spicy burger has pepperjack cheese, jalapeño, fried onions, Bavaria’s hickory-smoked bacon and smoked paprika sauce. The Old Fashioned house burger has fried onions, Bavaria Sausage’s hickory-smoked bacon, aged cheddar, garlic sauce and a soft-cooked egg. All of them are great, but you already know that. 23 N. Pinckney St. $ BOM

The Plaza Tavern
In 2008, a man named George Motz wrote a book called “Hamburger America,” and The Plaza Tavern was one of the 150 burgers he featured. Motz calls himself “America’s foremost hamburger expert,” and has even taught a class on hamburgers at New York University. You can’t stop The Plaza, you can only hope to contain it. The meat you get in the Plazaburger is fine, but nothing like the grass-fed, locally sourced, etc., etc. you will find elsewhere on this list. That’s not the point. It’s about the Plazaburger’s secret sauce. It’s white and creamy and has been around since 1964, but has managed to stay a secret. It is said that the recipe is kept in a safe deposit box. The sauce is based in sour cream and mayonnaise, but also manages to be salty, tangy and somehow, some way, fresh tasting. 319 N. Henry St. $ BOM

The Tipsy Cow
Because the Tipsy Cow doesn’t want you to settle for just one layer of meat, it brings you the Smash burger, its signature dish. The Tipsy burger consists of two quarter-pound ground beef patties from Knoche’s Market and Butcher Shop smashed together with aged cheddar cheese, Widmer’s brick cheese, Nueske’s bacon, house-made pickles and Tipsy sauce in between. Tipsy sauce is a bit spicy and not very sweet. It’s perfect for these burgers. The basic cheeseburger comes with one, two, three or four quarter-pound patties smashed together with cheese and raw or fried onion. One pound is a lot of hamburger, but it seems smaller when it’s smashed. There is some kind of physical principle at play here that perhaps cannot be explained with mere human logic. 102 King St. $

Varsity Bar & Grill, Sun Prairie
Varsity Bar & Grill in Sun Prairie gives sports fans more credit than most sports bars. Varsity understands that we can multitask. We can watch the big game, drink beer, still read a menu and maybe even ask the server a question or two. Just because we are sports fans doesn’t mean we can’t discern the subtle flavors that make the Varsity burger better than most bar burgers. It has fried onion straws, a pretzel bun, bacon, pepper jack cheese and Varsity sauce. The sauce is a spicier concoction than what you are probably used to. The Smoke House burger has barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese and more of those top-notch onion straws, piled high. The french fries are also very good at Varsity, as are the sweet potato fries. Sweet potato fries are not a staple of the typical American sports bar, and Varsity trusts its patrons to appreciate the difference. 1205 W. Main St., Sun Prairie $ BOM

The Weary Traveler Freehouse
Bob’s Bad Breath burger is a half-pound of ground beef from just down the street at the Underground Butcher. Then they add cream cheese, green goddess dressing, caramelized onions, garlic, tomatoes and Pickapeppa sauce. If that sounds sloppy, that’s because it is. You have a problem with that? It is possible to put too much on a hamburger, and Weary Traveler flirts with crossing that line. That might be the point: How far can we go with this hamburger without losing people? How many sauces are too many sauces? Whatever the answer, Bob’s Bad Breath burger works for the Weary Traveler. It has been a mainstay since the restaurant opened more than 15 years ago, and you have voted it the sixth-best burger in Madison. One more item of interest: the Weary Traveler dares to serve burgers without french fries. That’s OK, because the pan-fried potatoes are some of the best around. 1201 Williamson St. $

Dustin Beilke is a Madison-based freelance writer (who loves a good burger).

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