‘Rate the beef and drink the beer’

Burger Night Out group makes 150th stop over 15 years
Vintage Burger with fries and a beer
Big Sky Burger with Knoche’s beef patty topped with bacon, cheddar, fried onion rings and BBQ sauce. Vintage was the 150th stop for Burger Night Out.

One Thursday evening last month, a loosely affiliated group of Madison area carnivores gathered to commemorate a milestone. They celebrated by eating a hamburger and drinking a beer.

The setting was Vintage Spirits and Grill on University Avenue, and it marked — cue drumroll — the 150th stop on a nearly 15-year, once-a-month excursion that began with one goal in mind.

“We’re out,” Bob “Bear” Phillips says, “in search of the perfect burger.”

Phillips, 66, is the ringleader of an informal club, founded in Madison in 2005, that calls itself Burger Night Out.

Twenty-eight guys showed up for the meeting in February, a turnout boosted (an attendance of 15 to 20 is normal) by the anniversary.

“I got an email from a guy who completely forgot it was the 150th,” Phillips says. “He felt awful.”

Phillips has attended 149 of the 150 gatherings, which began in 2005.

“That’s a lot of cholesterol,” he says.

Bob Phillips Out At Burger Night

Bob “Bear” Phillips

Phillips missed that one time when the group went to Feiler’s, the late, lamented Verona Road supper club just off the Beltline.

“I had a wedding to go to,” Phillips says, his tone suggesting external forces may have been at work.

Phillips is a Madison native and a 1972 West High School grad who got his “Bear” nickname as kid.

“I was chunky,” he says. Crawling through some underbrush with his buddies, one turned to him and said, “You look just like a fat bear.”

“It stuck,” says Phillips, who today works at Trader Joe’s and Gallant Knight Limousine, Inc.

It was a cold night in November 2005 when Phillips’ friend and neighbor, Dan Roehre, suggested they walk over to the original Tony Frank’s on Seminole Highway (now the Badger Tavern) for a burger and beer.

A second beer was entertained. The conversation turned philosophical. Wouldn’t it be fun, Roehre said, if we went around town eating and rating burgers?

“We could call it Burger Night Out,” Phillips said.

The second gathering included two more buddies and was held in March 2006 at the Oakcrest Tavern (a long-celebrated Madison burger joint) on Old Middleton Road. Though Roehre eventually dropped out, the group grew and the burger nights became a monthly event in 2010.

Attending members rate the burgers on a scale of 1 to 10 and are encouraged to include ambiance, service and staff friendliness. Scores are totaled and divided by the number of judges to produce a numerical rating. Only a few burgers have scored 9 or above. The highest score yet recorded belongs to the Vintage Brewing Co. on Whitney Way, a cousin to the location the group visited last month.

At the end of each Burger Night Out, Phillips passes the hat and attendees are encouraged to make a donation to Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin. Last year they donated $2,000. This year’s goal: $2,020. (The guy who forgot the 150th has pledged an extra donation.)

As the club’s impresario — and in recognition of his exhaustive field research — Phillips is often asked about his personal favorite burger.

He mentions two: the burgers at the Alchemy Cafe on Atwood Avenue and Licari’s on Emil Street off the Beltline. Two more different establishments you could not find, which is part of the genius of Burger Night Out: It’s a big tent.

Phillips has the group scheduled out through 2022. In 2023, the plan is to revisit the top 12 burgers, one each month. Phillips says he is looking forward to the visit this July to the Full Mile Beer Co. and Kitchen in Sun Prairie, co-owned by Nate Kinderman, who some people (including me) will remember from his service during the early days of Gates and Brovi on Monroe Street.

Phillips has done advance work at the Full Mile. “That burger is awesome,” he says. “Hands down a 10.”

The group has a website and blog but visitors will find Phillips hasn’t updated it lately. He’s spending too much time at the gym, probably.

Newcomers are welcome, though at some point during during their first evening they can expect to be asked to sing the Burger Night Out official song.

“They look dumbfounded,” Phillips says. “Because, of course, there is no song.”

Instead, they croon the official slogan:

“Once a month let’s make it clear — rate the beef and drink the beer.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.