Chefs' Picks: Atlanta Burgers
We’re making our way across the country, finding chefs’ favorite burgers in a variety of cities. We’ve talked to chefs about their picks in New York City, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco. Now we’re hitting Atlanta, looking for the best burgers in the Peach State.
Atlanta native Linton Hopkins, chef-owner of the acclaimed Holeman and Finch Public House, can be credited with creating one of the city’s most-sought-after burgers. When it comes to sating his own burger cravings, he has plenty of contemporary go-tos — including the double stack at Bocado and the classic steakhouse burgers from Marcel and Bones — but the version from The Varsity has been a lifelong favorite. “Burgers have honestly always been a dear companion in my edible journey. It’s a memory of being with my grandfather and going to The Varsity as a boy for a cheeseburger,” he says. “After enduring chemotherapy and radiation, I lost my taste for a number of different foods, but never for cheeseburgers. Getting a cheeseburger has always been there for me: It’s a comfort food and a memory food. The Varsity cheeseburger — it’s simple and fast food, but it’s good. The Varsity is a special place in this city.”
Before the H&F Burger was available on the regular menu, this daunting double stack’s only-after-10 p.m. availability created intense burger fervor among Atlanta diners and chefs alike, including Pastry Chef Carrie Hudson of West Egg Café. “Chef [Linton] Hopkins of H&F holds dear the same traditional burger qualities I do: American cheese and grease,” she says. Personal chef and cookbook author Jennifer Hill Booker describes herself as an “absolute lover of burgers” and counts Holeman & Finch as one of her top two spots. “The burger patties at H&F are made from the trimmings of their brisket and steaks,” she notes. “They are layered with cheese, topped with their in-house bread-and-butter pickles and sandwiched between two toasted brioche buns. Amazing!”
For Chef Jonathan Fox of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q (where the brisket burger consistently earns top marks), burgers have always been part of life. “Growing up in Texas there were outstanding old-school burger shops on every corner,” he recalls. “A burger is comfort: When you have had a bad or long day, a burger and a cold beer is what you think of.” One of his favorite Atlanta burgers is The Meatstick from his Inman Park neighbor, Chef Robert Phalen of One Eared Stag. Fox admits, “I normally prefer a single big-patty cheeseburger, but Chef Phalen creates this double-patty burger with house-ground chuck and bacon in the mix. Two slices of American cheese, loads of super-thin shaved white onion and housemade pickles on a super-soft buttery brioche bun also made in-house.”
Chef Justin Fox, the other brother in Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, also has firm opinions about burgers. He gives a nod to the one at Holeman & Finch (“It’s a classic!”), but these days he has eyes for The Hank at Illegal Food. “The Hank is an eight-ounce patty of local beef, griddled and served on a brioche roll with special sauce,” he says. “My favorite part is the thin-sliced sweet onion and shaved iceberg lettuce … it's simple and just an all-around good burger!”
Ask Chef-Restaurateur Ford Fry about burgers and he’s likely to get a little sentimental: “Burgers, to me, are like a good dog who sticks with me through thick and thin. I love cooking burgers because when I really focus on all the components that make up the burger, a magical thing happens — and it’s just perfect.” This would explain the proliferation of choice burger options at his own restaurants, like the thick, wood-fired patties at JCT. Kitchen & Bar and King + Duke, or the nostalgia-inducing thin-patty American creations at Marcel and BeetleCat. When he’s not achieving burger nirvana in his own kitchens, he heads to The General Muir. “My friend Todd Ginsberg has always made a mean thin-patty burger,” says Fry. “Good blend, good crust, a nice juiciness, perfectly soft and squishy bread, and a crisp iceberg lettuce ‘sail.’”
Like many chefs, Hugh Acheson loves cooking burgers, but they are restricted to a monthly indulgence for his family. When he seeks out a restaurant burger, he heads to Grindhouse’s Piedmont location and orders up a Double Apache at the counter. “The Double Apache burger is a messy favorite. Hatch green chiles and Jack cheese make my day,” he says, “and the crinkle fries are a classic touch.” The Apache style is one of Grindhouse’s most-popular burgers, built atop a ground chuck-brisket patty seasoned with salt and pepper on one side only, griddled on a flat top, crowned with toppings on side two to finish cooking, then tucked into a toasted potato bun with shredded lettuce.
“Some babies are born with bottles and rattles ... I had cheeseburgers and fries,” Chef Richard Blais admits. When he’s not overseeing the lineup of creative burgers, novelty fried items and mad-scientist-inspired liquid nitrogen milkshakes at Flip Burger, he give props to The Spence for its “killer rendition” of a Juicy Lucy (which he helped add to the menu during his tenure there). Chef Kyle Forson has ensured that the Juicy Lucy holds court among Atlanta’s top burgers with an irresistible patty-cheese-bun combo: White cheddar is stuffed into the patty — a blend of brisket, short rib, chuck and light dry-aged beef fat — fired in a wood-burning oven and nestled into a soft brioche roll. Proceed with caution when eating; the burger lives up to its name, with a molten, cheesy center.
Chef Robert Phalen makes a much-praised burger at One Eared Stag, but his favorite Atlanta burger is a little farther off the radar. “I really like this little tiny grocery store called Little's Food Store,” he says. “It's not that there is something incredibly unique about the Little's burgers; they're just good. They take me back to my childhood — we had a place just like Little's close to my house where I grew up.” Chef Todd Ginsberg of The General Muir concurs: “Little's Grocery [in Cabbagetown] is my favorite place to get a burger. It's the old-school vibe of a small convenience store that you would find in a town with a population of 500. It sells some cool groceries, beers, sodas, and then there's the kitchen that just makes a great burger that makes me smile every time I eat one. Squishy potato bun. Well-griddled meat. Juicy. Unpretentious. A Coke, burger and fries. If they weren't created for each other, they sure fooled me.”
Photos courtesy of Audra Starr, Bart Sasso, Henri Hollis of Green Olive Media, Sarah Dodge, Andrew Thomas Lee, Tori Allen PR, Heidi Geldhauser and Little's Food Store