As Adam Berger travels from town to town recruiting hockey players, he also seeks out the best hamburgers wherever he goes.
"There is nothing better than a simple char-grilled burger with cheddar cheese and fresh-cut fries," says Berger, the assistant hockey coach at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vt. "It's always interesting to try the different grinds and creations."
A puck of beef means a lot to the aptly named Berger and to many other frequent business travelers. A well-made burger is not only tasty, but is often a quick meal for a tight schedule and easy on a travel budget.
Next time burger-loving business travelers crave a fix, why not head to a place considered among the best?
Restaurant guidebook and online publisher Zagat makes that possible by identifying for USA TODAY the top burger joints in or near 25 cities.
Nearly all are inexpensive, and many may not be suitable for entertaining a client. They were selected for their mouthwatering burgers. And at some, be prepared for rude or surly service, only counter service, no dinner hours and no credit cards. There is no bathroom at Zagat's choice in Boston, for instance, and its selection in Las Vegas is a food truck.
In Atlanta, Zagat's top-rated burger joint, the Vortex Bar & Grill, has its own unique vibe.
Besides delicious "food-coma-inducing burgers" and an "amazing selection of beers and single-malts, the restaurant has a "vintage Goth décor, a sexy biker vibe" and "customer-isn't-always-right service from a punk-rock staff," Zagat and its reviewers say.
In the Kansas City area, the "bustling" vibe at Burger Stand at the Casbah, a "cool" Lawrence, Kan., joint, "feels vital without being obnoxious," Zagat and its reviewers say.
The joint has "outstanding gourmet burgers and the best sides," including truffle and duck-fat fries.
The secret is out
New York's top hamburger restaurant, the Burger Joint, is an anomaly, and, according to Zagat and its reviewers, the city's "worst-kept secret."
It's a "burger speak-easy hidden behind a giant curtain" in the luxurious lobby of the Le Parker Meridien hotel, where the daily room rate exceeds $325. The speak-easy "flips damn-fine patties in tacky digs," lacks service, has long lines and a cash-only policy, Zagat and its reviewers say.
In Portland, Ore., Killer Burger's "fun twists on the old-fashioned burger" lure patrons to its two restaurants, where every burger is served with bacon.
"The affordable, cardiologist-worthy lineup includes a crazy-but-delicious potion with peanut butter sauce, pickles and bacon, plus the addictive bottomless fries come gratis," Zagat and its reviewers say.
Zagat co-chair Tim Zagat says "the burger is one of the great American comfort foods." In a recent Zagat survey, diners reported that they eat one hamburger weekly, he says.
"When traveling for business, a burger can be a welcome alternative to pricey hotel dining and formal meals," Tim Zagat says. "For travelers eating alone, sitting down for a casual burger is much less intimidating than lingering over a three-course meal."
Zagat says that "every city puts a different spin on their burgers" and he hopes Zagat's best-burger list "helps travelers discover some of the tastiest patties around the country."
Not on the list are restaurants such as Menches Bros., in Green and Massillon, Ohio, and Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Conn., which claim their founders originated the popular American sandwich.
Lines regularly snake out the door at tiny Louis' Lunch, which cooks its burgers in 19th-century cast-iron gas grills.
The succulent burgers are served on toast, and "cheese, tomato and onion are the only acceptable garnish," the restaurant's website says. No flavor-altering ketchup is available, though some diners sneak in their own from home.
Two favorite joints of Berger, the Vermont hockey coach, are also not on Zagat's list. He recommends R.F. O'Sullivan & Son, which has more than 20 burgers on its menu, in Somerville, Mass., and Gateway Market in Des Moines.
"R.F. O'Sullivan & Son has one of - if not the best - burgers I have ever had," Berger says. "It is a half-pound patty that is so large it takes 20 minutes to make and is worth every minute it takes."
Gateway Market serves "a fantastic, simple burger that is cooked to perfection and uses a unique chuck and brisket grind," he says. It is "incredibly juicy and tasty" and "one of the best burgers and grinds I have had."
The top restaurants for hamburgers in or near 25 U.S. cities, according to restaurant guidebook and online publisher Zagat. Comments about each restaurant are by Zagat and its reviewers.The cost is the average price of a meal for one person with a drink and a tip.
Vortex Bar & Grill, $19.
Known for its amazing selection of beers and single-malts and mouthwatering, coma-inducing burgers, vintage Goth decor, a sexy biker vibe and the customer-isn't-always-right service from a punk-rock staff.
Hopdoddy Burger Bar, $17.
Simple burger bar turns out juicy, flavorful patties on freshly baked buns backed by heavenly floats and shakes made with house-churned ice creams (with spiked versions for the grown-ups).
Baltimore (Owings Mills)
Impeccable modern American cuisine at this serene spot in Owings Mills that's been charming sophisticated diners for about a quarter-century.
Mr. Bartley's, $17.
If burgers are the foundation of civilization, Mr. Bartley is a founding father, proclaim patty-partisans of this cash-only, bathroom-less Harvard Square restaurant with tiny communal tables.
Bad Daddy's Burger Bar, $17.
Options, baby, options are the draws at these super-upbeat joints where the huge burgers (made from beef, poultry, pork, buffalo, tuna or black beans) are available with an endless array of amazing toppings.
Edzo's Burger Shop, $12.
Top-of-the-line burgers with tons of options for customization, plus a fantastic selection of imaginative to-die-for fries and transcendent thick malts in terrific flavors, at this counter-service joint.
Dallas/ Fort Worth
Maple & Motor, $14.
A budget burgertory in a renovated Love Field gas station slinging greasy, cheesy, amazing burgers, must-try onion rings and tater tots that make you think you're back in elementary school.
Denver (Castle Rock)
Crave Real Burgers, $17.
This humble Castle Rock joint takes the burger to an entirely new level with creative combinations featuring unique toppings, delicious chili cheese fries and awesome adult shakes.
Fort Lauderdale (Hollywood)
Le Tub, $23.
In a crummy old former gas station in Hollywood festooned with driftwood, old tubs and toilets, you'll find what Oprah and others say are the best burgers ever - artery-clogging beasts worth ditching your diet.
Honolulu (North Shore)
Kua 'Aina Sandwich, $15.
A North Shore shop with a surf shack atmosphere and its strip-mall Ward Centers' offshoot serve up juicy burgers, some of the best drippy, messy sandwiches and delicious salads.
Goode Co. Burgers, $15.
Mesquite-grilled burgers and other tasty Tex-Mex soul food standards hit the spot at this West U counter-service joint.
Kansas City (Lawrence, Kan.)
Burger Stand at the Casbah, $17.
Outstanding gourmet burgers and the best sides (including the truffle or duck-fat fries) make this cool Lawrence joint a new classic with a bustling vibe that feels vital without being obnoxious.
Slidin' Thru, $11.
A seminal fixture in the food-truck scene, this mobile bitty-burger purveyor slings an excellent variety of killer sliders. Its Northwest bricks-and-mortar site means you don't have to chase the van to sample the delicious patties.
Golden State, $19.
Go for the revelatory, amazingly made burgers and keep the pigout ball rolling with sweet potato fries and Coke floats at this tiny Fairfax storefront.
Miami (North Miami)
Flip Burger Bar, $20.
North Miamians enamored of the outstanding juicy patties and toasted goodness of the brioche buns at this friendly plain-Jane joint claim it's a real competitor to the South Beach burger scene.
Burger Joint, $17.
Probably the city's worst-kept secret, this burger speak-easy hidden behind a giant curtain in the Le Parker Meridien lobby flips fine patties in tacky digs quite at odds with its luxurious hotel setting.
Pine Twenty2, $14.
At this downtown counter-serve, you construct your own gourmet burger from the high-quality, locally sourced ingredients and choose from a fantastic beer selection.
Super-messy burgers and other comfort-food classics are worth the hike to this Fishtown joint where diners doodle while they wait, and seating options include vintage church pews.
Killer Burger, $13.
Fun twists on the old-fashioned burger draw meatheads to these Hollywood-Sellwood patty places, where the cardiologist-worthy lineup includes a crazy-but-delicious option with peanut butter sauce, pickles and bacon.
Squeeze Inn, $12.
"Squeeze with cheese, please" plead those who hit this mini-chain for a mouthwatering, manly burger dressed with a big, otherworldly skirt of crunchy fried fromage.
Salt Lake City
Hire's Big H, $12.
Classic, homestyle burgers with Utah's famous fry sauce are a hit with Salt Lakers of all ages at this downtown landmark (with outposts in Midvale and West Valley).
In-N-Out Burger, $10.
Rated most popular chain in San Diego, this classic-Cal burger chain is beloved for fresh-cut fries, fresh-cut produce and fresh beef that add up to heaven on a bun.
San Francisco (Berkeley)
900 Grayson, $23.
This funky Berkeley restaurant cooks an outstanding burger and a sinful version of chicken and waffles from a menu of classics with a twist.
Broiler Bay, $13.
Bellevue gets its burger on at this beloved local hole-in-the-wall serving fat, juicy patties plus tasty subs and sides with no pretense.
Washington (Arlington, Va.)
Ray's Hell Burger 3, $16.
Ray's original Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., just closed. But across the street, at Ray's to the Third, you can get epic patties made from quality steak cuttings, with juices dripping down your forearm.
By Gary Stoller