Best Burgers in the Triangle


I love burgers — no, you didn’t hear me — I said, I LOVE burgers. To me, the best burger is 6 ounces of freshly ground chuck, seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper, and cooked over a hot wood fire until a slightly crispy crust forms on the outside with a medium rare center. Add some homemade mayo, a soft, freshly baked bun, and that’s all you need. Cheese? Nah, not necessary. Bacon? I’ll save that for the BLT (using that same homemade mayo, thank you very much). I might add a thin slice of onion or tomato, but not very often. As you suspected, yes, the best burger in the Triangle is the one I make at home, using my meat grinder attachment, getting the good fatty cuts of chuck (and maybe some short rib meat, too), and doing everything to my own, overly snooty standards.

However, with a wife who doesn’t eat red meat, I don’t put on my Sam-the-Butcher-meat-grinding hat very often. In fact, the vast majority of my burgers are eaten out, and too often I end up slightly disappointed (heck, the best restaurant burger I’ve had was at Chicago’s Naha, but that’s another story for another day). Now, a mediocre burger is still pretty damn good — it’s meat on a bun, and how can you go wrong with that? However, it’s been my experience that the national burger chains, such as Red Robin, Fuddruckers, and Five Guys, fall woefully short. Some of the classic burger institutions of the area just don’t have a great burger. Sorry, folks, but Char-Grill is fun, and I enjoy a Steak Junior as much as the next guy, but their burgers aren’t good enough to make a detour.

Here is my list for top burgers in the Triangle. These are almost all places that grind their own meat. Also on this list is a burger that really doesn’t comport with my ideal criteria, but it’s a local guilty pleasure. And note that I do not claim to have tried all the burgers in the Triangle, and most of these places are in my town of Raleigh. So click on the link below to get my current top five.

  • Raleigh Times Bar: The Raleigh Times has been my favorite bar and grill since it opened. Even though my friend Ashley Christensen left long ago, the food is as good as when it opened (except I don’t think they make their own mayonnaise anymore — but who does?). Their half-pound Angus chuck burgers are ground on-site, and they manage to put a bit of a crust on them. When I accompany this with one of their Belgian ales, I’m in complete heaven.
  • Porters City Tavern: The casual restaurant of the Urban Food Group’s mini-empire, Porters has been my “go-to” burger joint for the last several years. Maybe it’s because the place is only a mile from my house. Maybe it’s because their 8 ounce burger is so juicy and tender that it’s the only burger I routinely cut in half. Maybe it’s because the burger is cooked precisely to order every time. And maybe it’s because my two sons both have concluded Porters is their favorite burger. Who cares, as it’s a great sandwich?
  • Abbey Road Pub and Grill: This dark Cary establishment serves a whopping 10 ounce Angus burger that is cooked to order. It’s almost too big, quite honestly, but I’m not complaining. The meat lacks the flavor of my other favorites, but if Abbey Road were located next door, I’d weigh 50 pounds more.
  • The Federal: Another bar and grill (seeing a pattern yet?), this Durham institution has always been one of my favorite places in the region. Their peppery burger is not as huge as the other places’, but it’s the perfect size for their kaiser roll. It’s funny, I always want a PBR to drink here, even though they have a great beer selection. No one ever accused me of being rational.
  • Cloo’s Coney Island: Cloo’s sliders are my guilty pleasure. These are small burgers cooked well-done on a flat-top. They’re a bit too heavy with the condiments, but other than that, I can eat half a dozen of these suckers. Just don’t tell my wife!

There you have it. I know there’s probably a dozen places that I need to try, but I just haven’t made it there. I need to get back to the Angus Barn and try one of their monstrous-sized burgers. I’m woefully ill-informed about Durham places, but I assure you, I’ll try them. If I’ve missed a favorite, let me know, explaining why I should give it a try, and if you’re convincing, I’ll give the place a try and report back here.

May 7, 2008 Edit: Players’ Retreat: Although I’ve lived in and around Raleigh for seemingly forever, I have never been to the Players’ Retreat, generally referred to as “The PR.” It’s an NC State hangout bar that’s really smoky. I just don’t usually want to eat meals at such places. I was at the PR last night, attending an election day party for a candidate I was supporting and ordered a burger. The menu said the burgers were from black angus beef, ground in-house, and cooked to order. In fact, the menu recommended you order them RARE. Very cool. So I got one, and damn, that’s a mighty fine burger. One of the best around. Maybe THE best. I then learned that the PR has over 60 types of scotch available. Obviously, they want my business. And with LocoPops right around the corner, well, I might have found a second home.


18 Responses to Best Burgers in the Triangle

  1. Edward says:

    I would be interested in what you think about Spankys in Chapel Hill. I had a burger there this summer, and as far as I know, it is the only “organic, antibiotic, hormone-free” burger in the Triangle, much to my disappointment (health issues, not moral or ethical). It was good, not as good as what I make at home, but good.

  2. Varmint says:

    I remember the Spanky’s burger when I was an undergrad at UNC in the 80s. The only memorable thing about it was that they served it on an English muffin. Of course, I’m sure it’s a completely different burger today, but the mere fact that it’s “organic, antibiotic and hormone-free” isn’t what would sway me: it’s the taste. What was good about the burger? What kept it from being great? Are the health and environmental issues the sole reason for me to make a burger trip to Chapel Hill?

  3. winston says:

    I’m with you on burger size. Bigger than 6 oz, and you’re dealing with hamburger steak or something that is better served outside the bun.

    One burger I’ve always liked is served by the 19th Hole on Lake Boone Trail. I’d bet lots of dollars that I don’t have that they don’t grind their own, but they do shape them by hand from fresh meat (drop by for a beer around 3pm and you might see this). Then they grill them on a grill that probably hasn’t been cleaned since the Reagan administration. I don’t care if they are well done as long as they aren’t dry, and 19th Hole does that fine. Plus, they get the appropriate amount of crispy carmelization on the outside to really add to the flavor. Have it with mustard, ketchup, pickles and maybe onions. No lettuce and tomato. As my Dad says, I don’t want a salad on my burger!

  4. Varmint says:

    I haven’t had a burger from the 19th Hole in ages, even though it’s just a couple of blocks from my office. Part of my reluctance is that it’s a bar first and foremost — and thus, very smoky. But I said I like a slightly smoky burger, so I guess I need to give it a chance.

  5. Varmint says:

    I guess I need to try Barry’s, as I’ve not heard many people mention it. Thanks for the tip!

  6. durhamfood says:

    Man, you missed Wimpy’s on Hillsborough in Durham! Burgers for breakfast (they close at 1pm).

    Home made, smothered with chili and slaw, with some of the best cobbler around to round off your healthy breakfast. If you haven’t been, you don’t know what you’re missing!

  7. Varmint says:

    Keep the suggestions coming. Looks like a burger trip to Durham may be in the works. Any others I need to try?

  8. durhamfood says:

    Watts Grocery’s burger is awesome (though pricey).

  9. Joe says:

    I’ve repeatedly had bad experiences with the burger at the Fed, but I’m pretty sure at this point that it’s just been coincidence, as so many other people I trust have told me how great it is.

    I used to use english muffins for burgers, and still do sometimes. They’re small, but less bread means more meat overall. Besides, you do want to be able to get the thing in your mouth, right? I also always want ketchup on the burger, even if there’s already tomato in there. Go figure.

    And, burgers are yet another place where attention to detail can really help out. I know that the burger at the dearly departed Joe and Jo’s was a factory patty, but they still did a good job. The burger was always moist; they made a bigger burger by adding more patties instead of making one thick one; they heated the bun (why does no one do this any more?); the add-ons were always fresh; the fries that came with it were interestingly seasoned. It was hard to stay away from their burger when I was there.

  10. Wes says:

    If you live close to porters what do you think about Melvin’s? We used to get their burgers at the original place near White Lake but they opened a new location on Hillsboro St. last year.

  11. Nibbs says:

    I still think Hectors is the best. Maybe it is because a burger in a pita is unnatural, and shouldn’t be good, but it is. Maybe I just like their fries. Or maybe it’s the whole 2AM drunk in my 20s memories. Haven’t been in years.

    I find CharGrill consistently repellent. I think they grind tendons into the meat or something. I always get something in my teeth there.

  12. Jeff says:

    I agree with most of your choices… of the best burgers I have had in the area is in Durham at Parizade on their lunch menu. It is a sourdough cheeseburger with gruyere and caramelized onions and cooked to order….only $6.50 (but get some other side than their horrible cold potatoes it is sold with). They also serve great bread with an olive oil/parmesan mixture that is great.

  13. […] Burger in the Triangle Update I promised back in October when I wrote about the best burgers in the Triangle that I’d update my list from time to time. I have one new […]

  14. relaxandreflect says:

    Varmint, I have been reading your stuff for years and am definitely a fan and a fellow Raleigh foodie.


    We are also on a mission for the best burger in town. I agree on Cloos, and have been one of their customers since I was young. Sliders are incredible. But you need to try Solomon’s (the one on 6 Forks) burger. You will slap yo mama!

  15. burgerguy says:

    char-grill has been my long time favorite.

    barry’s in cary (near walnut & tryon) is as good a char-grill, but a little pricier. he grinds his own beef using sirloin for his “papa” burgers.

    flamingo (formally pittstop) in pittsboro has a great burger. it’s from sterling-silver-meats & very tasty.

    if you’re in wilmington, pt’s has the best burger in town.

    in goldsboro, the ground sirloin @ western sizzelin is amazing.

    in atlanta, the vortex is the place to go.

    & for fast food, nothing can beat hardee’s angus burger.

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