Diablo scoured the East Bay to uncover the best examples of everyone's favorite guilty pleasure—the hamburger.
Photography by Cedric Glasier
Americans eat more burgers—some 13 billion a year—than any other single food. Here in Diabloland, we've got our hands full—of hamburgers, that is—because so many East Bay restaurants are transforming this humble sandwich into an art form. So we sent out our crack staff to taste the very best. Here’s what we found. Just one question before you dig in: You want fries with that?
The Cheap Thrill
IN-N-OUT / What other fast-food joint can clog San Ramon Valley Boulevard with drive-thru traffic at all hours of the day? In-N-Out, with three locations in the Tri-Valley, is proof that at least one cheap chain cheeseburger is still alive and well. We love the late hours (open until 1 a.m.), squeaky-clean eating areas, and the official “not-so-secret” menu: meat patties and cheese slices in magnitudes (3x3, 4x4s) as well as grilled cheese sandwiches and burgers prepared “protein style” (wrapped in lettuce, no bun) and “animal style” (mustard and grilled onions). Console yourself with the salty, made-that-minute fries after waiting in the drive-thru line. In-N-Out, 881 N. Livermore Ave., Livermore; 6015 Johnson Dr., Pleasanton; 2270 San Ramon Valley Blvd., San Ramon; in-n-out.com. —LeeAnne Jones
BRIDGES / You find yourself thinking, "Ah, who needs another fancy hamburger?" Then, you’re chilling out on Bridges’ patio, biting into the juiciest mound of ground beef wrapped in a hamburger bun that ever graced a plate. Bridges must grill this baby on the fires of hell, because it is ultracharred on the outside, even when a bite reveals a lovely bright pink inside. Draped with a generous square of tangy melted Havarti, this is one heckuva sandwich. Bridges Restaurant and Bar, 44 Church St., Danville, (925) 820-7200, bridgesdanville.com.
GIGI'S / The hearty G-burger has inspired a cultlike devotion among Gigi’s regulars—some of whom are so hard-core about satisfying their burger jones that the restaurant has to keep the sandwich on its weekend brunch menu. It’s no wonder. The G-burger is a gourmet whopper: a charbroiled half-pound of fresh ground chuck served on a killer Semifreddi kaiser roll, with a choice of aged white cheddar, blue cheese, or Gruyère. At $10, it's also a pretty good deal, when you consider that the burger comes with a choice of salad or soup. Editor's Note: Just prior to the magazine hitting stands, and after the February issue had gone to print, we found out that Gigi's was closing it's doors. CLICK HERE to read our story.
MCCOVEYS / The two half-inch-thick beef patties served in McCovey’s Grand Slam burger come in a bramble of cheese, iceberg, tomato, and red onion so big and dense, you’ll practically need a machete to have at it. Rumor has it the Grand Slam came about when owner Jeff Dudum and executive chef Frank Palmer set out to try burgers near and far, decided what they liked, and combined all that into one. One of their innovations is dressing the lettuce in a combo of buttermilk and garlic. It’s like a salad and a burger in one, and unlike Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, it totally works. McCovey’s, 1444 N. California Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 944-9444, mccoveys.com.
THE COUNTER / The beauty of The Counter is that you can decide you’re just going to go for it and have the pound of meat, but then you think you’ll just get the two-thirds pound, and leave off the fried onion strings, but then what about the spicy sour cream, which is really better with jalapeños, and speaking of jalapeños, you might want to go with the taco turkey burger, but then you remember that you wanted to try the black forest ham on your burger, so you added it to your list—now where is that list? It had all the ingredients you’ve always wanted to have but never did, including those big toasted English muffins, which are probably good with cheddar and roasted red peppers. But then, ooh, we’re not done yet, are we? The Counter, 1699 North California Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-3795,
The Almost Top Secret
VA DE VI / If you’re eating dinner on the beautiful patio at Va de Vi, you’d never know the restaurant makes a work-of-art burger. That’s because Va de Vi's specimen—made with Wagyu beef, Mezzo Secco cheese, and smoked bacon, and served with a scrumptious side of garlicky pommes frites—is available exclusively on the afternoon menu, from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's the perfect snack during a shopping expedition in the Creek. Va de Vi, 1511 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 979-0100, vadevi.com.
METRO / When Metro owner Jack Moore set out to design a small burger for his bar menu, he had his chef whip up a gourmet version. Then, Moore taste-tested it on his son, Niki, who said, "It’s OK, but I don’t like it as much as In-N-Out.” Instead of grounding the little troublemaker, Moore and his chef started over—and came back with a burger à la In-N-Out (thin patty, soft bun) gone high end (Niman Ranch meat; Gruyère, blue, or cheddar; aioli). Note that Metro’s bar burger isn't available in the main restaurant, but don’t worry; their full-sized burger is also great. Metro, 3524 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 284-4422, metrolafayette.com.
The Tree Hugger
BARNEY'S BURGERS /Some burger restaurants will throw a veggie burger option on the menu just to seem virtuous. But Barney’s takes its vegetarian options seriously. All 11 of them. We liked the Popeye garden burger (spinach with feta cheese) served on a whole wheat bun, with a Wildwood Organic tofu patty. If carbo loading isn't your thing, Barney's will wrap your burger in lettuce instead of a bun. Meat lovers, worry not: Barney’s also offers two dozen variations on the beef burger. Barney’s Gourmet Burgers, 1600 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 849-2827; 1591 Solano Ave., Berkeley, (510) 526-8185; 5819 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 601-0444; 4162 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 655-7180, barneyshamburgers.com.
|The New-School Diner|
CHOW / The menus are a mile long at the Chow restaurants in Danville and Lafayette, but we know Diablolanders who order the hamburger on every visit. Served on your choice of Acme baguette or soft roll (we like the baguette), topped with artisan cheese, with locally grown lettuce, onions, and tomato on the side (where they belong), Chow’s Burger Royale is a comfort food perfect storm of high-end ingredients served in a cozy environment, complete with fireplace and indoor trees! Insider’s tip: The Lafayette location’s burger costs $9.75, plus $1 for cheese, and comes with a choice of soup, salad, or fries on the side. The same meal at the newer Danville Chow costs $12.50. Chow, 445 Railroad Ave., Danville, (925) 838-4510; 53 Lafayette Cir., Lafayette, (925) 962-2469, chowfoodbar.com.
DEMITRI'S TAVERNA / You might not like the idea of spices in your hamburger meat, but then you probably haven’t tried the Mediterranean burger at the new Demitri’s Taverna in Livermore. Its Greek spices hook up with grilled red onions, feta sauce, and a slice of tomato in one big, fat, delicious Greek wedding. Even if you like your meat on the done side, you’re going to be amazed at the flavor and juiciness of this beauty. Encased in an herbed bun that’s got some oomph—crusty on the outside, a little chewy within—this burger will make you raise your arms above your head and be dancing to bouzouki music after just one bite. Demitri’s Taverna, 2235 First St., Livermore, (925) 373-0306.
The Food Critic's Favorite
900 GRAYSON / Diablo checks in with San Francisco magazine food critic Josh Sens about the burger at Berkeley’s 900 Grayson.You included 900 Grayson’s burger as one of your 50 favorite meals in the Bay Area. What’s so special about it?
It’s made with grass-fed beef, which, granted, is pretty much standard at any self-respecting restaurant around these parts. What makes it unusual is the range of toppings. Bacon, white cheddar, shoestring-style fried onions, and tangy barbecue sauce are great complements. Best of all, the bun-to-beef ratio is reasonable, so you don’t feel as if you’re just eating bread.Did any fancy-pants restaurants that didn’t make your list feel slighted that they were bested by a burger?
If anyone had hurt feelings, they didn’t tell me. If anything, I imagine they have bigger things to worry about these days, such as an economy that threatens every high-end restaurant with the prospect of having to turn into a burger joint.If you can’t go to 900 Grayson, what’s your backup burger in the East Bay?
It’s far from a gourmet burger, but for nostalgia’s sake, I like Oscar’s, that old smoke-belching burger house in Berkeley at Hearst and Shattuck. It’s a bare-bones burger, but it’s charbroiled and full of flavor. And I like the throwback look to the place and the fact that they serve old-school malted milk shakes. Basically, it’s hangover food for the college crowd, or hangover prevention food for people who find themselves awake late and still hungry.900 Grayson, 900 Grayson St., Berkeley, (510) 704-9900, 900grayson.com; Oscar’s, 1890 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 849-2164.
EAST BAY SLIDERS / If you’re from the Midwest or the East Coast, when you hear “sliders” you think White Castle—those greasy miniburgers that sent cinematic stoners Harold and Kumar on a munchies mission. But this is Diabloland, where all things food get the gourmet treatment. We love the ones at Danville’s Forbes Mill Steakhouse (200 Sycamore Valley Rd., 925-552-0505, forbesmillsteakhouse.com). Made with Kobe beef and loaded with carmelized onions and white cheddar cheese, these are $5 each, available only in the bar from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Danville’s Patrick David’s (416 Sycamore Valley Rd., 925-838-7611, patrickdavids.com) has 'em Kobe-style rich, too, and you get one free with any drink during happy hour, Monday–Thursday from 2–5 p.m. Also impressive are the lamb-beef kefta sliders with cucumber and goat cheese at Alameda’s Pappo Restaurant (2320 Central Ave., 510-337-9100, papporestaurant.com). Dublin’s Stacey’s at Waterford (4500 Tassajara Rd., Ste. C, 925-551-8325, eatatstaceys.com) has developed six different sliders—including Kobe beef, crab, portabello mushroom, and seared ahi—for its 4–6:30 p.m. weekday happy hour.
The Old-School Diner
VAL'S / Walk into Val's in Hayward, and you'll feel as if you've been shot through a combination time warp/pop culture vortex and have landed somewhere between Happy Days and Twin Peaks. This woodsy-cabin diner hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1958, and this is a good thing. Val’s still grinds meat fresh every day for its juicy burgers served in baby (1/3 lb.), mama (1/2 lb.), and papa (1 lb.) sizes. The gorgeously fried fries and onion rings; tasty shakes, malts, and floats; and friendly, been-there-forever servers add to the blast-from-the-past charm. It’s no wonder the tiny parking lot is always packed—Val’s is a classic. Val’s, 2115 Kelly St., Hayward, (510) 889-8257.
Disagree with the our picks? CLICK HERE to participate in our Burger Forum, where readers get a chance to weigh in on their favorite greasy spoons.
Don't feel like spending a lot for your burger? CLICK HERE to check out our top-10 list of spots where you can get a burger on the cheap.