The 21st-century burger boom shows no sign of abating and in most U.S. cities, opinions run high on who makes the best burgers (closely followed by the perennial best pizza debate). Many of the best Boston restaurants, including Eastern Standard, Lineage and Rialto, which confines its aioli-and-Taleggio–topped burger to the bar, have a signature version on the menu, but cheap-eats aficionados love Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage, a Cambridge fast food legend since the 1960s. We've rounded up the best burgers in Boston; when you get through them, try the best burgers in the country.
RECOMMENDED: The best restaurants in Boston
The best burgers in Boston
Duck into this subterranean hideaway—the former site of Harvard Square institution Casablanca—and discover a bustling multi-room dining and drinking destination that balances a rustic laid-back vibe with an industrial edge. The reclaimed wood and brick walls add warmth to the sprawling space, as do the honey-colored glass lanterns that hang over the bar. There’s a small atrium dining room; high-top tables in the bar area; and the main dining room, where guests can glimpse the open kitchen through metal shelving stacked with cookbooks. The American cuisine of chef-owner Michael Scelfo reflects a similar juxtaposition—chef-driven home-cooking with an edge, such as smoked lamb belly ribs with carrot and cashew tahini and sour orange glaze. The “secret” burger—smoky patty, frico, secret sauce—can sell out within a half hour of opening.
The buzz surrounding this upscale culinary hot spot is centred on local “snout-to-tail” pioneer Tony Maws. The chef-proprietor uses the best local and organic ingredients for his Franco-American creations. While there are plenty of à la carte choices, the eight-course tasting menu, which might include such dishes as crispy-fried Florida frogs’ legs, hiramasa sashimi salad or rhubarb-hibiscus mousse, provides an overview of Maws’s seasonal cuisine. But the Chef’s Whim, a six- or four-course tasting menu offered Sunday evenings after 9pm, is an affordable alternative that won’t break the piggybank. The (off-menu) grass-fed beef burger is the stuff of legend.
Hotel dining is at best a crapshoot, but the Bristol rightly wins local accolades as one of the best restaurants in town. Tucked into the first floor of the Four Seasons, with plate-glass views of the Boston Public Garden, the refined spot serves three ample meals a day, starting with a full power breakfast and concluding with hearty American dinner fare (oysters, rib eye, scallops). On Sundays the brunch buffet draws in well-heeled Back Bay families; the renowned half-pound Bristol Burger, available at the bar, wins accolades.
It’s hard to beat this harborside location when it comes to views, not to mention the general chicness that comes with sitting just a floor above high-end clothier Louis Boston. (The restaurant is named after the store owner’s daughter, Samantha.) The place comes into its own in summer—get a seat on the deck and dine on dishes that range from vegetarian options to classics such as skate wing with sage brown-butter sauce and grilled flank steak. Fans of the old fave black pepper burger take note: Its replacement—made with short rib, brisket and rib eye—is even better.
Any connoisseur knows the “Boston’s best burger” dialogue has to include a mention of R.F. O’Sullivan’s. The bare-bones tavern is an old friend to carnivores who crave simply delicious patties topped with such accoutrements as spreadable blue cheese, barbecue sauce, or bacon, tomato and coleslaw—almost 30 varietals in all. The beer list gets the job done, but teetotalers will appreciate the massive root beer float.
Situated near the spot where public hangings were performed in colonial times, the Gallows plays up its macabre location with an ominous black crow sign above the door. But inside, the bar has an unassuming vibe and an inventive cocktail list that highlights original concoctions, including liquor infusions, and disappearing old-timey ingredients such as mead and whey. The sangria ironically employs cheap and fruity Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, while the dinner menu offers an extensive list of boards, burgers and poutine options for top-notch gourmet bar bites.
With its locally sourced ingredients, pub-like interior and friendly staff, JM Curley (named after an early 20th-century local politico) is a let-your-hair-down release for the nearby Financial District's office crowd. The only downside is that this place is packed (and loud) during post-work hours. Arrive early or prepare to wait—Curley’s addictive caramel-popcorn-bacon snack will take the edge off your appetite. Rotating chalkboard specials include variations on the highly popular burger, a daily catch and a “square meal,” which includes protein and sides, retro style. Night owls can wait for the masses to subside and swoop in for the late-night menu, which offers a smaller, slightly cheaper version of the star burger as well as dessert “concretes”—adult shakes, such as vanilla ice-cream whipped with pretzels, bourbon-soaked blueberries and bacon.
Named for a Japanese sea spirit with a red face and a fondness for sake, Shojo slings shareable Asian small plates and modern cocktails in an artsy, loftlike atmosphere hard to come by in Chinatown (unless you stumble into one of the secretly swanky apartment buildings). The inventive, ever-changing menu will entice you to try one of everything. Come with a crowd and order all the kimchi fried rice, mushroom spring rolls, duck-fat fries, spicy lime-spiked pork empanadas and pig-trotter dumplings you can manage. Or just go for the burger—a cross-cultural play on the Wendy's Baconator in a steamed bao bun.
Before there was Ribelle, there was Strip T’s. Revered chef Tim Maslow first made his name at his father’s longtime Watertown diner, which he completely upended with a forward-thinking menu reflecting Maslow’s years as chef de cuisine at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. The Japanese eggplant banh mi and the ramen bowls are two calling cards, but old-timers still return for the aioli-topped burger and the perfectly executed fish and chips (reconceived as the filet o’ fish at lunchtime).
There’s barely room to move amid the memorabilia that clutters this Harvard Square institution (est. 1960), never mind the crush of diners scoffing thick, juicy burgers and even thicker frappes (New England–speak for milkshakes). But don’t let that stop you; the tight squeeze is all part of the fun at a joint that features 30 different burgers named after local and national celebs (Stephen Colbert, Kevin Love), all accompanied by kitschy comments (The Kim Kardashian/please make her go away).