In Search of The Great American Burger

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By Gavin Menu; photography by Michael Heller and Gavin Menu

Curating a list of essential East End burgers was no easy task, especially since the trend of gourmet bistro burgers, served with every kind of topping imaginable, has exploded across the culinary landscape. The classic American burger of the 21st century, it seems, is a far cry from the greasy backyard patty from days of old.

In creating a list that would lead to one almighty burger—The Express Magazine 2015 Burger of the Year—we sought out restaurant insiders with knowledge and passion about the local burger scene. Those conversations helped whittle our list down to 20 restaurants or so. Then, with deference to fine dining establishments like 1770 House and The American Hotel, both of which serve killer burgers, we decided to focus on some of the simpler “burger joints” so we could discover if gourmet style had truly replaced the classically simple American burger in restaurants across the East End.

The author, center, with friends at Shippy's in Southampton.

The author, center, with friends at Shippy’s in Southampton.

What we found was the “greasy spoon” style of old family diners is alive and well at places like LT Burger in Sag Harbor, Johnny Rockets in Calverton and Slo Jack’s Drive-In in Hampton Bays. Our favorite of this style was served at Bay Burger in Sag Harbor, where the flattop griddle burger is spruced up with a fresh blend of ground beef and a bun baked in-house with a perfect sprinkle of salt. This is an outstanding burger, held back from the overall title, perhaps, by its simplicity alone.

Specific blends of beef are more important than ever in today’s burger joints, but most restaurants guard their blends like precious family heirlooms; so we didn’t bother to ask, and simply went on flavor alone in an attempt to crown our king of the East End burger world. The journey also became about the restaurants themselves and the friendly conversations we had with servers, bartenders and owners. The overall experience of any taste-off or pub crawl is, after all, half the fun.

Dissecting the “Sports Page” menu and the 19 different burger selections with our server at Fellingham’s in Southampton, for example, was a highlight of the weekend. The menus at Buckley’s Inn Between in Hampton Bays (15 burgers) and O’Malley’s in Southold (22!) gave us similar experiences.

Then there are the restaurants where their old-school pub ambiance makes eating burgers feel so right. The Corner Bar in Sag Harbor, The Dock in Montauk and Rowdy Hall in East Hampton are three of the most classic and enjoyable restaurant bars on the East End, and all serve stellar burgers.

A step into Shippy’s in Southampton, meanwhile, is a step back in time to the 1950s. And while their burger did not reach the top of our list, nobody offers more sides—mashed potatoes, home fries, French fries, coleslaw, beet salad, rice pilaf and potato salad—than Shippy’s.

As we journeyed west toward Riverhead, we stopped at New Moon Café in East Quogue, where the low key Texas vibe meshed perfectly with a menu of barbeque favorites. A fine burger as well.

The one exception to our all-beef burger taste-off was at Tweed’s, housed in the historic J.J. Sullivan Hotel in Riverhead, which serves bison meat from the North Quarter Buffalo Farm just up the road. The bison burger at Tweed’s is a true farm-to-table experience, and the meat is lighter and healthier than ground beef.

From Riverhead we shuttled to the North Fork to our first stop at Cliff’s Elbow Room in Jamesport. As the story goes, The Elbow’s famously secret marinade first flavored the burgers inadvertently since they were cooked on the same grill as the marinated steaks. Today the marinade is used intentionally, and the burgers are unique and delicious.

Our North Fork trip ended at Blue Canoe Oyster Bar & Grill in Greenport, one of the newer establishments on the list, but also one of the best burgers around.

Which brings us to our top five burgers on the East End, listed in no particular order:

BAY BURGER, SAG HARBOR

Bay Burger, Sag Harbor With hand-ground beef and fresh homemade buns, this a gourmet take on the old “greasy spoon” style. Tots on the side are a must.

With hand-ground beef and fresh homemade buns, this a gourmet take on the old “greasy spoon” style. Tots on the side are a must.

BLUE CANOE OYSTER BAR & GRILL, GREENPORT

Blue Canoe Oyster Bar & Grill, Greenport The Blue Canoe Angus Burger comes with bacon and Roquefort cheese. Shredded lettuce is perfect compliment to melted blue cheese.

The Blue Canoe Angus Burger comes with bacon and Roquefort cheese. Shredded lettuce is perfect compliment to melted blue cheese.

BUCKLEY’S INN BETWEEN, HAMPTON BAYS

Buckley’s Inn Between, Hampton Bays From 15 selections, the Conor Burger stands out with onions, mushrooms, cheddar cheese and bacon. The classic is alive and well.

From 15 selections, the Conor Burger stands out with onions, mushrooms, cheddar cheese and bacon. The classic is alive and well.

THE CORNER BAR, SAG HARBOR

The Corner Bar, Sag Harbor A classic burger from one of the most iconic bars on the East End. The Famous Corner Burger is served with cheddar cheese and a “secret mix” of sautéed mushrooms and onions. Go deluxe to try some of the best French fries on the South Fork.

A classic burger from one of the most iconic bars on the East End. The Famous Corner Burger is served with cheddar cheese and a “secret mix” of sautéed mushrooms and onions. Go deluxe to try some of the best French fries on the South Fork.

O’MALLEY’S, SOUTHOLD

O’Mally’s, Southold We went with the Burger Papa with gorgonzola cheese and frizzled onions. A standout among 22 burger selections.

We went with the Burger Papa with gorgonzola cheese and frizzled onions. A standout among 22 burger selections.

Each of these restaurants serve incredibly good burgers so we skipped the nitpicking to explain why four of them did not earn top honors.

The Winner of our Burger of the Year for 2015 is…Buckley’s Inn Between in Hampton Bays.

The word “balance” was mentioned early and often during our stay at Buckley’s as we discussed chef Paul Fitzpatrick’s Conor Burger, served covered in mushrooms, onions and bacon. The toppings don’t overwhelm the flavor of the meat, though, which is ground from 100 percent sirloin at Catena’s Market in Southampton. The bun is plain, but holds its function, and, again, doesn’t overwhelm the burger or the toppings. The sides were excellent as well, with a crisp whole dill pickle, French fries and coleslaw. Perfectly simplistic, perfectly classic and, at $12, a great value as well.

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