So often, the discussion around burger-centric restaurants defaults to fast-food giants and better-burger fast casuals. It makes sense given the girth of brands like McDonald’s and the enthusiastic, cult-like following behind the likes of In-N-Out Burger and Shake Shack. Even in 2020, when the chicken sandwich wars started to heat up, burger orders comprised 13.5 percent of all restaurant orders—double chicken sandwiches’ 6.7 percent market share, per the NPD Group.
But full-service restaurants, from casual chains geared toward families all the way up to fine-dining institutions, put their own spin on what can be considered America’s favorite entrée. And consumers have demonstrated an appetite for these upgraded options.
“We love burgers and want to enjoy eating them in a polished environment,” says Al Gamble, founder and co-owner of Locals 8, a Connecticut-based restaurant group that includes nine-unit, burger-focused b Restaurants. “There weren’t a lot of options back in 2005 when we launched the b’s concept. … We believed we could deliver a full-service experience where the guest would taste the quality and be treated to a fun, relaxing time out, and it took off.”
In terms of brand positioning and specialization, Red Robin is the largest full-service burger brand, with more than 500 locations across the U.S. and 30-plus signature burgers on the menu. But the lion’s share of full-service restaurants that put burgers front and center are either independents or micro-chains like b Restaurants. And thanks to smaller footprints, these concepts have an easier time flexing their creative muscles. They can also spend a little longer preparing the burgers, prioritizing quality over speed of service.
“Freshness is the foundation and our brand anchor as we develop new flavors. We wet-age our chucks for 30 days and grind fresh twice daily. This creates a steak flavor, and you can really taste the difference,” Gamble says.
The menu always features permanent strongholds like the Breakfast Burger (bacon, cheddar, and fried egg, topped with maple aioli on a croissant bun), Blue Cheese Burger (topped with caramelized onions, blue cheese, and a bourbon-barbecue sauce), and the Philly Steak Burger (sliced steak, garlic mayo, mushrooms, and onions, with American cheese sauce).
To mix things up, b Restaurants also introduces limited-time offers, which Gamble says, “celebrate seasonality and holidays while staying in our lane.” One such offering, the New Englander burger, is topped with pulled lobster meat, cream-corn spread, and lettuce chiffonade and served with a side of Old Bay fries. Another, the PB&J Burger, is made with maple-bourbon-bacon jam, bacon, local cheese, and a peanut butter spread.
New York–based Black Tap Craft Burger & Beer follows a similar strategy with its LTOs. For example, in March, it introduced a Reuben Burger with Swiss cheese, grilled corned beef, sauerkraut, sliced pickles, and special sauce just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. The brand has also experimented with smashed burgers at its fast-casual pop-up Black Tap Singles & Doubles. Corporate executive chef Stephen Parker describes this style as the “traditional roadside burger,” whose smaller size is more conducive with off-site consumption.
Parker also keeps an eye on macro-level trends. One that’s top of mind is the movement toward plant-based and plant-forward burgers. According to the NPD Group, 78 percent of plant-based meat occasions happen at restaurants versus only 22 percent at home. A possible reason for this preference, per the research firm, is that the flavorful end result at a restaurant is harder to replicate at home.
Black Tap’s menu includes an Impossible Burger, but it’s also exploring house-made options. In January, the brand offered a special Vegan Truffle Shroom Burger, featuring a black bean–and–mushroom patty, shallots, cremini mushrooms, plant-based Parmesan, and truffle porcini cream sauce.
“Instead of just using faux-based meat, we used plant-based ingredients to create a flavor-packed burger,” Parker says. “I think using real, plant-based ingredients is difficult but rewarding. The end result always tastes indulgent, but [it’s] good for you.”
Pushing the culinary envelope often extends beyond what’s in between two buns. While fries and soda are the default accompaniment at fast-food joints, full-service restaurants can up the ante, especially on the beverage side.
“We were founded on craft beer,” Parker says. “Craft beer is the DNA of our brand.” It’s also in the very name, which refers to the black-tap handles at craft breweries. To that end, Black Tap serves classics, limited-edition brews, and seasonal beers from local micro-breweries. Its milkshakes—which Parker describes as “over-the-top”—are another iconic menu offering. Indeed, Black Tap’s social media feeds often feature an indulgent burger beside a kaleidoscope shake.
The micro-chain has three locations in New York, one in Las Vegas, one in Disneyland California, and nine international units. While Disney and Vegas have always served cocktails (including alcoholic slushies at the latter), the home market only recently introduced mixed drinks, like the Charged Lemonade—vodka, Japanese melon, lemonade, and a sparkly blue Electricdust rim—and a Cola Old-Fashioned, with bourbon, cherry cola, bitters, and brandied cherry.
“The cocktail program definitely continues to elevate the Black Tap brand and differentiate it from fast-casual spots. It makes it a great environment for after-work drinks and friend get-togethers, as well as family outings,” Parker says.
Alcohol is also a menu differentiator at b Restaurants, which train their staff to Cicerone standards. Gamble even has pairing suggestions. For the New Englander, he recommends an IPA. For the PB&J Burger, he suggests a bourbon-laced White Russian.
“Fresh ground beef pairs great with [alcohol], just like a steak does,” Gamble says. “Big, beefy flavor goes great with a craft beer, a glass of wine, or bourbon.”