Restaurant chefs have elevated the hamburger to a gourmet dish.MCT photo
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When you belly up to that white tablecloth awash in candlelight and that tuxedoed waiter asks for your order, chances are good these days you’ll say, “the burger, please.”
The humble hamburger dominates the dining industry at fast-food counters where it was always king, but more notably, the American staple is becoming a fixture in the lofty confines of fine dining alongside heirloom tomatoes and foie gras.
Universal in appeal and relatively easy on the wallet, the burger is proving to be the quintessential recession offering from burger-flippers and celebrated chefs alike.
When the Cosmo Cafe opened last year in downtown Sacramento, there was no doubt a burger would be on the menu, said Callista Wengler, a spokeswoman for Paragary Restaurant Group.
“When we don’t have it on the menu, we find people ask for it a lot,” Wengler said.
At Esquire Grill, Spataro Restaurant & Bar, and Cosmo Cafe, the Paragary group-owned Northern California restaurants all offer burgers on the same menu with grilled lamb loin chops with olive tapenade, pan-seared petrale sole and ahi tuna with yam puree.
Morton’s, the fine-dining steakhouse chain, offers Morton’s prime burger at lunch. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck confides that his mini-cheeseburgers go faster than anything else at Academy Awards parties. At French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., where diners shell out $240 for dinners, chef Thomas Keller is planning a separate burger joint.
Burgers, even with freshly ground beef and trimmings such as caramelized onions and truffle cheese, can ring up for half the price of other entrees.
Nationwide, the number of restaurants overall offering burgers has increased by more than 4 percent since 2005, but in the fine-dining category, burgers jumped nearly 19 percent during the same time span, according to data-research company Datassential.
During a down economy, diners look for value and comfort in food, said Maeve Webster, a managing director for the Los Angeles-based company.
“Absolutely, comfort food takes center stage,” she said.
Not that a burger is a burger is a burger.
In a fine-dining setting, diners can expect premium details, such as freshly ground rib eye at Esquire Grill.
“It’s not what, but how it’s offered,” Webster said.
At the new Chef’s Table in Rocklin, Calif., which focuses on local and organic ingredients, David Hill offers his Vande Rose Farms Hereford burger on ciabatta, which can be topped with applewood bacon and white cheddar and perhaps a side of pesto fries.
“It was definitely about price points,” said Hill, owner and chef at the eatery that has been open for four months.
But it is also about offering popular food with contemporary sensibilities and prime ingredients, he said..
At Formoli’s Bistro in east Sacramento, chef and owner Aimal Formoli had to put his lunch burger — the $10 whiskey burger — on his dinner menu after it proved popular.
The economy is a factor, but Formoli also believes that a new generation of diners who grew up on burgers are becoming “foodies” educated by cable-television shows.
“As chefs, we’re gearing toward that,” he said.
In the small dining room just off Formoli’s open kitchen, JoAnn Peters recently lunched on the burger that comes with crisp fries.
“If I’m going to eat a burger, it’s got to be good,” said Peters, who was intrigued by the whiskey and peppers used to make the burger.
Not really a fast-food burger fan, Peters said she appreciates the setting and the quality and the opportunity to “blow some calories” after a long, hard week.
“Don’t tell my doctor,” she whispered.
After fine dining, the next largest restaurant category to add more burgers is midscale, family-style dining, like a Denny’s, said Webster from Datassential. The burger offerings in that category have increased 5 percent in the past four years.
Denny’s burger is second in popularity to its Grand-Slam breakfast, but there was room for improvement, said John Dillon, a spokesman.
The restaurant recently rolled out its Better Burger, a hand-formed patty with an almost scientifically calculated bun-to-meat ratio, Dillon said. Coupled with new wavy fries and a soft drink, the burger sells for $6.99.
“People are looking for value, but it’s more than just price. They’re looking for an experience they can’t get at home,” Dillon said.
Even mid-scale staples like Denny’s are responding to a new, older consumer with a more sophisticated palate, Webster said.
Burgers have always been the most frequently ordered entree, said Harry Balzer, an industry analyst with the NPD Group in New York. At lunch, 23 percent of diners will order them; at dinner, 16 percent, he said.