There are classic diner burgers, with thin patties smashed on griddles, and there are special-occasion burgers, the kind made with truffles and dry-aged beef. They satisfy two kinds of cravings, one tinged with nostalgia and another more for extravagance.
In this list of our favorite beef burgers in Washington, you’ll discover real winners — all lesser-known renditions than those served at the likes of Five Guys and Shake Shack — at a variety of budgets. Because the urge for a steakhouse burger is very different than for the one that comes in a wax-paper sleeve.
The Prez Obama Burger at Good Stuff Eatery
Spike Mendelsohn’s burger chain was one of the first local eateries to pay tribute to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, in 2008. Like the president, his namesake burger has stuck around Washington and, nine years later, it’s a classic on Good Stuff’s menu. What makes this one great is that it hits the sweet-salty-fatty trifecta with its ingredients – respectively, onion marmalade, Roquefort cheese and bacon. Unlike the Michelle Obama-themed burger, a healthier turkey patty, it’s probably the most decadent fast-casual option in town. Good thing there are no term limits on food. $7.65. Capitol Hill, 303 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Georgetown, 3291 M St. NW. Crystal City, 2110 Crystal Dr., Arlington. — Maura Judkis
The bacon cheeseburger at East Potomac Golf Course
If you want a delicious, fuss-free burger — the kind that brings back memories of church picnics, family reunions and grilling on the deck — the best course of action is to head to the Potomac Grille at East Potomac Golf Course, a no-frills restaurant designed for refueling after playing 18 holes or a session on the driving range. The burgers here, pressed square on a flat-top grill with a steak weight and loaded with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles and the all-important hot pepper spread, aren’t just for golfers. Add black-around-the-edges bacon, and make sure you get a picnic table on the veranda with a view of the putting green. $8.75. 972 Ohio Dr. SW. 202-554-7660. — Fritz Hahn
The Rockaway Beef at Slash Run
Creative burgers are as essential to Slash Run’s DNA as its dozens of bottles of bourbon or the go-go and metal on the jukebox. But these aren’t standard bar offerings: The Barstool Rodeo is topped with beer-battered poblano peppers and coffee grounds, while Otto’s Shrunken Head mixes pork rinds, avocado slices and pineapple relish. The standout is the Rockaway Beef: A juicy patty seasoned with salt and pepper and garnished with fat strips of bacon and American cheese gets sweet heat from cherry peppers and a spicy tang from the house “Slash Sauce,” which owner Jackie Greenbaum calls a “kicked-up version of Thousand Island.” It’s perfect with waffle fries and a local craft beer. $9.25. 201 Upshur St. NW. 202-838-9929. — F.H.
The Southern at Holy Cow
What exactly makes a burger “Southern”? This Del Ray hot spot surveys a wide swath of the Southeast to make this specialty burger sing. Perky pimento cheese oozes out of a potato kaiser roll, and a Cajun rémoulade tops the grass-fed Angus beef patty with a hint of spice and plenty of tang. The fried green tomato is the kicker, delivering crunch to a mouthful that melds many flavors into one great bite . With nearly 50 toppings, from pulled pork to truffled creamed spinach — plus Cajun, garlic, truffle salt and sweet potato fries — there’s something for every taste at this family-friendly eatery. $7.95 for one-third of a pound, $10.95 for two-thirds of a pound. 2312 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703-666-8616. — Matt Brooks
The Proper at Duke’s Grocery
It’s no secret that the Proper burger at Duke’s Grocery is among the best in Washington; on a recent visit, I overheard strangers whispering about a pal who had told them they just had to try it. That pal was right. Stacked with two beef patties and gooey melted Gouda cheese, the burger has the welcome zing of arugula, plus the sweetness of charred red onions and a Thai chili sauce. You could add extra toppings — bacon and a runny egg could nicely counter the sugary notes — but what you don’t get are fries. The burger is the solo act on the plate, which is fine enough when the rendition is this great. $12. 1513 17th St. NW. 202-733-5623. — Emily Codik
The Classic at the Classics
Owners Elliott Rattley and Nick Lopata have changed almost nothing about their burger in the four years since they purchased the former Ray’s the Classics, once part of Michael Landrum’s maverick meat empire. The 10-ounce patty on a brioche bun remains the finest — and most affordable — steakhouse burger on the market. The beef is ground in-house with chuck flap and steak trimmings. Fresh and loosely formed, the patty frequently crumbles into pieces that land softly on your plate, little beef nuggets that you can dip in a side of “What the Heck” sauce, a horseradish-laced condiment that takes the experience even further over the top. $12.99. 8606 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 301-588-7297. — Tim Carman
The grilled bacon smoke burger at Del Campo
Fire and smoke are the trademarks of chef Victor Albisu’s South American restaurant, and this burger bears all the markings of a dance with the grill. From the beef patty and red onion, to the thick slices of avocado and sesame-seed bun, every element is tattooed with char stripes. The meat is juicy, thanks to a blend of brisket, sirloin, chuck and rib-eye trimmings, and is topped with melted provolone cheese. But the surprise star is the smoked tomato, which brings a welcome jolt of acidity to the burger’s heaping four-inch pile of richness. The thick slab of bacon is on the chewier side, which might mean you have to cut the sandwich in half before eating. But at $15 during lunch — with a side and drink included — this behemoth of a burger is a steal. $15 lunch, $16 happy hour at the bar. 777 I St. NW. 202-289-7377. — M.B.
The Burger Américain at Le Diplomate
Slices of orange American cheese melt down over the edges. Russian dressing exerts influence upon every corner. And a French flag flies on top next to the Stars and Stripes, as if a beacon of hope. Is this a cheeseburger or a subtweet? The Burger Américain at Le Diplomate is a study of contrasts, with two crispy-edged four-ounce patties against a soft, sesame-seed brioche bun baked in-house. Rich cheese and dressing are offset by bright, crisp pickle and red onion. Is $17 a lot for a cheeseburger? Sure. But it’s also a lot of cheeseburger for $17. $17. 1601 14th St. NW. 202-332-3333. — Jim Webster
The Belleburger at Mirabelle
The patty was overcooked, with barely a trace of the rosy color expected from medium-rare ground beef. The real shock, though, was its flavors: rich and ripe with a cheeselike funk. Chef Frank Ruta’s staff grinds its own dry-aged beef, a mix of chuck roll and steak trimmings, with at least 30 percent fat. Which explains why a kitchen can overcook that seven-ounce patty and still serve up something tasty and worth every precious cent you pay for it. This beef is bulletproof. It’s also surrounded with house-made comforts — bun, mayo, onion jam — and a cave-aged Gruyere. A riff on French onion soup, the burger is also available “wet,” softened with caramelized onions, beef stock and red-wine sauce, usually requiring utensils. That doesn’t sound like a burger to me. $28. Available at lunch only. 900 16th St. NW. 202-506-3833. — T.C.
The All-American Wagyu burger at Bourbon Steak
So often, the fanciest burgers are loaded up with top-notch ingredients, each competing with the beef for attention. Blue cheese, truffles, foie gras — who needs ’em? Bourbon Steak knows that when you use Wagyu beef, a breed of cow highly prized for its marbled fat, nothing else should get in the way. This burger — topped with classic American cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion, with nothing to distract you from that thick, velvety beef patty — may be fancy, but it’s not fussy. If we wanted to teach aliens about Earth’s culture by giving them one perfect burger, the ideal, archetypal specimen, this would be it. $25. Available at lunch and at the bar. 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-944-2026. — M.J.