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There’s something satisfying about ordering the burger at a fine dining restaurant. It feels like you’re in on a joke when a little meat grease dribbles down your chin and onto your fancy napkin while your dining companions are fighting for the last medallions of a scallop crudo.
Four relative newcomers in D.C.’s fine dining division serve burgers. Two boldly advertise them on the menu alongside dishes that probably require tweezers to plate, while the other two offer burgers as an off-menu special.
Their price tags are more than double of what a standard hamburger costs at Five Guys, which got City Paper wondering: What makes these between-the-bun selections worthy of your dollars and why do burgers belong on fine dining menus in the first place?
“I tell everyone the burger has the most prep time of any dish that we have on the menu,” says Reverie Executive Chef Johnny Spero. His signature burger features a patty made from dry-aged ribeye, which gives it a little funk. He tops it with “special sauce” that starts with smoking six-minute eggs and then blending them with cornichons, smoked paprika, garlic, and yellow mustard. The stack also includes pickles made from cucumbers that Spero buries in miso, sake, mirin (sweet rice wine), and rice wine vinegar for anywhere from two weeks to a month.
But Spero’s cheese is the real science experiment. He picked up a technique from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, which enables him to convert any hard cheese into something with the same melting quality as a Kraft single. “We take smoked cheddar and turn it into American cheese because that’s the best cheese on a burger,” he explains. It involves introducing several types of calcium.
The $18 burger may seem out of place on a menu that includes delicate preparations like finely chopped clams garnished with preserved lemon, puffed rice, and ricotta koji cream, but when Reverie opened its doors in Georgetown, the burger stood out. “I didn’t know how to take it at first,” Spero says. “It was the one thing everyone was talking about. I didn’t want to be labeled ‘that burger shop.’ It wasn’t a label I was chasing. It’s not a bad thing, though, because it helps build trust.”
He calls the burger an “icebreaker” because if a diner tries the burger first and likes it, they’ll feel more confident ordering a more expensive or adventurous dish. His goal is to avoid alienating any customers. “Not everyone wants to do a tasting menu or get a whole roasted duck,” Spero says. “We have the a la carte menu for that very reason. My dad would be able to come in and grab a glass of wine and a burger and not feel like he was out of place.”
The burger is on the a la carte menu, but if diners who are doing the tasting menu request a cheese course, Spero will send out half a burger. His goal is approachability. “The more people you can get into your restaurant, the better,” he explains. He also hopes to capture diners more often. “It builds our place into being beyond that once-a-year, check-list spot. It allows us to have regulars.”
Mirabelle Executive Chef Keith Bombaugh added a burger to the dinner menu about a month ago for similar reasons. “From the very beginning Mirabelle was meant to be fine dining, but for everyone,” he says. Bombaugh took over for opening chef Frank Ruta at the restaurant across from the White House in August 2018. (Mirabelle owner Hakan Ilhan is currently suing Ruta and Ruta is fighting back.)
“Young professionals in general want to have a great experience and a great meal, but at a fine dining restaurant you’re talking about $500 with food and wine,” Bombaugh continues. “Not everyone can do that. Not everyone can save up for months.”
Bombaugh says his fall menu is focused on comforting, nostalgic dishes. “A burger does that really well.”
He tops a patty with smoked gruyere cheese, caramelized bacon and onion jam, foie gras ganache, and aioli on a brioche bun for $19. One of his tricks is to add butter, rosemary, and thyme to a pan until it foams. He then toasts the buns in the herbed butter, much like how a chef would sear a steak.
“It’s not a light burger and it’s not meant to be,” Bombaugh says. “It’s meant to be a treat. That’s what fine dining is. It doesn’t have to be exclusive. Fine dining is a way to treat yourself.”
Chef Kwame Onwuachi‘s burger plays nice with the rest of Kith/Kin’s Afro Caribbean dishes at The Wharf. He makes a patty out of a mix of chuck, short rib, and brisket and tops it with caramelized onions, Trinidadian cucumber pickles, jerk bacon, house sauce, white and yellow American cheese, shredded romaine lettuce, and house spices.
“When coming up with the recipe, I literally thought of everything I wanted in a burger,” Onwuachi says. The James Beard Award winner put a burger on the menu for patriotic reasons. “It’s part of everyone’s story in America. It’s our quintessential sandwich and should be celebrated and enjoyed regularly,” he says.
There’s not a sneaky reason for removing the burger from the dining room menu and making it a need-to-know special during lunch and dinner. “The menu is symmetrical without it and I wanted it to read nicely so I decided to remove it from the physical menu,” Onwuachi explains.
Pom Pom proprietor Carlie Steiner says she and Executive Chef Amanda Moll made their burger an off-menu special so as not to confuse guests about the vision for their new restaurant in Petworth. “We want to show ourselves as an elevated dining experience, but we have [the burger] in case you want to let loose,” Steiner says.
She and Moll are obsessed with the show Bob’s Burgers, hence the name of the rotating burger special that comes with a side and a glass of wine for $30. Diners can also order the burger a la carte for $16. This week it’s topped with red onion and feta.
“What happens is some of our neighbors will pop by between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., but don’t necessarily want the whole menu,” Steiner says, echoing some of Spero’s burger rationale. “It’s a nod at our neighbors saying, ‘Thank you for supporting us on your special occasion, but we’d like to see more of you so here’s an option.’”
But the reason for the burger at Pom Pom is also personal. “We just love burgers,” Steiner says. “That’s why we have one on. I went through a burger-a-day phase. It’s the perfect food.”