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Cover Story

Best Burgers in New Haven, CT

*and 52 more to sink your teeth into
Greater New Haven is awash in wonderful burgers. Here are the best of the best.

The gourmet burger trend is taking Connecticut by storm, lifting the lowly hamburger to new heights. Of course, Connecticut already occupies a special place in hamburger lore, with Louis’ Lunch laying claim to the invention of the hamburger sandwich, central Connecticut staking its claim to the invention of the steamed cheeseburger and Shady Glen of Manchester laying claim to the invention of the fried cheese crown. At Prime 16 Tap House & Burgers in New Haven, Piatti Ristorante & Bar in Glastonbury, and the cleverly named but alcohol-averse Dry Dock in Wallingford, you can even find stuffed hamburgers (which gained some popularity among home cooks in the early 1980s).

While surveying Greater New Haven, I tried so many hamburgers that I was forced to join a gym. Of course, I couldn’t get everywhere. I found so many great burger purveyors that I had to take my coverage 20 deep. Sometimes great burgers were found in seemingly improbable locations. Even outside the top 20, there were many worthy burgers, which is why we append an honorable mention section.

In our coverage, I included only burger joints or restaurants that emphasize burgers, either offering a proper lineup or allowing customers to assemble their own, like a pizza, from an array of colorful accoutrements—or both. I rated burger joints on the quality and freshness of their beef, cooking skill, willingness to cook to desired temperature, selection of burgers, quality of toppings, appropriateness of breads or rolls, and so on. Atmosphere, service and price, however, did not factor in.

It bears mentioning that other gourmet burger ventures loom on the Elm City horizon. In September, a Shake Shack opened at 986 Chapel St. across from the New Haven Green, the second such Connecticut outlet by the Danny Meyer-led Union Square Hospitality Group after its initial rollout in Westport. And in early 2013, look for restaurateur Gerry Iannaccone to open a Bronx Burger in his original Café Goodfellas location at 758 State St.

A word about burger etiquette. While I’m no fan of returning food to the kitchen, having been raised in a generation where you always finished everything on your plate because people were starving in Biafra or India, there’s no meat, other than possibly a steak, where your enjoyment more depends on getting your food cooked to the desired temperature. Thus, my grudging concession is you’re not out of line if you send your burger back if it’s off by two or more degrees of doneness (raw, rare, medium-rare, medium, medium-well, well-done or cinders). But never send a burger back a second time in the same visit—shut up, eat it or take it home to your dog, and next time patronize another establishment.

Reasonable people may disagree as to what constitutes a great hamburger, and we like to generate discussion anyway, so feel free to weigh in at www.newhavenliving.com with your opinions. If you visit all 20 of these burger establishments, we can promise an eyeopening, belt-tightening and taste buds-liberating experience. We wish you good eating!

Bilda Burger & More

670 Main Street South, Woodbury 203-405-6011

Taking the place of Carole Peck’s Zeeburger in Sherman Village Plaza on Route 6 in Woodbury is Bilda Burger & More, praised by some townsfolk as friendlier, cheaper and more generous than its predecessor. I liked Zeeburger, but I really enjoy owner Mike Cunningham’s welcoming attitude.

Music to any burger lover’s ears, right below the “thoroughly cooking meat, eggs, poultry and seafood reduces the risk of foodborne illness” warning is the “burgers may be undercooked at customer request” assurance. Those burgers are 5.3 ounces of 100 percent freshly ground sirloin (15 percent fat for good flavor) from Carlstadt, N.J., charbroiled to desired temperature. There’s a well-chosen list of possible additions. Bilda Burger also offers an impressive array of dogs and sausages. There are even mahi-mahi sandwiches and seasonal lobster rolls. Finish off with soft serve ice cream and shakes or hard ice cream from SoCo Creamery.

C.J. Sparrow Pub & Eatery

908 South Main St., Cheshire 203-272-8204, www.cjsparrow.com

Located next to Rose Dairy in Cheshire (which makes a pretty mean burger itself) is C.J. Sparrow Pub & Eatery. C.J. Sparrow may look unpromising, but you’ll find this hidden gem has enlightened ownership, a diverse clientele, a friendly wait staff and a comfortable atmosphere. There are Tuesday trivia nights, Thursday open-mic nights, and live music acts on the weekend.

But it’s C.J. Sparrow’s great, reasonably priced food that brings me back repeatedly. South Cheshire may be a little bit of a haul from just about anywhere else, but this joint is worth the extra effort. About everything I’ve had at C.J. Sparrow has been terrific, from soups to salads to steaks to sweets. The ahi tuna burger special featured frequently on weekends is to die for.

But C.J. Sparrow’s lineup of six hamburgers each made with half a pound of hand-pressed Certified Angus Beef are what will get burger lovers’ blood pumping. Just $8.75 will get you a C.J. Burger with the works, including your choice of mushroom, caramelized onion, bacon and/or Gorgonzola cheese. But check out the Baja Burger and Brenda’s Blackened Burger as well. Don’t give away that you’re a newcomer by parking in front, where most of the spaces are reserved for other businesses—be cool and park behind the restaurant.

Contois Tavern

152 Nicoll St., New Haven

Contois Tavern on Nicoll Street is seen by some as the litmus test of a true New Havener. And a test it is, as you won’t be helped by a website, phone number, business sign, posted hours or much to give away that the place is actually open. When I lived on Nicoll Street in the late 1980s and got $4 haircuts from 80-year-old barber Nick, I thought the low-lying brick edifice across the street was a private club. It might as well be. You may find the door unlocked when you approach, or you may even need to be buzzed in.

New Haven’s oldest family-owned bar used to be known as a cop hangout and owner Bill Contois is reportedly former military, so make sure you leave any attitude behind. If you’re the kind who can fit in and get along, you’ll love it. If you’re someone who thinks the world revolves around you, go elsewhere to avoid disillusionment.

Once inside Contois Tavern, take a seat at the bar. Bill—who cooks, pours and keeps folk in line—will come to you in good time. Order a beer or two—and a burger. Don’t look for a beer list or a menu—it’s not that kind of place. Give Bill the chance to get to know you.

Bill used to get his burger meat from Stephen Falcigno of Statewide Meat & Poultry, before he was swallowed up by Rhode Island-based Sysco Foods. Now Bill gets his fresh ground beef from the Meat House, a New Hampshire-based chain of butcher shops with Connecticut outlets in Branford and Avon.

In my opinion, the best way to order Contois Tavern’s delicious burger, which comes on a poppy seed bun, is medium-rare with just cheese, tomato and raw onion, but grilled onion and roasted pepper can make nice accompaniments as well. Ketchup? Please! Unlike Louis’ Lunch, you can have it if you must, but a great burger like this simply doesn’t need it.

Dive Bar & Restaurant

24 Ocean Ave., West Haven 203-933-DIVE www.divebarandrestaurant.com

Tongue-in-cheek names are nothing new for area bars. I think the Excuse Room Café in Branford might be my favorite, but Dive Bar & Restaurant in West Haven comes in a close second. Dive Bar really isn’t a dive—it’s a small but cheery pub that has taken on a scuba diving motif. You’ll find it appropriately situated across the street from where the Oyster River pours into Long Island Sound.

Our son who lives overseas and visits once in a blue moon adopted this joint on his last visit. Despite the difficulty of getting a seat at times, a close friend is a regular. It isn’t hard to see why. The atmosphere is the essence of conviviality, the clientele diverse, the staff efficient and helpful, the rotating beer list extensive, and the food good. In keeping with the vaguely Caribbean theme, there are conch fritters, mahi-mahi bites, coconut shrimp, fish tacos and even a pulled jerk chicken panino.

But the burgers rule! There are eight in all, carrying names like The Hangover and Mother Loaded. My Traditional Burger is an 80/20 meat-to-fat ratio patty that has been hand-seasoned and formed about an inch-and-a-half thick and then covered with melted Cheddar. With the addition of lettuce, tomato, onion and a toasted brioche bun, it stands about 6 inches high and requires a long toothpick to hold it together. Somehow I get my jaws around it. It couldn’t be more perfectly cooked or tastier. And as my friend informs me, all burgers are just $6 until 4 in the afternoon, a terrific deal.

Doody’s Totoket Inn

465 Foxon Road, North Branford 203-484-0588 www.doodysrestaurant.com

For years, I heard that Doody’s Totoket Inn had great hamburgers, but until now I never got around to trying them. A couple of decades ago, I even competed against Doody’s in New Haven Dart League play, but as a member of the visiting team, only beer passed my lips. I was an athlete and my body was a temple. Actually, scratch that—it was just that I had already eaten.

We come in through the front door.

What we find is an incredibly friendly atmosphere where customers are treated like family. When we open our menus, we find prices that encourage customers to return. Our burgers are thick and juicy and done a perfect medium-rare, as we have requested. The patties are formed from 10 ounces of Certified Angus Beef ground to order by Doody’s wholesale

supplier. (Most restaurants choose not to grind their own beef, as it invites a whole other order of health inspection.) As we leave via the back door, we find that the bar area is even busier than the dining room, and the patio is also full of people enjoying the good weather while it lasts.

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