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Cooking Corner

Burgers Help Upscale Joints Cut the Mustard

The burger at Farmhouse Cafe goes for $15. Photo by K.C. Alfred

The burger at Farmhouse Cafe goes for $15. Photo by K.C. Alfred

By Lori Weisberg

The iconic staple of the American diet, the unassuming burger, is enjoying a rebirth that has celebrity chefs, savvy entrepreneurs and well-known chains capitalizing on consumers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for beef patties sandwiched between a bun.

For fine-dining chefs looking to beef up sluggish sales in a down economy, it’s the go-to menu item, dressed up with artisan cheeses, perhaps a garlicky aioli and a smattering of wild truffles. Fast-food chains hoping to wean customers off not-so-profitable dollar burgers have been introducing pricier premium patties, and fast-casual restaurant operators are seeing big bucks in customization of the burger.

When San Diego chef Olivier Bioteau decided it was time last fall to remove his Meyer Ranch burger and fries from the menu of his French bistro, the customers rebelled.

“People were really upset with us. Some people just come here for the burger. It was really crazy,” recalled Bioteau, owner of the Farmhouse Cafe. He has since restored the burger, which he serves with a remoulade sauce.

“Originally, we had noticed every restaurant opening around us had a hamburger on the menu, so we needed to have one. It’s more affordable, and it’s also very versatile. When someone sees something popular and profitable, everyone wants to try it and get some money off it. Maybe in a year, it will be hot dogs.”

Not likely.

The $100 billion-a-year burger market has been a welcome bright spot in an otherwise dismal year for restaurants. While overall restaurant traffic last year was down 3 percent compared with 2008’s, servings of burgers, which numbered 9.3 billion, were up 5 percent, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

The growing appeal of burgers, especially for sophisticated palates, is not lost on family-style chains like Denny’s, which last year launched an upgrade with its Better Burgers — grilled, hand-formed patties offered with a variety of toppings. Fast-casual chains such as Smashburger and The Counter are rapidly expanding, creating niches for diners looking for something affordable but more inspired than drive-through fare.

Tom Yoo was so enamored with the build-your-own-burger concept adopted by The Counter chain of burger joints that he decided to leave his lucrative career in the financial industry and open a restaurant in Carlsbad, Calif., which debuted in December.

“We’ve been doing fantastic, breaking records,” Yoo said. “In a time when we’re not doing well economy-wise, people are going back to what they can trust is good, and burgers are at the heart of that. We feel like we’re at the forefront of that.”

Burgers typically are a recession-proof restaurant staple, said NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs, but “they’re also a way of getting people into a restaurant where you don’t have to spend as much money.” And while they can sometimes still be somewhat pricey, they are nearly always less expensive than typical entrees, she added.

Restaurateur Bertrand Hug, owner of Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., decided he needed a quick fix after he saw his nightly volumes plummet as the economy tanked. He turned to the burger, which his chef glams up with gourmet accouterments like Point Reyes blue cheese and caramelized onions to satisfy epicurean tastes. To celebrate the restaurant’s 25th anniversary this month, he offered five burgers, paired with a glass of wine or beer, for $25.

“It’s partly an economic thing, but also, the burger is like a religion,” said Hug, who also owns Bertrand at Mister A’s in downtown San Diego. “I was in college when I had my first burger in France, and I thought, ‘Man, those Americans, they’ve got it all figured out.’ What it has done for me, it’s brought in an entirely new clientele.”

Clearly, the burger makeover has proved a bonanza for celebrated chefs in search of populist appeal, as well as fine-dining establishments trying to shed their stuffy — read expensive — image. While burger offerings are up across all segments of the restaurant industry, the biggest growth by far is in the fine-dining category, where burger sales jumped more than 18 percent, according to data research firm Datassential.

Renowned New York restaurateur Daniel Boulud, credited a decade ago with the transformation of the downscale burger into a gourmet offering fit for the pickiest of foodies, recalls the raves of his finger-licking customers when he introduced the DB Burger, a decadent fusion of sirloin, red wine braised short ribs and black truffles, served on a parmesan bun. But he firmly believes that even the most gourmet of burgers do not belong in a fine-dining establishment. His are reserved for his more casual bistros, not his upscale restaurant, Daniel.

“People don’t come to Daniel to get their hands greasy,” said the French-born chef. “They come to a nice restaurant to enjoy a special moment. But when you go out for a burger, it’s a spontaneous moment. It’s a whole approach to making ourselves affordable and casual but also very good.”

Likewise, noted French chef Hubert Keller has upped his popularity quotient with his successful Burger Bars, which focus on the finest of ingredients and varieties of beef while allowing diners to customize their own burgers with choices from 40 toppings. Rather than incorporate burgers into his fine-dining restaurants, though, he believed premium patties deserved a forum of their own.

“I think foodies were ashamed to go to a McDonald’s and were probably hiding when eating a burger. But now with a chef doing a burger, they didn’t have to hide anymore,” said Keller, who has Burger Bars in San Francisco, Las Vegas and St. Louis. “We started six years ago, and it was booming then, and now we’re deep in recession, and the Burger Bar is still booming. It’s a foolproof concept, but nobody could have known then.”

Lori Weisberg writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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