There are three ways a burger can get into Polly's Hall of Fame:
1. Deliciousness, according to Polly Campbell (Cincinnati Enquirer's restaurant critic).
2: Having the great weight of tradition and popular opinion behind it.
3: Being part of a great burger-eating experience, including side dishes and atmosphere.
Most of these fulfill two or three.
These burgers hit the trifecta. They're big and juicy, with lots of toppings that make them even better. They didn't need years to become famous; there were lines out the door even before they got some help from the Food Network. They're served with a butcher knife stuck in them in the best burger-eating atmosphere possible -- neon signs, peanuts on the floor and good beer.
Sidebar: (currently closed)
The burgers at this Covington bar make it into the Hall based on pure deliciousness. They're crusty but juicy, on a nice Servatii's bun. On the side, you get tater tots and a pickle -- not just a spear, but the entire pickle. The atmosphere is nothing special, just the bar in the former Coco's. And they're not famous, but they ought to be. Love the mushroom and Swiss.
A tiny restaurant in Mount Lookout with a few long tables, crowds of families and yuppies and oldies and the train endlessly circling the track overhead -- it's a shoo-in based on atmosphere and heritage. Their burgers may no longer be state-of-the art, surpassed by fancier and bigger burgers, but a Zipburger is still a darn good burger. Onion rings are the way to go here.
This was once the fanciest burger imaginable: A bun cut into three pieces! Two burger patties, Frisch's tartar sauce! Now it seems rather demure and snack-like, served on its little plate. But how many Cincinnatians have eaten one of these over the years? The Big Boy must be in the Hall, and if he wants, he can bring along his siblings, the Brawny Lad and the Swiss Miss, to the induction ceremony.
How do most burgers in the world get eaten? Ordered and paid for at a counter, put in a paper sack and eaten at a Formica table or the front seat of the car. Here's the deluxe version of that: a bunch of fast-food burgers that don't eat like fast food at all. These are seriously good wherever you eat them, and the fries are like nothing you've ever had at a fast-food joint.
The atmosphere at the City View is like dozens of bars around town that serve burgers: a nondescript joint tucked into a residential street, where the bartender asks what you want, and you go up to the bar to get it when it's done. Except there's that view out the window of Downtown. And the burger is very good. With Husman's chips.
When the latest trend in restaurants -- putting them on wheels and driving them around town -- meets the most-established favorite American meal, you get this delicious handful: Not too big to handle, but meal-like eating. And the vegetarian is the meat-shunners equivalent.
This is just the place to eat a fancy-ish burger, because Senate is a restaurant with serious food but no serious attitude. Eat one at the bar or crowded into a little table next to someone's who eating a foie gras creme brulee or a lobster BLT. The Senate burger features caramelized onions, which I think is one of the best toppings, and house-made pickles.
There have always been burgers at the Rookwood, ever since it morphed from former pottery factory to a restaurant. (Remember the Erkenbrecker Burger?) They have always been the height of sophistication for their time, with toppings like avocado and bacon. That was then. Now: the BLT Burger is garnished with pork belly and tomato jam and is downright luscious. Eat it surrounded by essence of Cincinnati: Rookwood kilns and Rookwood ceramics.
This little cafe in Mason is all back-to-the-earth and so on. That doesn't mean they don't put out an outstanding meat product. Their burger is grass-fed beef from not too far away, with attention paid to each detail. Now, new and improved: they're served on English muffins from Blue Oven Bakery.
Would you really order a burger when you can get roasted grouse? Well, if you're in the mood, the French Chateau burger is a good one. It's very French-American, from its brioche bun to the bleu cheese topping and the tri-colore on top. And it comes with both fries and homemade waffle chips.
Cumin: (Currently Closed)
The burger here is what happens when the pressure is on to come up with the "ultimate" burger. This one is dry-aged, has foie gras and bacon and cheddar cheese and an egg, and lobster aioli. . . and truffle Parmesan fries. Really, it's too much, but the sheer audacity and ultimateness of it gets it a berth in the Hall. Just, please: no one try to out-do this.
A good, solid high-class burger, with a bit of a smoky flavor and white cheddar.
This is the inspired cafe that pioneered boursin on a burger, years ago. That one cheese seems like plenty, but their burger madness menu lists all the free toppings you can put on your burger on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday with the caveat: Please limit your servings of cheese to six! I can't even imagine putting six cheeses on a burger. The basic burger is good: big, irregular hand-shaped patties with lots of topping choices.
This little cafe in West Chester turns out some big food. I like their lavish hand with bacon on the cheddar and applewood bacon burger -- and the cafe potato chips.
You can't miss it: it's the old trolley car parked on Linn Street in the West End, with the murals of African-American politicians and local characters. Order your burger at a window surrounded by hand-written signs and photos of family babies. Get it in a sack, with Ollie fries, and eat it in the car, with plenty of napkins.
When Quatman's in Norwood first started showing up on "best burger" lists, it was the days before gourmet burgers, and the modest cheeseburgers were good for the day. I thought about retiring them, but no, there's always room for a burger and a beer served in a good old luncheonette-bar with no fuss and an honest, old-fashioned atmosphere.
You don't always want to eat a $20 burger. Sometimes even a $6.99 burger is too much. Fortunately, there is still such a thing as a non-chain-restaurant $2 burger. Get it at this Covington bar with a side of white bean soup, and you've got a great $4 lunch. The burger is basic but good: Without all the extras you can really taste the beef. The bar, which has been around since 1939, looks scary from the outside. Inside, it's a friendly, cozy joint with all kinds of people having lunch.