When Mike Day and Matt Collins decided to open a downtown Wilmington restaurant, they settled on an untapped niche: bougie burgers and boozy milkshakes. “We said, ‘Hey, let’s give it a shot,’” Day says. “There is nothing more classic than a burger, fries and a milkshake.”
Farmer & the Cow debuted in 2018, and within a year, Food Network star Guy Fieri was sinking his teeth into “That’ll Do Pig,” a hand-blended burger with tots, bacon, bacon mayonnaise, bacon jam, sautéed onion and bacon-cheddar cheese.
The partners were on point. Once the darling of fast-food joints, hamburgers span multiple concepts. Even many seafood restaurant menus now boast a burger. “It’s an approachable item every generation likes,” explains Ian Mangin, a chef at Fish On in Lewes. “They just hit the spot.”
Eric Sugrue of Big Fish Restaurant Group would agree. He insisted on adding a burger to Trolley Square Oyster House’s menu, and the half-pounder is a top seller.
While burgers are ubiquitous, not all are equal. Here, we bite into some of the best patties in Delaware.
A beefy evolution
Some say the hamburger was born in Hamburg, Germany, where people favored a grilled or fried patty laced with spices. In the late 19th century, German immigrants put meat on bread for a working-class lunch, but it wasn’t until 1904 that the New York Tribune noted the number of concessionaires serving “hamburgers” at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Interest soared after White Castle’s opening in 1921 and McDonald’s birth in 1940.
In 1956, The Charcoal Pit debuted on Concord Pike in north Wilmington. It was founded by brothers Sam, Marty, Lou and Aaron Sloan, who also started The Doghouse in New Castle. Both are still tasty traditions for families seeking affordable fare and a retro ambiance.
In the early 21st century, craft beer boosted the craft burger with fanciful toppings. In 2010, Desiree DiAntonio and dad Dennis Forbes opened Restaurant 55 in Dover with meat from a local butcher. Customers can sip an IPA while feasting on a Willie Nelson burger topped with Jack Daniels barbecue sauce, smoked Gouda cheese and pickled jalapeños.
As for fine dining, Nage in Rehoboth Beach was arguably among the first to put a burger on the menu. The now-shuttered restaurant combined mushroom duxelles, ground steak from Hickman Meat Market, black truffle oil and seasonings to make a gourmet delicacy topped with Gouda.
Today, diners in high-end establishments are accustomed to seeing a burger alongside steaks and seafood dishes. For instance, the new Brandywine Restaurant near Wilmington’s Little Italy opened with the Royale with Cheese for $24, and The Quoin on Market Street offers a dry-aged beef burger for the same price.
In the mix
If an upscale burger seems like an oxymoron, consider that the different cattle breeds and cuts affect the price. Black Angus is a common breed. However, many casual and high-end restaurants feature wagyu from Japanese breeds raised under strict standards. (American wagyu is a cross between Black Angus and Japanese cows.)
Taste the difference at Timothy’s Riverfront Grill on the Wilmington Riverfront or Lewes Oyster House, whose Damn Good Burger is two “smashed” Snake River Farms wagyu beef patties with lettuce, tomato, onion, sharp American cheese and bacon with LOH sauce.
The brand Certified Angus Beef entered the marketplace in 1978, and countless consumers associate it with excellence. Restaurants like the Deer Park Tavern in Newark note the brand on its menu.
To create the prized marbling, farmers use grain for feed. However, cows naturally graze, which has led to the demand for grass-fed beef. The Farmhouse Burger at Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon in Trolley Square and Brandywine Hundred is lean, but herbed butter keeps it moist and unctuous.
Dry-aged beef is kept in a controlled environment until enzymes break down tough muscle and tissue. Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in Rehoboth Beach uses dry-aged Black Angus beef from Roseda Farms in Monkton, Maryland, for wood-grilled burgers.
Increasingly, chefs prefer a blend. For instance, Farmer & the Cow grinds brisket, chuck and filet on site and pats the fresh meat into shape. David Wiederholt, owner of 322 BBQ in north Wilmington, would approve. The restaurant grinds brisket, chuck and short rib. “It’s super fresh—you could eat it raw like steak tartare. It’s great,” says the chef, who cut his teeth on the Philly fine-dining scene.
Fresh—not frozen—is essential, agrees Chris Agharabi, owner of Hammy’s Burgers & Shakes in Rehoboth Beach. His customers dictate the restaurant’s half-pound burger’s temperature. That’s not the case with an aptly named smash burger, which has become a trend in many restaurants. Using a spatula, the cook smashes the burger on the grill for the Maillard reaction, which forms a dark, caramelized crust and seals in juices.
Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen recently switched to smash burgers for the flavor and the efficiency. “We want to minimize any issues with burger temps,” explains corporate chef Brandon Fredericks, whose two waterside locations are jammed in summer. “We can maintain a nice flow in the kitchen.”
Pile on the toppings
However, the “wow” factor is what’s on the burger—and JulieAnne Cross has seen almost everything at the Delaware Burger Battle. At the 2023 competition, about half the burgers had bacon, says Cross, who organizes the fundraiser.
Pig is big. “Pulled pork showed up three times; prosciutto and scrapple each showed up twice, with pork belly and pancetta each appearing once,” she says. “Sweet bacon—maple, millionaire, billionaire and more—showed up nine times. Ten had some kind of bacon jam or relish.”
Cheddar ruled, from aged to extra sharp. Pepper jack, regular and smoked Gouda, and Swiss and Gruyère made a respectable showing.
Chef Kyle Berman, who trained with classic French chefs, puts a European spin on his burger at The Pines in Rehoboth Beach. He tops the blend of dry-aged brisket, short rib and chuck with onions braised in fine Armagnac, raclette cheese from Savoie and Périgueux sauce, made with Madeira and truffles.
While the trend for stunt food may stall, the classic undoubtedly will continue. After all, sometimes you just want a good burger.