When we first set out to determine what restaurant served the best burger in Champaign-Urbana, none of us would have arrived at this final list. It's so easy to get stuck in a pattern; we know what we like, and we eat it, because when you are eating a meal like a burger, comfort is the name of the game.
But we knew we were missing a few and more. And, sheesh, were we right. Suggestions poured in from a Facebook post, and we set out together and ate dozens of burgers. Burgers we thought that would definitely make the list got nixed, and burgers we'd never tried scaled the ranks. We judged them, based on a wide range of technical and not so technical details: Bun, condiments, temperature, presentation, cheese, meltiness of said cheese, texture, you name it. We gave it point scores, and whittled it down, week by week, burger by burger.
We ate the same burger at every restaurant: Cheeseburger (American cheese when available), with ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, onion, tomato, pickle for those of us who wanted it.
We created criteria to define how we got to our top choices. First, the burger has to be served in Champaign-Urbana-Savoy. Nothing from anywhere else except Champaign-Urbana-Savoy. Then, we decided that it has to be regularly available and consistent. Random specials, and odd changes to a recipe disqualified a few of them from the top spots. Finally, it couldn't be a corporate chain.
Earlier this week, we shared The Best of the Rest — the burgers we found good, but not exceptional. And now we posit that these are the best eight burgers in Champaign-Urbana.
8. CRANE ALLEY
Inconsistency is the only thing that stands between the burger at Crane Alley being listed at number 8 and say, number 4, or even higher. When it's on, it's basically perfect. The handpacked patties are formed and prepared on an open broiler. There is a heavy dose of pepper in every bite, and while that can be a detriment for some palates, for us, it's a welcomed kick to the taste buds.
There's a good variety of options from which to choose if you want to dress it up, and if you are feeling really ambitious, order the War Pig, which is a half pound burger with applewood smoked bacon, grilled ham, chipotle aioli, and gorgonzola on a brioche bun.
But the thing here is that brioche bun with the peppery burger patty. When it's done well, it's hard to imagine wanting any other burger around.
The newest burger joint to post up in Champaign, Krekel’s is a Decatur-based restaurant with a few locations around Central Illinois. Specializing in an old fashioned smash burger, you can order it as you like: single or double, cheese or no. The double patty is the way to go here — a single just doesn’t provide the appropriate meat to bun ratio.
It’s a salty burger with crispy edges. It’s very no-frills. Condiments are standard, and nothing to write home about. If you like ketchup and mustard, be sure to ask for some more, as they tend to be a little stingy with them. This is the type of fast food burger that makes you feel morally superior to those getting theirs at McDonald’s. Because burgers are so cheap ($3.53 for a double cheeseburger), you can easily order fries and a shake.
6. HAMILTON WALKER’S
We can’t believe it, either.
The lunch burger at Hamilton Walker’s is a ½ pound Angus steakburger beauty. Really, it gives good face. For a group that prefers the smash patty, our (dare I say) love for this burger was surprising. It was very moist and cooked well, but not seasoned. This is par for the course at Hamilton Walker’s, where the steak arrives at your table without seasoning, despite the ongoing criticism of serving bland steak. Using steak bits to make a burger is neither new nor novel, but when done correctly, does indeed create a juicy burger with high fat content. This is where the flavor comes from.
The bun itself was a little too small for the ½ pound beast, but it was soft and well toasted. With all of the condiments (lettuce, pickle, cheese, onion), it became a little difficult to eat, but it didn’t fall apart. At $13 plus $1 for cheese, it’s not a cheap burger, but it is a damn tasty one. It’s served with exceptionally delicious steak fries. You’re certainly getting your money’s worth on this meal at lunch.
The dinner burger is different, and is dressed with bacon, among other things. The simplicity of the lunch burger is what makes it great — there’s nothing to mask terrible flavor or texture. What would really move this burger to the top of this list would be a slightly larger bun (one that nails the bite ratio), and, more importantly, the addition of some seasoning.
5. BROADWAY FOOD HALL
Though Broadway Food Hall is a newer establishment — it is less than a year old — that doesn't mean that they couldn't bring the heat with items from their multiple-vendor-style modern cafeteria concept. La Royale's cheeseburger is griddle style. The burger comes half wrapped, and appears to be spewing out waiting to be devoured. There's something comforting about grabbing the burg to start consuming it knowing your hands will stay somewhat clean. Bite ratio is such an important approach to a great cheeseburger, especially when we're talking about a griddle style of stacking two. The cheeseburger is simply delicious — greasy is good sometimes when it isn't over the top — and it makes you feel as though you're actually in a diner eating it. Forget potentially adding an egg or bacon to this —there's no need for it. Sometimes, simple is truly the best formula, as long as the parts are straight up delicious.
4. ALEXANDER’S STEAKHOUSE
Similar to Timpone's, very few people even knew that Alexander's has a burger on its menu, but it does, and it is absolutely fantastic. Available at the bar during Happy Hour as a 5 oz. burger with fries for $5, it might be the steal of the list. On weekends, at lunch, it's a 10 oz. burger and comes with salad bar and choice of potato, the way the rest of the entrees come as well.
The reason this burger is so high on our list is primarily based on the fact that the meat itself is comprised of the choice-grade trimmings from their steaks. It is a true "steakburger," and is made up of cuts of ribeye, strip, filet, and round. Additionally, these cooks know how to cook meat, and do it well. They season it appropriately, with garlic salt, pepper, and a splash of butter. The bun is spongy and soft, but grilled briefly to hold it all together.
Do yourself a favor, and just go in and try one. Ignore all the Chief memorabilia, as best you can. Fact is, you will want to close your eyes as you savor each bite.
This one was a dark horse that surged to the top of our lists. Our first indication was the number of times it was mentioned when we surveyed the Facebook masses. In our journey of burger sampling, we encountered the Bunny’s burger after a disappointing turn around campus and lots of frozen and unseasoned offerings. Bunny’s was a breath of fresh air, as they say. It’s everything that you want in a good bar burger, with just a little more: Double patty griddle burger, seasoned well and quite obviously fresh, not frozen. The brioche bun was a pleasant surprise for a bar burger, and it was delicious. The cheese was melted perfectly and bun to burger bite ratio was just right. Our only low-ish score was for the condiments (lettuce, tomato, onion, etc.), as they were just okay. But in the grand scheme of things it’s the quality of the meat that wins the day. Bunny’s became the comparison for subsequent burgers of its kind, and it maintained its well-earned place near the top.
A few years ago, the cheeseburger at Guido's changed. It changed style to its current form: the griddle burger. The double-patty griddle-style burger was shockingly good, though certainly that is up to your preference for griddle vs. traditional style. This radical shift in delivery didn't stop with the patty. Their cheeseburger's ratio is fairly unmatched — meaning, ratio of patty/bun/condiments per bite — which makes for a perfectly sized double cheeseburger. There's definitely an art to how a cheeseburger like this is stacked. The patties aren't perfectly round, not to mention stacking two of them with everything else on top, and balancing all of that between two slightly crispy buns for presentation makes it all the better. Across the board, this cheeseburger checks a ton of boxes: bite ratio, texture, freshness, and price. Simply put: There simply are no weaknesses with this one, which makes it lovable and amazing, and honestly, underrated... until now.
Was there really a doubt here? We were not unanimous about this, but the system has spoken, and to be honest it would be awfully difficult to place another burger at the top. Also you can’t argue that Farren’s makes a damn delicious burger. TripAdvisor commenters agree, and we would venture that much of C-U does as well. Farren’s is a burger destination. While they have other delicious items, you go there when you want a burger. You tell people who are new to town to go there to get a burger. And while you might be tempted to glance at another portion of the menu, let’s be honest: You are going to order a burger. They are thick and juicy, with just enough pink in the middle. The bite ratio is on point, with the patty perfectly covering the bun. This burger can stand strong on it’s own with just some American cheese and basic toppings, but they offer some very solid variations and combinations of bacon, mushrooms, grilled onions, jalapeños, and more. Just be prepared for a long nap after consuming. Actually, you might just want to cancel your day. But it’s so worth it.
Smile Politely’s Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Seth Fein.
Photos by Jessica Hammie and Julie McClure