Last year’s visit to the bar at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse for a burger confirmed my suspicion that fancy beef joints serve fancy beef, even when it’s ground. So this year I stuck with steakhouses. (I also stuck with downtown, because that’s where much of the steakhouse action is, even if Donovan’s and Greystone don’t do burgers.) That said, my gold star this year goes to Cowboy Star, which confirmed my other suspicion: the very best burgers often come from places with a butcher shop onsite. And where I could, I took advantage of happy-hour pricing, which confirmed what I already knew: the wife likes a cheap date that still feels just a little bit exalted.
640 Tenth Avenue, East Village
The Cowboy Star “Ultimate” Burger runs $11; for $10 more, you can load it with a fried egg, uncured bacon, caramelized onions, blue cheese, mushrooms, and shaved jalapeños. (You can also add items piecemeal.) But you can get it only at lunchtime. To ease your late-afternoon sorrow over this sad scenario, visit the bar Monday–Friday between 3 and 6 p.m. and get 50 percent off your draft beer, house wine, or specialty cocktail and another 50 percent off the trio of sliders ($14÷2). At least one of ’em should be a gorgeous lil’ burger — loose-packed, perfect temperature, and showing a hint of metallic tang — on a sturdy sourdough bun.
285 J Street, Downtown San Diego
The gleaming black bar at Morton's lends just a touch of glitz to the 5–6:30 Power Hour (Sunday–Friday), where you can nurse a monster Manhattan for $9 and nosh the Three Prime Cheeseburgers for $8. These tiny towers — beef, lettuce, tomato, red onion, topped with a crisped brioche dome — are cute the way Rottweiler pups are cute, miniature but still promising substance. The onion bite and cheesy tang show well against the plump round of pebbly beef, wet with fat but delicately so. (Though the underbun doesn’t stand a chance against all that sopping juice.)
380 K Street, Downtown San Diego
The orange lights and warm cherry wood at Fleming's make the bar’s nightly 5–7 p.m. happy hour more friendly than clubby. Your first $8 gets you a fancy cocktail as you munch a complimentary bowl of slightly sweet, russety potato chips; your next $8 gets you the Prime Burger accompanied by string fries and topped with salty/peppery/spicy-sweet bacon. Friendly, indeed. There’s cheese and other stuff, but it’s that bacon that dominates even the dense patty. (Though the beef does surrender its richness as you chew.) Only the sweet, ultralight fluff of the brioche bun can compete.
Omni Hotel, 675 L Street, Downtown San Diego
The bar at McCormick & Schmick's is a secluded outpost in the Omni hotel lobby, and it shows: clean lines, open spaces, and pale earth tones abound. The American Kobe Style Beef Burger is $19, but you get yummy, stubby truffle fries for your trouble, and a luscious, melty mound of sautéed mushrooms and red onions atop the bacon atop your beef. (Alas, the ciabatta bun is equally melty.) The Muenster may have been middling, but oh those onions. About that beef: it’s much more beefy than fatty, but the proper pink of its medium-rare finish left it properly yielding.
224 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Lou and Mickey's bar affords a view of the Gaslamp sign; its darkly paneled depths promise comfort to the haggard conventioneer. A heads up, friend: the American Style Wagyu Cheeseburger ($17) here comes with mayo. It also comes with loads of soft tomato, red onion, and thin lettuce leaves, all tucked into the hollow of a brioche bun whose deeply toasted exterior yields to a yellow pillow of airy delight. The burger is much the same: firm and charred on the outside, brightly red and softer on the inside. The skinny fries, on the other hand, are seemingly all crisp exterior.