In the Boston area, the average burger costs $12.52.
That conclusion is based on a 250-restaurant data set comprised of burger-serving restaurants in Boston proper, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Newton, and Watertown. For each restaurant, the price used in calculations corresponds to the cheapest, most simple beef burger available on the dinner menu (or the lunch or brunch menu only if there is no burger on the dinner menu).
Using those 250 data points, we've calculated the average burger price (as well as the mean, median, minimum, and maximum) for the Boston area as a whole; Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and Newton; and neighborhoods within Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. (Watertown was not given its own set of calculations due to the small sample size.)
In each graph below, all amounts are in dollars.
Breaking Boston down into neighborhoods, we see that Back Bay, South End, Fort Point/Seaport District, and Downtown have higher-than-average burger prices; Allston is the cheapest. (The Downtown data set includes restaurants in Beacon Hill, Downtown Crossing, and the Financial District.) Each neighborhood is based on at least six data points.
Meanwhile in Cambridge and Somerville, you'll pay most for a burger, on average, in Central Square or the Kendall Square/East Cambridge area; Porter Square/Spring Hill is the cheapest. (There is no mode in Central Square or Porter Square/Spring Hill; all prices in those neighborhoods are unique.) Each neighborhood is based on at least eight data points.
"To me, bottom line, regardless of what the place looks like, regardless of whether there’s a tablecloth or not, and I feel very strongly about this: If you’re not actually going to buy a burger for $15 or more, then you shouldn’t eat it. You make your own decisions, and I pass no judgment, but you don’t want to know where that [inexpensive] beef came from; you don’t want to know how it was treated. If you want to put that in your mouth or your kid’s mouth, all the power to you, but don’t come near me. And I feel very strongly about that. Don’t come to me and say, 'Your burger is $16?!" If you buy real meat (from a real person) that doesn’t have hormones and doesn’t have antibiotics and wasn’t ground out of all the random crap on the floor, then real meat costs money. It just does." —Tony Maws, chef/owner of Craigie on Main and The Kirkland Tap & Trotter
In investigating the prices of burgers at 250 restaurants, a lot of words popped up again and again on the menus, particularly "house-made." Here's a look at the prevalence of various words that appeared in the burger descriptions. (Note: These were taken from the full burger descriptions, include toppings and sides, so "house-made" pickles, "hand-cut" fries, and items like that all make the cut.)
Now, let's take a look at the availability of certain burger ingredients around Boston. For the next set of charts, we looked at all the listed ingredients of every burger on the menu of those same 250 restaurants — not just the simplest beef burger on each menu. Each ingredient counts once per restaurant, so while we looked at all the burgers at each restaurant, we counted bacon, for example, once if it appears at a restaurant at all — not three, five, etc. times if it appears on multiple burgers at the same restaurant.
Bacon, as it turns out, comes in second in popularity: It's explicitly listed as a burger topping at 159 restaurants. Cheddar cheese wins with 166. (Meanwhile, 41 restaurants simply offer "cheese" with no specification. Anecdotally, restaurants in that group usually offer a selection of American, cheddar, and occasionally Swiss.)
Let's take a closer look at cheese.
Swiss, American, and blue cheese come in after cheddar, with almost equal prevalence, followed by a variety of jack cheeses, which are named on menus as simply "jack" or Monterey jack, pepper jack, cheddar jack, and even a ghost pepper jack. (You can find that one at Mr. Bartley's in Harvard Square.)
On the rarer side, Asiago, Comte, Emmentaler, Manchego, Parmesan, pimento, ricotta, Taleggio, and Huntsman only make an appearance or two a piece. Huntsman, which layers Double Gloucester with Blue Stilton, only appears at The Haven, a Scottish restaurant in Jamaica Plain, where owner Jason Waddleton has strong feelings about cheese. "A one-third to two-third ratio of English Stilton blue cheese (the King of Cheeses) to English cheddar provides the hint of pungency that mingles in with the taste to provide a great background flavor," he said when asked to define a perfect burger. "Not to overpower, though. The cheese must be melted through. And no American or Swiss. American meat YES! American cheese....NO!!"
More important than cheese, though, is the actual meat (or the veggie patty). A few tidbits:
- 114 of the 250 restaurants explicitly offer at least one vegetarian or vegan patty.
- Lamb burgers might seem relatively common, but they only popped up on 16 of the menus we analyzed.
- Turkey, on the other hand, is the most common non-vegetarian alternative to beef in the Boston-area burger world, appearing on 66 menus.
- Looking for some less-common meats? Try Bukowski Tavern in Inman Square, where you'll find burgers made of elk, antelope, boar, llama, and more.
And how about non-vegetarian, non-beef burgers?
The bun needs to "stand up to a juicy burger and not fall apart," according to Michael Schlow (Tico, Via Matta), but "it can't be too thick or you lose the flavor," according to Will Gilson (Puritan & Co.)
The "wrong bun" in general can make a burger fail completely, according to Matt Jennings (Townsman) — and "don't even get [him] started on burgers on bread." Meanwhile, Chris Coombs (Boston Chops, Deuxave, Dbar) specified that a brioche bun can make a burger fail. Brioche is a pretty divisive bun choice, as it turns out; while Coombs is the only one who specifically mentioned it in the "fail" survey, brioche hate spread across social media chatter in its wake. On the other side of the fence, Robert Sisca (Bistro du Midi), Brian Rae (Centre Street Cafe), Carey Dobies (BOKX 109), and Brendan Joy (Bondir) praised it as a possibly component in a perfect burger.
So how prevalent is that terrible-or-wonderful brioche bun (and other kinds of buns)?
Looking for that sole ramen or waffle bun? You'll find the former at Ki Bistro (near Boston University) and the latter at The Sinclair in Harvard Square.
As far as toppings go, Boston is drowning in aioli/mayo. At least one instance of the word "aioli" appeared on 53 of the menus analyzed, and "mayo" appeared on 62. Here's a look at the various flavors of aioli and mayo (larger lettering means more restaurants served that particular flavor.)
Lots of other things can go on burgers, too — some more gut-busting than others. Here's a look at the fun fried things some restaurants put on top of their burgers, including some items that'd usually be found on the side.
The "Other Fried Potatoes" category includes items listed as fried potatoes, fried potato sticks, and hash browns, while the "Fries" category includes one sweet potato fry appearance (at Boston Burger Company).