In a world of smashburgers, Raleigh’s top burger is a tower.
It’s a squishy griddled bun, crispy ribbons of fried onions, Belgian beer cheese, garlic aioli and at least six pickles, all surrounding one thick high-fat patty. It’s a burger for grown-ups, but one connected to the joy of a childhood cookout.
The winner of The News & Observer’s Raleigh Burger Bracket is the European-inspired thickburger from Neuse River Brewing and Brasserie. This winning burger outlasted 15 other beloved burgers in Raleigh to collect the crown, rejecting tried and true toppings like lettuce tomato and raw onions for an umami bomb of richness.
“It’s just awesome,” said owner Ryan Kolarov of winning the online competition. He opened Neuse River with his wife, Jennifer.
Neuse River edged the legendary smashburger from Fine Folk, which was created by two Raleigh chefs to weather the pandemic and has grown into a symbol of creative perseverance.
“There are so many good burgers around Raleigh, so to be named the best is amazing,” Kolarov said.
The Burger Bracket
The Raleigh Burger Bracket began with 16 worthy contenders, all beloved for their takes on one of the country’s favorite foods. There were trendy double smashburgers, sports bar icons, fast-casual creations, roadside stands and very fancy steakhouse burgers.
The oldest restaurant in contention was The Players’ Retreat, which has been serving burgers for more than 70 years. The youngest on the list was High Top Burger, serving smashburgers in Raleigh’s McNeil Point development for a little over a year.
Over four rounds, more than 120,000 votes were cast. We should note here that the bracket does not contain scientific data. All votes were user-generated by choice.
Get to know Neuse River
Neuse River prevailed with one of the city’s fanciest burgers, attracting diners with housemade pickles, aioli (not mayonnaise), cheese mixed with beer and a half-pound patty.
Neuse River launched in 2015 and added an ambitious restaurant in 2019, led by chef Steven Jankowski.
The Kolarovs met Jankowski 20 years ago when the three worked together at a resort in the Virgin Islands. When they wanted to add the brasserie, they reached out to Jankowski, pulling him to Raleigh after years of fine dining in New York.
Neuse River’s menu looks different than many breweries, serving duck breast, mussels and duck confit poutine. But Jankowski said he knew there should be a burger.
“It’s just something people are familiar with, if they can’t decide on any other options, they’re probably comfortable with a burger,” Jankowski said.
The Neuse River burger began as a double smashburger, but the tight kitchen space meant a flattop covered with thin patties. To make twice as many burgers in the same amount of time, Neuse River switched to the thick burger.
“I put everything I like on burgers into it,” Jankowski said. “It’s our number one seller.”
On a recent Saturday, Neuse River served 105 burgers, a record.
“I’m still blown away that I won this thing,” Jankowski said.
On neighborhood walks in the summer, whenever a burger is sizzling on a nearby grill, it wafts a glorious waft through the air.
Kolarov said his burger flame was lit at backyard cookouts as a kid growing up in Raleigh. Today, even though his brewery serves the city’s favorite burger, it’s Char-Grill that makes him weak in the knees. (Char-Grill exited the Burger Bracket after Round 2 of voting, which saw nine top burger joints fight to the next round.)
“At some point, I think it has to go back to nostalgia for a lot of people, and smelling a burger in the backyard,” Kolarov said. “If I smell a burger from Char-Grill I have to have one.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic first started shutting down restaurants and bars, Chris Lopez and John Kleinart paused their fine dining dishes at Postmaster in Cary and started slinging burgers. They created Gov’t Cheeseburger and spent summer 2020 selling playful odes to fast food classics.
They amassed more than 7,000 Instagram followers built largely on that beautiful burger.
Today their smashburger lives on at Fine Folk, their soon-to-open restaurant in Raleigh’s Gateway Plaza development. For now, you can dine in at Fine Folk during their residency at Union Special Bakery in Gateway Plaza.