A Quest for the Great European Cheeseburger

The first Five Guys burger restaurant opened in Paris at Bercy Village on Aug. 4, 2016. (Eliot Blondet/Sipa USA)

Two years ago it was revealed that the cheeseburger was on pace to overtake jambon beurre, the quintessential French ham sandwich, as the most popular item on French menus. According to the Paris food consultancy Gira Conseil, the French devoured 1.2 billion burgers in 2015.


Full disclosure: the survey included fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King, which have sprouted up all over Europe. Other American options include Five Guys, known as a higher-quality alternative to the fast-food giants, which announced plans earlier this year to expand throughout France, Germany, Spain, Portugal and the UK, and potentially move into Scandinavia, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.

France’s record-breaking 2015 was an 11 percent increase from the previous year, but despite the trend the French only consume about half as many cheeseburgers as Americans on a per capita basis. While the average Frenchman eats about 14 burgers annually, the average American eats about 30. And if you ask around in the circles I frequent, that 30 figure might seem a little low.

My search for the perfect cheeseburger in Europe began four years ago in Mallorca, a Spanish island in the Balearics. My brother and his good friend, both teachers in Paris, were earning master’s degrees at the time. I was completing my own, separate studies.

My most critical research came on Tapas Tuesday, known locally as Ruta Martiana, a weekly pub crawl through Old Town Palma in which all the best bars and restaurants serve various tapas. It was on our Tuesday evening route that we found the mini hamburguesas at Bar España — cheeseburger sliders, topped with either a fried egg or foie gras. They’re the best sliders I’ve ever tasted, despite knowing the heinous process in which the fattened goose liver is produced – the goose is force-fed twice a day for more than two weeks and then slaughtered.


Since that summer, there’s been discussion among the ranks about where to find the best burgers in Europe. My brother’s friend – we’ll call him Rich – is a big guy. He was recently crowned the fourth-strongest man in France for his weight class. He can scarf down food, especially mini hamburguesas, and through this scarfing, he’s developed a list of cheeseburger recommendations (though there’s disagreement between him and my brother about the best spots).

Legend has it that the hamburger was born in Hamburg, Germany, in the 19th century as Hamburg steak, a bun-less slab of beef ground up with garlic, onion, salt and pepper. It wasn’t until German immigrants arrived in New York City that the Great American Cheeseburger progression began. The story is that sailors bought Hamburg steaks from food carts in New York, and the bun was added to make the meal easier to eat.

While in Berlin this August, my brother told me to find a place called the Bird, a post-World War II-themed bar filled with Americana and rockabilly music. It’s located in north Berlin, near Mauerpark. If I had to go again, I would order the burger medium instead of medium-rare. Though it had a nice grill flavor to it, the center of the patty tasted as if I might have chomped into a live, grazing bovine. Also, I wouldn’t have ordered two Cokes. As an American, I’m accustomed to free refills, but in Germany you pay by the glass, and in a lot of places, a Coke costs as much as a beer. I ended up (through my own American ignorance) spending about 8 euro on Coke and 13 euro on a cheeseburger and fries.


But the real showdown came a few weeks later in Paris, where I reunited with my fellow cheeseburger scholars. My brother and I walked to Paris New York, a restaurant a few blocks from his apartment near Oberkampf. He had showed the restaurant to Rich and Rich’s fiancé, Sarah, a few weeks earlier. They had been unimpressed, with Sarah bluntly telling my brother: “It wasn’t very good.” Rich’s gripe was the small size of the patty. I ordered PNY’s Classique, a standard burger with cheese, pickles, ketchup and yellow mustard. It ran about 16 euro with fries and a Coke. A solid burger, I thought, maybe an 8.1 out of 10.

We tried another burger a few days later at Ground Control Paris, a train warehouse near Gare De Lyon that’s been converted into one of the busiest happy hour spots in the city. It’s essentially a biergarten, with pop-up street food vendors working inside retired trains and buses. The kind of hipster spot you’re more likely to find in an alternative city like Berlin. Though Paris New York has a pop-up at Ground Control, we grabbed some Argentinean burgers from Asado Club. The Argentineans serve a good-sized patty seasoned to perfection and topped with comté cheese and caramelized onions. It ran about 12 euro for the burger and fries, and earned an 8.5.

But the best burger I found was in the Marais, not far from Oberkampf, at a place called Le Burger Fermier (Rich did nothing but talk about it while we ate the burgers at Ground Control). It’s a small counter located in the back of a French market. According to Rich, everything on the burger comes from a farm about 100 kilometers from Paris, and an 80-year-old woman delivers the ingredients every Sunday, while the bread is made fresh daily.


I ordered a burger with cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce and tomato – a symphony of taste-bud-popping ingredients all tied together with a ketchup-mayo special sauce. The burger, which Rich proclaimed the best in the city, cost about 12 euro and came with perfectly crisp French fries. When I went to pay, I explained to the cashier that someone had told me this was the best burger in Paris. Before she could answer, a cook behind her said, “Paris? It’s the best burger in the world.”


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