4530 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago IL 60625 (map); (773) 271-9000; thegrafton.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: Not a destination restaurant, but a nice neighborhood pub with some very good burgers
Want Fries With That? The pre-frozen potatoes are nothing special, but they're worth eating as vessels for the curry
Price: Range from $8.50 - $10.50
Perhaps I am unduly influenced from having grown up in a city that has been under Irish rule for most of the last century, but I firmly believe that every neighborhood should have a decent Irish pub. There is something about the motif that makes people comfortable, be it a place with a genuine Irishman manning the bar or a chain like Fado.
But while virtually anyone with the financial wherewithal can install a beautiful wood bar and most can learn to pull a good pint of Guinness, the sad truth is that too many places hope that patrons drink so much that they won't realize the food isn't good. That is decidedly not the case at The Grafton in Lincoln Square, a few doors away from the Old Town School of Folk Music.
As a general rule, when I see sirloin listed as the only meat in a burger, I worry. It's not that sirloin is a bad cut of beef by any stretch—it can make a delicious steak. But for me, sirloin's mere 8 to 10 percent fat content is generally insufficient for a burger unless it's seasoned particularly well or fat is added via the toppings. At The Grafton, both adjustments are made, resulting in some particularly good patties.
The grilled, loosely packed, approximately half-pound patties are surprisingly well seasoned for a pub burger. I can't be sure of the exact spices beyond salt and pepper, but there was seemed to a bit more than just those two in there. And while they were noticeably present in every bite, they were applied with a sufficiently restrained hand, allowing the beef to shine through.
The first burger I tried came from the "build your own" option and was topped with blue cheese and grilled onions, a combination that remains my favorite. The blue cheese was very generously piled on, compensating for the lower fat content of the sirloin. The quantity of beef and relative mildness of the blue cheese ensured that the beef remained the star. The grilled onions added a nice sweet onion flavor that balanced out the tanginess of the cheese.
For my second burger, I turned to The Beckett, one of four specialty burgers, all of which are named after Irish writers (The Joyce, The Swift, and The Kavanagh are the others). The Beckett came topped with cheddar, a fried onion ring, and curry mayo. Here again, The Grafton delivered a well-seasoned patty that held up to some flavorful toppings. The sharp cheddar appeared to have been placed inside the onion ring atop the patty after cooking was over, resulting in some irrelevant melting issues. Those two toppings, along with a nice slathering of curry mayonnaise, added more than enough fat to the burger and made for a delicious mix of flavors.
While the burgers were very good, there were a couple of minor cooking issues. First, both burgers could have used a bit more of a crust. The more burgers I eat, the more I realize that a good crust on a thick burger is something that restaurants really struggle. In their defense, it is hard to control temperature on a grill when a place has to make burgers ranging from rare to well done. The other issue was with The Beckett, which came closer to medium than to the rare I requested, although the thing was so juicy that I didn't particularly care.
More than compensating for any minor flaws in preparation was the decision to use pretzel buns from Labriola. I raved enough about the buns in my review of Labriola Bakery Café, but suffice it to say that if someone gave me a McDonald's patty on one of those buns, I'd think I was eating a gourmet burger.
Unfortunately, the sides were not nearly as successful as the burgers. The mashed potatoes were bland and a bit on the dry side. The apparent attempt to compensate for quality with quantity was not helpful. The seemingly pre-frozen fries were also on the bland side, but they were very useful as vessels for eating the irresistible curry sauce available for 75 cents. That the sides were a disappointment really didn't matter given the size of the patties—each burger was a more than adequate meal.
The Grafton is not destination burger dining, particularly given its proximity to The Bad Apple. But for a nice neighborhood Irish pub that offers 46 different whiskeys and scotches, it puts out a very good burger that should please all who enter.