Eat & Drink

Find Your Perfect Burger in Charlotte

Whether it’s served plain or with all the fixings (or even meatless), no matter what your preference, the Queen City has a burger to suit every taste.

Photo by Kyo H. Nam Photography

With so many incredible burger stops sprinkled around the city and more cropping up regularly, we set out to find the very best combinations packed between two buns. From decades-old dives and drive-ins to high-end eateries, here’s where to go to find your soon-to-be favorite burger.

The Superboy Burger at South 21 Drive In - Photo by Kyo H Nam Photography

If You’re a Traditionalist

The Super Boy at South 21 Drive-In

South 21 Drive-In doesn’t have to put up old stuff to be retro; all the time-treasured spot has to do is leave up its original decor. In 1955, three brothers, Sam, Nick and George Copsis, who had recently emigrated from Greece, opened the original South 21 on South Boulevard. Five years later, the restaurant found a new home on Independence Boulevard, where it’s still managed by family members today. The Super Boy is the mainstay’s most iconic burger. It’s dressed with simple toppings—lettuce, tomato, mustard and onion—but you can add cheese and other toppings, too. When Food Network featured it on a 2009 episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” host Guy Fieri “beefed up” his Super Boy by ordering it Carolina-style, with chili and a tangy slaw. Any toppings combo is winning. The beef has that great griddle flavor, and the ingredients are always fresh.

If You Like Your Burger “Your Way”

Build Your Own Burger at Mr. K’s Soft Ice Cream

Don’t let the name fool you; Mr. K’s Soft Ice Cream, which first set up shop in Charlotte in 1967, is so much more than a frozen treat stop. A tiny joint situated along South Boulevard, the family-owned and -operated diner served up swirly ice cream cones and yummy burgers through one of the city’s worst natural disasters (Hurricane Hugo in 1989) and received Charlotte Center City Partner’s Settlers Award in 2010. The accolade recognizes pioneers and entrepreneurs in the city. Although desserts are the main draw, Mr. K’s burgers, hot dogs and sandwiches have made a name for themselves over the decades. First, choose the size of burger (1/3-lb, 1/4-lb or a double patty) with or without cheese (options are American, blue, cheddar, pepper jack, provolone and Swiss) and then add the toppings you like: A1 sauce, banana peppers, grilled onions, jalapeños, ketchup, lettuce, mayonnaise, mustard, onion, pickles, relish, sauerkraut, tomato, slaw, spicy mustard and/or Texas Pete.

If You’re an Adventurous Eater

Cody Zeller’s “Hoop There It Is!” at The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar

The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar opened in 2010 next to SouthPark Mall. The concept fuses two niche products—sushi and burgers—seamlessly. This restaurant has become the Charlotte gold standard among playful and popular restaurants—a point that’s underscored by the almost-constant wait diners can expect. From the spot’s two TVs by the bar (one plays Western flicks, and one shows Japanese monster movies) to the Japanese language recordings in the bathrooms and the food itself, The Cowfish’s approach to fusion fare is innovative and witty. With a great burger menu and equally great sushi menu, you can’t go wrong here. A fan favorite burger, “Hoop there it is!” is named after Charlotte Hornets star Cody Zeller. The half-pound beef burger is stuffed with hoop cheese (get it?), fried pork tenderloin, lettuce, pickles and sweet Indiana mustard sauce (Zeller played college ball for the Indiana Hoosiers) on a brioche bun. A percentage of proceeds for each burger purchased supports the Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. Add some sushi on the side to complete the meal. More adventurous eaters shouldn’t miss out on one of The Cowfish’s most unique offerings, “Burgushi,” which is the cutting-edge union of burgers and sushi in one dish. The best option for newbies is The Cowfish Bento Box, a combo meal that includes a mini hamburger with American cheese, pickles and chopped red onion alongside sweet potato fries, Thai cucumbers, edamame and your choice of a four-piece sushi roll (California, spicy tuna, vegetarian or Philly-style).

Famous Crunch Burger at The Liberty - Photo by Kyo H Nam Photography

If You’re a Diehard Pimento Cheese Aficionado

The “Crunch” Burger at The Liberty

Located in the heart of South End on South Boulevard, The Liberty, which opened in 2009, is known for its chef-driven American cuisine, hearty beer selection and 30-plus wines by the glass. When it opened, The Liberty’s goal wasn’t to be the best burger joint in town. But in 2011, when it tied with Brooks Sandwich House for the accolade of the city’s best burger,” as awarded by The Charlotte Observer, the burger culture became part of The Liberty’s identity—and that hasn’t changed. The large sign proclaiming “Best Burger in Charlotte” still hangs outside the restaurant’s doors. In a city where burgers dot most menus, boasting the best is a tall claim, but no burger aficionado should overlook The Liberty. The must-try here is the “Crunch” burger, whose powerplay ingredients are spicy pimento cheese, sweet onions and smoked bacon. They mingle with a patty topped with aioli sauce, lettuce and tomato, a pickle and a stack of crispy housemade potato chips. The end product is amazingly juicy (with a bun that can stand up to that juiciness). Order a cold brew to soak up every level of taste layered on this bad boy.

If You Want to Splurge

The “GFY” Burger at Cowbell Burger & Whiskey Bar

A super-cool gourmet burger lounge in Uptown, Cowbell Burger & Whiskey Bar is a music and burger lover’s oasis. The owners of this popular spot, which boasts a small-batch whiskey bar that’ll knock your socks off, make their musical icons known. Legends like John Lennon, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley inspire the décor and the menu. Cowbell’s array of artisanal burgers call on 100 percent USDA choice cuts of chuck and beef brisket, hand-ground by a fourth-generation butcher. Options of beef, turkey, pork and veggie patties are made by hand daily. We love the “GFY” burger, whose price tag points to its grandeur. $20 seems a bit steep, but one bite in proves it’s worth every penny. A grass-fed beef patty sourced from the Tar Heel State comes between an onion kaiser roll and is topped with flavorful fois gras, fresh arugula, salty prosciutto, a sweet apricot marmalade and a tangy Creole mustard sauce. No ingredient in this full-force lineup plays second fiddle, but the combination isn’t overwhelming; the flavors come together in perfect harmony. Of course, no plate is complete without a serving of the Montreal-style poutine Disco Fries—mozzarella cheese curds, skin-on fries, sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions and a robust brown gravy. Put on your blue suede shoes and wear your loosest pants. Bonus: with great music and nightlife, this spot also falls into the late-night hangout category.

If You Like Spice

The Green Chile Cheeseburger at Papi Queso Food Truck

While Papi Queso, which is effectively a conveyer of melted cheese (the essential ingredient in almost everything on the menu), is known for its grilled cheese sandwiches, it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to believe this food truck is also capable of cooking up a fantastic burger. Food Network host Guy Fieri drooled over the truck’s gooey, cheesy concoctions during an episode of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and we can’t blame him. While you’re pretty much obligated to try one variety of grilled cheese (the Pig Mac’s macaroni and cheese, overnight pork shoulder and bourbon-soaked onions, anyone?), we also recommend the green chile cheeseburger. Chargrilled Angus beef, poblano relish, chili mayonnaise and a white cheese blend marry to make one of the tastiest, spiciest burgers out there. For added flavor, the towering dish is drizzled with a New Mexico burger sauce. You can regularly find the truck parked in Uptown during the lunch hour for “Grilled Cheese Fridays” and on Friday evenings at Sycamore Brewing for Food Truck Friday.

If You Get a Late-Night Craving

The Full Blown Hemi Burger at the Diamond Restaurant

Since 1945, the Diamond has been a staple in in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. It started as the Diamond Soda Grill, a Southern diner owned by the James family. In 1984, it was sold to Gerry Pistiolis, who kept the restaurant’s good ol’ home-cooking concept alive for years. In its most recent reincarnation as the Diamond Restaurant, which opened in 2011, the spot’s new owners (formerly of the Penguin) paid homage to its culinary history with 1950s décor while also incorporating many elements from the former Penguin menu. It, of course, includes some of the classic burgers. The godfather of all burgers is the Full Blown Hemi, which is made up of three beef patties, totaling a full pound of meat. Try it Southern-style, with chili, mustard, onions and coleslaw. Add cheese and bacon to go “all the way.” The Diamond stays open until 4 a.m. on the weekends, which means you can get one of these mammoth burgers to satisfy late-night cravings.

If You Want to Skip the Meat

The Fire & Brimstone Burger at Living Kitchen

With a culinary philosophy centered on the art of nourishment, Living Kitchen, which operates two Charlotte locations (one at Atherton Mill in South End and one in South Park) and two more in Research Triangle Park, specializes in the art of living foods by focusing on raw, vegan, organic and plant-based cuisine. The cooking staff purchases seasonal produce multiple times a week from local farmers in order to ensure that the freshest ingredients are always used. With two “burgers” (neither actually contains meat) on the menu, Living Kitchen is the place to go for local, fresh flavors like you’ve never experienced. Try the Fire & Brimstone burger for a vegetarian option that packs a little heat. The gluten-free, quinoa-millet veggie burger is spiced with chipotle sunflower hummus, onions, cucumber, guacamole and a homemade hot sauce served atop your choice of bread or wrapped in a collard green leaf with one side item. The classic veggie burger also features a gluten-free, quinoa-millet veggie burger but is dressed with a lemon-parsley sunflower hummus, onion, tomato and guacamole. Add on a fruit-filled smoothie or juice for an extra burst of energy. Who knew eating a burger could feel so good?