Burgers are for lovers

I knew I met the right gal when, early on in our courtship, she said her idea of a perfect date night is going out for cheeseburgers. That's what we do now. No candlelit tables or sports jacket required, just a reliable burger and the pleasure of each other's company. We don't even need those ultraluxe versions from three-star American bistros. In fact, we are living in a golden age of great, non-fast-food, chain burger restaurants. Having a date night for $25 isn't being stingy; it can make you look like Prince Charming.

Here are four popular chain burger restaurants, ranked in order.

1. Fuddruckers

When I was young and ignorant, burgers were simply burgers. There was no difference between a steakhouse version and McDonald's: A burger was a discus of beef between buns, full stop. Around this time was when I first discovered Fuddruckers. I thought it was decent. Before my palate matured, burgers occupied only that middle range of superlatives between OK and pretty good.

Returning to Fuddruckers last week for the first time as an adult, I was frankly shocked by how good it was. Call it the folly of low expectations. Chain restaurants get short-shrifted by implication that anything mass produced with cookie-cutter efficiency lacks soul or care. The counterargument is, if the resulting product was delicious, wouldn't the ability to reproduce the dish with exacting consistency be a good thing?

Fuddruckers makes the case for that counterargument. It's halfway between counter-service fast food and family restaurant (Think a burger version of Panera Bread). There is a self-serve toppings bar to pile on fixings and condiments, including a pump vat of hot cheese product to douse over the tomato and lettuce you just added.

The sandwich makes a terrific first impression with its bun, a component often neglected in burger construction. The thin-domed crust seemingly floats, like the inflated fabric roof of a domed stadium, suspended over the fluffiest bun interior in the hamburger industry. The underside is toasted an even butter-golden, no soft spots, just crispness throughout. It has that new bread smell, because there are ovens — visible from the dining room — where the buns are baked that morning.

The beef patty, grilled to a medium pink as requested, had a loose-grain quality; one could almost use the word creamy to describe the interior. At some locations, you'll even find a wagyu patty (listed as Kobe) on the menu under the Fudds Exotics Line. The difference in taste is negligible; I discerned a blue cheese tang similar to dry-aged beef. It's not enough to warrant the surcharge because, really, the original burger is good enough.

Such as: The Works, a no-fail combination of smoky and brawny strips of bacon, American cheese and grilled mushroom. It's as unabashedly American as sewing a flag. The more health-conscious diner should consider the turkey mushroom on whole-wheat bun, which will dispel any notion that turkey burgers must be dried, flavor-void discs of cork. Still, it's nowhere as satisfying as the beef.

Really, it matters not what variation you order. Be it the Southwest with guacamole or Inferno with jalapenos, 90 percent of this burger's effectiveness comes from that consistent base of superb bread and beef. The word "overachiever" comes to mind.

Locations at fuddruckers.com

2. Steak 'n Shake

Having attended school in Southern California and now living 2,000 miles away, I can't help proselytizing the In-N-Out gospel to anyone who'll bend an ear. There are three factors for us preachy ex-West Coasters: 1) nostalgia, 2) the idea that distance makes the heart grows fonder (closest location to Chicago is in Texas), and 3) one memorable cheeseburger, a compact and grease-sheened amalgam of beef and melted American cheese.

It prompts the question: Why don't Midwesterners gush about Steak 'n Shake in the same way? Removing all geographic biases, I'm now of the opinion that the Normal, Ill.-born chain serves a burger on par with In-N-Out's.

The burger has two unique traits. First is that patty, though a more apt description might be "beef wafer."

At some places, consuming a burger feels like ingesting a meat grenade. At Steak 'n Shake, the grill cook smashes a mini hockey puck-size patty with a spatula against the hot griddle. This action creates a magical byproduct: an edge so crisp and thin, it's as if steak took on the properties of a potato chip. (Fellow chains Smashburger and Schoop's have emulated the practice, but Steak 'n Shake did it first and does it best.) After you pile two or three of these hot patties on a bun and layer cheese in between, the two fuse into a single mass where meat and cheese become indistinguishable. This is their dangerous, habit-forming secret.

Its second trait is less familiar to most: the restaurant's proprietary pepper sauce, which sits underutilized on every table. Hot sauce and hamburgers always seemed like a strange pairing, albeit conceivable. But somehow, dashing a swig of this sauce, made from sugar cane vinegar and green Amazon peppers, perked up the burger in a special way. It's got Tabasco's vinegar zing with a fruitier flavor.

You can attribute a third trait (though not unique to Steak 'n Shake), and that's the 1980s-level prices. For a sit-down restaurant with a full-service wait staff, its $4 menu is a remarkable deal in 2014. An Original Double 'N Cheese Steakburger with a plate of fries comes out less expensive here than a Big Mac with large fries at McDonald's, and the difference in deliciousness is threefold. So spread the word.

Locations at steaknshake.com

3. Red Robin