Review Date: 12/01/15
Visit Dates: (11/05/15) (11/23/15) (11/28/15)
Bartley's is a Harvard Square institution specializing in burgers since 1960—long before burgers were a thing. It's been run by the same family, in a room that rarely changes (mostly musical and political memorabilia) and with a deep menu of assorted burger toppings whose athlete- and politician-related names are constantly changing (The Bernie Sanders,The Gronk). Other burgers get their names from newsworthy topics, such as The Viagra and The Gay Marriage.
The seating is tight, with plastic chairs that would be considered second rate even as lawn furniture, and little space between the tiny tables. A long table down the middle allows communal dining for parties of one (talk about an oxymoron), but unless you're there to mingle or steal fries, a stool overlooking the griddle is a better bet. There's usually a line to get in.
A simple sesame seed bun is similar to the McDonald's model, but a little denser. They get warmed on a griddle of their own, set to a different temperature from the meats. There's a stainless steel tub of butter with a brush, but they're for lubricating the griddle for eggs, not buns. The bun-to-beef ratio is a good one, but the heel-to-crown ratio is less than ideal, with a thin heel barely able to contain the burger juices. Of course, that's not exactly the worst problem to have.
Freshly ground chuck formed into 7-ounce patties with an unusual height-to-diameter ratio stand a good inch and a quarter high when first plopped down on the flat top. A trowel-like weighting device slims it down while forcing it toward the hot griddle, ensuring a gloriously crusted surface. This tool remains on top of the patties, usually two at a time but sometimes securing as many as six, until it's time for flipping. Then it gets put right back on.
Some say that pushing down on the patty removes all the juices. That may be true with grilling, where the juices flow through the slats, but here the practice seems to have no adverse effects. Quite the opposite, in fact: the fat cooks the burger and forges its crust. The meat is still reliably juicy—one time to the extent that the heel of the bun barely held up.
If you've seen owner Bill Bartley behind the grill on shows like Chronicle, Phantom Gourmet, Wicked Bites and Dinners, Drive-Ins and Dives, know that it's not just a rare stint for the camera. Bartley is hands-on, wielding a trusty spatula and flashing a perpetual smirk revealing a love for burger craftsmanship. There are no timers here; it's all done by carefully monitoring and prodding the sizzling patties. From the counter perch you can see that after 40 years behind the flat top, the novelty hadn't worn off.
At no time during the cooking process is salt involved, which is a little disappointing from a flavor perspective. It's possible the patties are pre-salted, but I tasted none.
The beef is simple (fresh ground chuck) and is handled in a simple manner, so the ultimate flavor is unsurprisingly simple. Those well charred surfaces heighten the beefiness, but the inner core is woefully tame. Texture is the name of the game here, and on that front every burger is a huge success: crackly crust, delicate interior, gentle grind, loose packing, pinpoint doneness, full fledged juiciness.
Grilled onions, tried as a standard topping on the Gronk burger (bacon, cheddar, onions, fries) and an add-on to the bacon cheeseburger (with a bag of chips), get cooked on a separate part of the griddle from the beef—perhaps a nod to the vegetarian clientele. On one visit they stayed on long enough to get a thorough char outside and a melted quality inside that released the onion's natural sweetness and juices. The next visit saw a token grilling that barely added color and left the insides raw and still bitter. The third visit, again on the Gronk, duplicated the first—perhaps because Bill Bartley manned the flat top on both occasions.
American cheese on the bacon cheeseburger, starting with a slice about 50% thicker than the packaged variety, is melted by direct contact with the griddle before being draped on the patty. The end result still falls short of a full melt by the time the plate gets served, but maybe that's the plan. It's still solid but at the brink of liquid, a state that lets you taste the subtleties of the cheese. Cheddar on the Gronk is handled similarly, though it—like the beef—can get a little lost among the onions and other toppings.
Bacon is crisp and moderately flavorful. It fills its role adequately and is a step up from the chains (not counting Smashburger, whose bacon is superb) but not ready for any superlatives list.
The Fries (and such)
Fries: They're hot, they're crisp (extra crisp, actually, as if double fried) and they're fluffy inside, but they're skinless and ultimately ordinary when it comes to flavor. Salt doesn't make an appearance here either, but there's a shaker on the table. It's a frozen product.
Sweet Potato Fries: Available for a slight up charge, these are a wiser choice than the standard fries. These are fresh, hand-cut and cooked to the point of drooping with only a hint of crispness (and no hint of salt). This isn't the neon orange frozen variety. The sweet potato flavor is more subtle than most, but it comes through.
Onion Rings: These need some added salt too, but the rings at Bartley's are among my favorites thanks to a tasty batter reminiscent of a seafood shack, applied in an even ratio to the onion, and served hot and crisp with the inner onion a little past the brink of melting. If you order it as a side, it arrives before your burger, making it more of an appetizer. There's never a question of whether to order rings or fries; other than for research purposes, it's rings every time.
Bring cash or a willingness to sprint to the nearest ATM, because credit cards are not accepted.
Pricing isn't high, but there doesn't seem to be much correlation to the ingredients used. Some of the burgers you'd expect to be more expensive are less expensive and vice versa.
Servers are friendly and knowledgeable. Bartley's is one of those places that's built up a reputation and a steady clientele to the point that a little attitude might be expected, but that hasn't been the case at all.
The Bottom Line
Okay, so maybe the lines are long, the place is cramped, the chairs are wobbly, the burger names are hokey, they don't accept credit cards, the blend is simple and they don't use salt. But very few places show the care in getting your burger cooked right the way Bartley's does. Sometimes simple is all you really need.
So as long as they continue to hit my medium rare under the sturdiest of crusts, I'll continue my periodic visits to Bartley's, salt shaker in hand. And they can call their burgers anything they want.
Phantom Gourmet video profile of Mr. Bartley's Gourmet Burgers
Wicked Bites video profile of Mr. Bartley's Gourmet Burgers
Boston Burger Blog review of Mr. Bartley's Gourmet Burgers
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