Upstanding Citizen: The Downtown Mall burger bar takes the win with a good conscience

Citizen Burger Bar snags the No. 1 burger title with only one year in business. What makes it the best? According to owner Andy McClure, it’s simple food done in an outstanding way. Photo: Elli Williams Citizen Burger Bar snags the No. 1 burger title with only one year in business. What makes it the best? According to owner Andy McClure, it’s simple food done in an outstanding way. Photo: Elli Williams

Hamburgers are as American as apple pie. Sure, it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason. There is nothing more symbolic of America’s culinary tradition than a juicy, hot-off-the-grill hamburger (or cheeseburger, if you’re like me) with ketchup and the occasional grilled onion or sliced pickle. There hasn’t been much innovation in the world of hamburgers since their inception in 1900 (unless you count the recently revealed test tube burger out of Maastricht University), but its simplicity might just be the reason we keep coming back for more.

Citizen Burger Bar owner Andy McClure designed his eatery with a winning combination in mind: a full service burger bar with simple food done in an outstanding way—an if you build it, they will come kind of mentality. And it worked—Citizen beat out the competition, taking home this year’s Best of C-VILLE burger award.

“Anybody can make a burger, anybody can come up with a burger bar,” said McClure. “I think what makes us unique is that we are offering Charlottesville—and hopefully a broader range than even that—a burger experience that is a little bit different from what they have seen before.”

The Downtown Mall restaurant has two unique elements, according to McClure: atmosphere and ingredients. The first is easy to recognize from the initial glimpse into the establishment. Long bar, open kitchen, spacious booths, funky tables made from old wood trunks. It’s hip in a New York kind of way. It was designed to make customers kick back and enjoy the show—or ball game, rather. (Citizen snagged the runner-up spot for Best Sports Bar, too.)

The thought behind each ingredient is sophisticated and well-researched. Sitting in a modern chair tucked under a huge tree trunk table and chatting with McClure, who also owns The Biltmore, The Virginian, No. 3, and West Main, his enthusiasm is infectious. The restaurateur is passionate about his beef—he prefers it be local, completely grass-fed, and humanely butchered.

“There is this arm’s-length approach to what is local,” he said, and stressed the notion that although a food item is local, it does not necessarily make it taste good. His approach is different in theory and practice.

“Let’s show you what farms we are talking about; let’s make sure that the farm is as close as it can possibly be; let’s make sure that the practices are as good as they could possibly be,” he said. “How is the animal actually being treated? Where is the animal actually being kept? What is the animal actually being fed? All of these things are so important.”

Citizen Burger Bar’s beef is from a local favorite, Timbercreek Organics, a sustainable farm on Garth Road just a few minutes from the Barracks Road Shopping Center. McClure has done his due diligence and can personally attest to the validity of his vendors’ ideologies. Before opening the restaurant, he toured nearby farms, talked with farmers, and witnessed the slaughtering of animals. Once the menu was close to being hammered out, McClure began making lists of local farms for each ingredient he needed. He crossed off those that did not fit certain standards.

He’ll tell you that although traumatic, seeing how animals are butchered was necessary to better understand the restaurant business.

And the buck does not stop with meat.

“We try to use local produce as much as possible,” he said.

Citizen’s brioche bun is a proprietary recipe from Albemarle Baking Company. When McClure says he is going the extra mile to make his eatery stand out, he’s not kidding. He and the bakery’s team went through 1,001 variations before settling on the current brioche recipe, which is a blend of soft, hollow bread with a not-so-distant taste of a classic burger bun. The restaurant’s cheese is from Mountain View Farm in Fairfield, Virginia, and it’s called, interestingly enough, McClure Swiss.

Citizen Burger Bar has a create-your-own section on the menu, but the most ordered burger is, by no accident, the Citizen Burger, a behemoth of flavor with Timbercreek beef, McClure swiss chesse, black onion, garlic aioli, tomato, lettuce on house brioche, and a fried pickle on a branded bun. But there is something for everyone—and McClure is not afraid to experiment with inventive combinations. If you are in the mood for a decadent burger, try the Executive: a beef patty with foie gras, bacon, onion, and fried egg on a truffle brioche and served with truffle fries. It’s a whopping $24, but you get what you pay for.

The most rewarding part of winning Best Burger, McClure said, is knowing that the experiment is actually working.

“It was as if this huge weight came off my shoulders, because when you do something like this, there is going to be a target on your back to some degree,” he said. “It is such a great endorsement by the community. To have that kind of response is so heartwarming.”

In essence, the hamburger industry has not made major improvements to the item in decades. It has tried different varieties and offshoots of the classic patties in a bun, but nothing has ever worked better than the original. In fact, Americans eat about 13 billion burgers every year—on average about two to three hamburgers per person per week. The cult of burgers is alive and well, it appears.

“There are few things that are better than bread, meat, and cheese together, and you get all those flavor profiles wrapped up into one bite. It’s hard to beat,” said McClure. We couldn’t agree more.

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