photo: fb @SPOyster Fresh Air and Great Food in Mystic Warmer weather in New England…
Burgers are all-American superstars because of their ready availability, ease of preparation, affordability, portability and delicious taste. Whether grilled on an open flame, in a hot skillet or in a sandwich press, they remain perpetual lunch and dinner favorites.
Mystic is justifiably famous for fish, chowder and lobster rolls but boy, do we have great hamburgers! So many choices, in fact, that it was difficult to narrow down a reasonable list to taste (is 23 too many?).
So I pull on loose-fitting pants, a roomy sweater and venture out onto a personal burger trail. Consuming nine substantial beef hamburgers in two weeks is a journey in flavor and intestinal fortitude but don’t feel sorry for me. You know you want to do this too! Each burger showcases the restaurant’s unique flavors and style. What more could you want? Travel the Mystic Burger Trail with me.
Engine Room is in the restored Lathrop Marine Engine building with views of the Mystic River. I’m served a perfectly-cooked 6 oz. grass fed beef burger with an exterior crust only a flattop grill can produce. Delectable beef flavor shines through deeply-caramelized balsamic onions, Vermont cheddar, smoked garlic mayo, and outstanding thick-cut bacon (from Grass & Bone). A large cloth napkin keeps up with the gooey deliciousness and the brioche bun stays together through the last bite. Burgers are served with hand-cut golden-brown fries and a dill spear. Chris Vanesse’s kitchen team prepares all food from locally-sourced ingredients including from the Grass & Bone butcher shop which processes whole animals from Beriah Lewis Farm.
The spacious bar boasts 16 craft beers and a huge bourbon selection yet remains as cozy and inviting as the separate, rustic dining room. Patio seating (well-behaved dogs allowed) is popular in warm weather. Family friendly.
Tips: if possible, use Schooner Wharf parking on Church St. behind the building. A kid’s cheeseburger is only $8 and I hear the vegan burger is excellent.
Chapter One‘s Chef Brett prepares a thick 8 ounce grass-fed, hand-shaped 100% Angus beef burger topped with sautéed mushroom and onions blanketed in melted Swiss cheese on a garlic butter grilled Kaiser roll. The burger arrives cooked to medium, as ordered, with a pile of shoestring fries but I can’t take my eyes or hands off the sandwich. I savor every morsel of juicy, well-seasoned meat, eat two French fries and call it a day. Even with the huge burger cut in half for handling, the cloth napkin in my lap is well-used. A build-your-own burger is available with assorted sweet, hot, savory, and creamy toppings.
Décor is modern with seating at small tables or one long high top. Acoustic musicians play often on weeknights and a DJ provides weekend dance music.
Sharing Suggestions: split an 8-ounce bacon cheeseburger ($9 without fries) with a friend at the sleek bar during Monday -Thursday’s 4-6 p.m. Happy Hour when draft beer is $2.
Friar Tuck’s Tavern is now in Factory Square (large brick building) across the street from their original location. The re-designed space has a balance of rustic and sleek details including a two-story brick wall, soaring wood ceiling, huge cross-beam, two-story black and glass garage doors (open in nice weather) and a stainless steel bar. TVs and sports fans take over during football and soccer games.
High top tables and cushioned chairs provide a comfortable perch for enjoying my Friar Tuck Burger. The 8 oz. hand-forged thick Angus burger is made from premium Niman Ranch beef, topped with house-made thick cut bacon, house-made stout cheese, and shoestring onion rings. The beautiful brioche bun is buttered and grilled. My perfectly-cooked medium burger is juicy and flavorful but the layer of onion rings feels unnecessary. Though the Cajun sweet potato fries are delicious, the hand-cut, skin-on Tuck Chips are addictive. Chef Nick says their Beyond Meat® (100% plant-based) burger and black bean burger are increasingly popular but I can’t imagine tearing myself away from beef this good.
Tips: Happy Hour Mon-Fri 3-6 p.m. Weekend evenings include live music and a new craft cocktail menu debuts this week. Warm weather will add 60+ seats to the interior patio.
The Galley restaurant is within McQuade’s Marketplace, a full-sized gourmet grocery store & pharmacy. I order a Big Blue with fries then enjoy woodland views. The 6 oz. 90% lean certified Angus patty is cooked medium well, steak-seasoned and topped with “cottage bacon”, Guinness onions, bleu cheese & Dijon mayo. Lettuce and tomato adorn the top bun. The dense patty is prepared at the adjacent meat department from certified meat in the top 8% of all U.S. Angus. “Cottage bacon” is lean-cut and smoked on premises by real chefs who prepare every item in the deli and restaurant from scratch.
At only $7.99 including a pile of golden fries, this meal satisfies both hearty appetite and modest budget. Made-to-order meals are skillfully executed but a-la-carte dining from the soup bar, salad bar, hot food bar, pizza slices, bakery or deli means there is literally something for every picky appetite. Nice weather encourages patio seating with umbrella shade.
Tips: The Galley is open 7am – 8pm but the hot bar, soup bar, and salad bar are open 11 – 6. Take home tomorrow’s dinner from chef-prepared fully-cooked meals. Only 1/3 mile from Mystic Aquarium, this hidden gem is worth a stop every time you’re in Mystic.
Grass & Bone is a premium butcher shop with chef-prepared lunch and dinner options. The burger is served with two 3 oz. dry-aged, grass-fed then grain-finished beef patties, American cheese, homemade dill pickle slices, red onion, Stone Acres Farm lettuce, and house sauce on a brioche bun. A 3 oz. kid’s burger is available.
Seating is at long butcher block tables or window counters. Refrigerated cases line inside walls with dry-aging hunks of beef and pork identified by the New England farm of origin and date of arrival. Superior beef comes from Beriah Lewis Farm in North Stonington, CT which raises each animal humanely without hormones. This produces tender, flavorful, healthy food. Pepperoni, chorizo, and soppressata cure in glass refrigerated cases with duck prosciutto and pancetta. Meats dry age for weeks or months prior to retail sale or in-house preparation. This is the place for stellar meats and hard-to-find cuts. G&B brings in and butchers several cows and pigs each week not only for themselves but also for their sister restaurants Oyster Club and Engine Room.
A long skewer secures the layered burger which is served with homemade half-sour dill slices. Even cut in half, every bite of the delicious burger creates drips onto my hands and extra napkins. I leave satisfied but not uncomfortably full with a beef fat chocolate chip cookie in hand. That, too, is delicious.
Tips: Ask about vegan options. Bring home bone broth, chicken liver mousse, or thick-cut smoked bacon. Assorted charcuterie, taco of the day and rotisserie chicken star in a family-friendly happy hour 3-6 p.m. daily.
Mystic Diner is at exit 90 off I-95, has ample parking and is awash in ocean colors. Omelet and pancake variations are available all day which is great if dining companions prefer breakfast while you’re eating a hamburger. Greek specialties like gyros and chicken souvlaki dot the eclectic, extensive menu. Adult beverages are available.
At a friend’s suggestion, my 8 oz. Black Angus Bleu Cheese Bacon Burger Deluxe arrives with crispy bacon, sautéed onions and lots of bleu cheese on a Kaiser roll with fresh lettuce and tomato on the side. French fries, coleslaw & a dill pickle spear complete the substantial meal. The dense patty is cooked as ordered with the condiments adding salty savor. I reach again and again for the perfect skin-on golden fries which arrive unsalted. Veggie burgers are available.
Tips: At the cash register look for “Mystic Seafarer’s Trail”, an interesting book by local author Lisa Saunders.
Dog Watch Cafe‘s location at Dodson’s Boatyard in Stonington Harbor provides fresh salt air and winter views. I spot a commercial fishing boat at the end of the largest dock. Whitecap waves dance madly in the harbor while I enjoy upbeat music. D.W. team member, Arie, encourages me to order Beau’s Baby Big Macs along with a full-sized burger.
The twin Angus beef sliders arrive with American cheese, lettuce, dill pickle slices, red onion and “special sauce” on toasted brioche rolls. All of the fresh ingredients play well together. Each 3 ounce thin patty of freshly ground meat has a large caramelized surface area to sweeten the beefy flavor. These mini burgers are easy to handle, delicious and shareable.
The Big Burger arrives with sautéed onions, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and sliced avocado on a toasted potato roll. My winter waistline would benefit from an available healthy side dish but my taste buds are happy with the sweet onion rings. I enjoy the burger but the sliders are even better.
Tips: Free parking + kids menu. Take time to stretch your legs and enjoy scenic water vistas among Stonington Borough’s mid-1800 architecture and exquisite shops. You can even get your coffee to go.
Mystic Pizza (downtown Mystic) has a spacious dining room where continuous clips from the 1988 movie of the same name are shown. On this solo visit I sit at a counter in the take-out area to consume an 8 oz. “Burger with the Works.” Recommended by chef, Steven Zelepos, it is smothered in sautéed mushrooms, onions, bacon, and American cheese. Cooked to a perfect “medium” and served with a pile of seasoned fries and classic coleslaw, this meal could easily feed two hungry people. The juicy burger requires a mountain of napkins and I can’t eat more than a taste of the fries or coleslaw which is a shame because both sides are really good.
Tips: Ask for dinner napkins (you’ll need them) instead of the flimsy dispenser kind. Take a selfie or have someone take your photo in front of the “A slice of heaven” sign. It makes for an adorable Instagram post… even if thousands of people have done the same. It’s more than a meal… it’s a quintessential Mystic experience.
Oyster Club wasn’t even on my “burger wish list” because it didn’t occur to me that the acclaimed farm and sea to table restaurant would also produce an outstanding burger. I’ve since been happily, deliciously corrected. The slightly-rustic New England interior boasts a zinc-covered bar with crushed ice-topped wired baskets of fresh, local oysters. Team members are invested in the restaurant’s core concept of the finest food travelling the shortest distance. Chef James Wayman directs a limited daily menu with ultra-local ingredients but burgers are always on the menu.
My 6 oz. 100% grass-fed beef burger has been seared in a cast-iron frying pan then topped with meaty house-made bacon, carmelized shallots, planks of house-made bread & butter pickles, melted Grafton cheddar, Worcestershire mayo, and lettuce from nearby Stone Acres Farm. All of this is presented on a house-made sesame seeded brioche bun and served with deeply browned, delectable fries. Each burger bite is juicy and bursting with flavor. I devour the whole sandwich and most of the fries, grateful to have a quiet corner table and a big cloth napkin.
Tips: dine weekdays and weeknights for a relaxed atmosphere and to secure parking on local roads. In warm weather The Treehouse serves food and adult beverages on a raised outdoor deck with water views.
Some final thoughts…
Whether small or large, served with or without fries, piled with condiments or plain, each burger has merit. We crave it, eat it, make it at home or eat out because it is our reliable, collective happy food. Freshly-ground, hand-shaped beef results in superior flavor and texture. Grass-fed animals have a uniquely-delicious flavor sought out by increasing numbers of discerning fans. Fat percentage, toppings, seasonings, and cooking technique determine individual flavor preferences but fresh ingredients top everyone’s list.
Mystic is packed with diverse, creative restaurants and there are times when I crave sushi, seafood, Thai, pasta or pizza. The rest of the time, I want a great burger from friendly, talented folks who create happiness on a bun with a side of deep-fried happiness.
Did I mention your favorite place? Where will your burger trail take you?