[Editor's Note: Since this story was published in 2019, a few burger spots on our list have gone out of business. We've noted those closures below.]
In theory, every hamburger should taste about the same. After all, the vast majority have similar ingredients and preparations. Yet they don’t all taste alike. Not even close.
So Columbus Monthly decided to determine the best. We tasted dozens of hamburgers, and 32 restaurants and food trucks made the first cut. Taking a cue from the NCAA Tournament, we split Columbus into four regional brackets and randomly seeded the burgers by location. Like the tourney, two favorites sometimes wound up in an early showdown.
And just like in basketball, the brackets had blue bloods—places like Thurman Café and O’Reilly’s Pub were the Duke and North Carolina of burgers. But the two biggest names were gone before it began: White Castle wasn’t considered because sliders were ruled out, while Wendy’s, once a local standard-bearer, no longer stacks up. That left more room for upset-minded Cinderellas. Could High Bank Distillery or Street Thyme food truck compete against the powerhouses?
It was also a clash of styles. The focus was on traditional burgers, but some places only offer versions with wagyu beef, braised onions, smoked bacon and rich aioli. It begs the question of what diners really want from their burgers. Does tomato jam guarantee success?
As we tasted, a few things became clear. First, meat matters most—no amount of fancy toppings can elevate a subpar beef patty. Two, ratio is important. Every bite should have a blend of textures and tastes. Finally, we confirmed that the city is awash in great burgers, each delicious for different reasons.
But there can only be one champion.
Rules & ScoringOnly Ohio-based restaurants and chains No sliders or burgers bigger than three-quarters of a pound Only beef patties Standard burgers (bun, patty, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion) were selected when possible; if no such burger existed, the closest option was chosen. Each writer was assigned a region and scored eight burgers from 1–10 in four categories: patty, toppings, bun and appearance. Those points were added together for a cumulative score out of 40. The highest score advanced.
Central Region Winner: The Tavern Burger from Rockmill Tavern, $15 | Score: 35 of 40
When Rockmill Brewery owner Matthew Barbee decided to open a restaurant in the Brewery District, he told Andrew Smith, Rockmill Tavern’s executive chef, “Let’s build a burger that people are going to dream about.” Mission accomplished. Smith is no longer at Rockmill, but the Tavern Burger’s fan base continues to grow. A ciabatta bun, in the wrong hands, can mean doom for a burger, but the grilled bun specially made for Rockmill by Matija Breads is nearly perfect. The blissfully juicy beef is high-quality, sourced from The Butcher & Grocer. The overall package is an excellent blend of texture, tartness from pickled onion, sweetness from house-made Nueske’s bacon jam and sharpness from Tillamook cheddar. Philco Bar + Diner (our second favorite burger in the region) proved a formidable foe in a first-round buzzer-beater, but it all came down to the Tavern Burger’s texture and lively flavors.
Runners-Up[CLOSED] Philip's Burger from Philco Bar + Diner, $9 | Score: 34
Philco’s burger scores higher than sister restaurant The Rossi thanks to a tender patty, oven-dried tomato, grilled onions and an excellent challah bun.
[CLOSED] Cheeseburger from Gallerie Bar & Bistro, $15 | Score: 31
A perfectly seasoned Ohio beef patty with outstanding pickles; the egg-washed bun holds up well, but wasn’t our favorite.
The thin patty is coated in aged Havarti, and a great pickle cuts the richness. Some may find the cheese overwhelming.
Pub Burger from The Pearl, $17 | Score: 30
The toppings are minimal, but Cambozola cheese makes it taste decadent—so does the price. The sesame bun is squishy, yet stays intact. Soul Burger from Soul at The Joseph, $16 | Score: 29
The Soul bar’s under-the-radar burger showcases mesclun greens, pickled zucchini, Manchego cheese and Nueske’s bacon. Caveat: You’ll pay hotel prices.
Rossi Burger from The Rossi Bar & Kitchen, $14 | Score: 28
Classic toppings and taste; the nicely charred beef is a bit tough but transports you to a backyard gathering.
Cheeseburger from Press Grill, $5 single, $8.50 double | Score: 25
This no-frills cheeseburger is most notable for the crunch of lettuce, red onion and pickles underneath a nondescript patty.
Northeast Region Winner: The Pepper Burger from O’Reilly’s Pub, $9.75 | Score: 34.5 of 40
There’s little nuance to O’Reilly’s Pepper Burger, but who needs nuance when it’s properly composed, generously seasoned and time-tested by Clintonville burger fans? The sharp, zesty flavoring of the patty, rolled in black peppercorns, is complemented by crisp bacon and lettuce, the acidic bite of pickles and white onions, and a little extra zing from pepper jack cheese. The bold seasoning, pleasant blend of textures and sturdy construction were just enough to edge out the beloved cheeseburger from Northstar Café in the regional final by less than two-tenths of a point. Following very closely on their heels was Baba’s classic diner burger, using its house-made griddle muffin as the bun. The northeast bracket was deep, from Ritzy’s nostalgic smashburger to Pat and Gracie’s more modern Southwestern-style Chimi Burger. In the end, though, O’Reilly’s signature item stood out among healthy (a term used loosely here) competition.
Runners-UpCheeseburger from Northstar Café Classic, $15 | Score: 34
Great crust to the brisket-and-chuck patty; crisp and fresh condiments; served open-faced so it’s a mess to put together.
[CLOSED] Diner Burger from Baba’s, $7 | Score: 33
Baba’s griddle muffin is the best bun in the bracket, but the burger needs a little brightness from the condiments.
The Chimi Burger from Pat & Gracie’s, $10.79 | Score: 32.5
Soft bun that collapses easily; big patties complemented by a nice tang from Monterey Jack cheese and chimichurri sauce.
Single from Ritzy’s, $4.49 | Score: 32
Crispy and tasty smash-fried burger on a buttered and toasted bun; the thin patty is a little overwhelmed by toppings.
House Burger from The Crest Gastropub, $14 | Score: 30
Good burger, but the thick patty disappears under the toppings; needs acidity to balance the aioli, cheddar and patty. The Classic, Atlas Tavern, $10 | Score: 31
Simple presentation, good construction, properly cooked patty; standard condiments.
Simplicity Burger from Flip Side, $8.29 | Score: 29
Nicely seasoned but ultimately forgettable grass-fed beef that relies a little too much on condiments.
NORTHWEST & WEST
Northwest & West Region Winner: Pres’ Double from Preston’s: A Burger Joint, $10 | Score: 32 of 40
A first-round matchup between the beloved Pres’ Double and the High Bank Burger—even newer than Preston’s and a true dark horse—turned out to be a barnburner. Both star two medium-sized patties made with locally sourced meat, and the freshness really shines through on Preston’s deeply beefy interior, which helped it overcome a very average bun game. In fact, the meat arrives so juicy and fantastically crisped from the griddle at Woodland’s Backyard (one of the two Grandview locations where Preston’s makes its home) that it approaches diner-style perfection. Covered by melted cheese, the dark, shiny and crinkly-edged beef, which protrudes over the bun like a beacon of comforting goodness, also earned high presentation points—you can’t wait to jam it into your face. Clinching the victory for the easy-to-handle sandwich are toppings that combine old-school pleasures with modern sensibilities: crisp iceberg lettuce, red onion, zippy house pickles and a super-smooth, Thousand Island-style special sauce. [Note: Preston's is now located inside North Market Downtown at 59 Spruce St.]
Runners-UpHigh Bank Burger from High Bank Distillery Co., $15 | Score: 31.5
Skillfully chargrilled patties from RL Valley Ranch; toasted Lucky Cat bun; bold house pickles and caramelized onions.
All-American Burger from Harvest Tavern & Pizzeria, $13.50 | Score: 30.5
Thick, chargrilled patty; good sesame seed bun; serious bacon but too much rich, tangy house sauce.
Double Cheeseburger from Hamburger Inn Diner, $6.50 | Score: 27
Classic diner-style burger with old-school appeal; a freshly baked standout bun; generic toppings.
Classic Burger from The Pint Room, $11 | Score: 26.5
Juicy, smoke-flavored patty, but the toasted bun is just OK; broiled cheese is the lone topping distinction.
Cheeseburger from Johnnie’s Tavern, $7.50 | Score: 26
Hefty, griddle-seared but not-so-juicy patty; nice, glossy bun; ho-hum toppings.
The Rail Burger from The Rail, $10.50 | Score: 25
Smoky and chargrilled but very undercooked meat on a decent, buttery, toasted bun.
The Galley Boy from Swensons Drive-in, $3.90 | Score: 24.5
Sweet little patties, rich and smoky sauces, melted cheese and a nifty bun—fun, but an out-of-its-league entry.
SOUTH, EAST AND FOOD TRUCKS
South, East & Food Trucks Region Winner: Beef Burger from Harvest Moon Craft Kitchen, $8.39 quarter-pound, $12.49 half-pound | Score: 32 of 40
In the first round, relative newcomer Blystone put a scare into the renowned Thurman Café with a grill-marked burger that offered a great mix of flavors and textures. Thurman’s juicy behemoth eked out a win thanks to fantastic seasoning and a superior bun, only to be upset by the deceptively simple yet delicious Single Suzy from Street Thyme food truck. There was also a worthy challenger from Flavor 91, a charming Whitehall spot that uses Ethiopian spices to its advantage. Ultimately, none could beat the burger from Canal Winchester’s Harvest Moon Craft Kitchen, which offers either a quarter- or half-pound patty on brioche or a pretzel bun. The latter was the best bun of the bracket, and the burger’s chargrilled crust was just the right amount of crispy while holding plenty of flavor within. Diced onion, cracked pepper and sea salt intermingled with natural beef juices on top and tasted like a condiment all its own.
Runners-UpSingle Suzy from Street Thyme, $8 | Score: 31.5
Average appearance, but it tastes quintessential: toasted, soft challah; melty cheese; fresh toppings; perfectly grilled, juicy Carfagna’s beef.
Cheeseburger Deluxe from Thurman Café, $10.99 | Score: 30.5
Impeccably seasoned beef and the bracket’s best tomato, but the enormous patty overwhelms—too many bites are just meat.
Signature Burger from Blystone Farm Restaurant, $13 | Score: 29
An ideal burger-bun-topping ratio, anchored by an expertly cooked medium patty; not spectacular, but no major flaws.
101 Burger from 101 Beer Kitchen, $13.50 | Score: 27.5
Great smokiness, complemented by bacon, but the patty is a little rare and the bottom bun grows soggy.
The Perfect Patty from Flavor 91 Bistro, $10 | Score: 26.5
The grass-fed beef features potent seasoning and welcome spiciness, though the patty is dense and toppings don’t add much.
Cheeseburger from Gahanna Grill, $8.79 | Score: 25.5
The star is the slightly charred patty; toppings hover just above average, and the bun is basic.
The Burger from Soulshine Tavern & Kitchen, $15 | Score: 24
Good grilled flavor from The Butcher & Grocer beef; sauce drowns the pretzel bun; tangy toppings would help cut the richness.
BEST BURGER CHAMPION: Preston’s: A Burger Joint
In the finals, the previous scores were thrown out and the winning burgers from each region were brought together for a decisive group tasting. Immediately, the difficulty of the task became obvious. Every burger was excellent, yet fundamentally different from the others. O’Reilly’s came as advertised, full of peppery spice, while Rockmill’s skewed sweet. Its ciabatta bread was tasty and substantial, as was Harvest Moon’s pretzel bun, while Preston’s potato bun mostly served as a soft handhold.
Ultimately, after a close vote, Preston’s emerged victorious. Rockmill’s tasted a bit too sweet for certain palates, and the Pepper Burger suffered because O’Reilly’s only serves it medium-well—overcooked for some. Conversely, Harvest Moon’s patty was a little rare, though it received high marks for flavor, and the bun likely would have benefited from toasting. Preston’s smashburger, meanwhile, proved to be the city’s best. It tastes like the sandwich the Big Mac aspires to be. The textures are well balanced, and the mixture of savory beef, American cheese, crisp pickle and tangy sauce gives it an addictive quality. You finish eating and think to yourself: I can’t wait to have this again. Is tomorrow too soon?