Burgers and milkshakes. The phrase itself elicits glossy-eyed nostalgia, memories of backyard lunches in the summer, the smoky scent of the grill and the crack of a wiffle bat. BRGR — in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood — strives to transport cold-hearted foodies back to simpler times. Embracing a compromise between highbrow and lowbrow cuisine, BRGR serves shakes spiked with liquor and French Fries drizzled with “truffle cheese whiz,” a strangely delicious bastard child of tailgate bites and haute cuisine.
The restaurant is informal and simple, with dark wooden tables and metallic pillars. Walking in, the first thing to notice is a projector, displaying close-ups of hamburgers on a blank wall, effectively piquing appetites. If you are lucky, you can get seated in some of their criminally comfy leather chairs. On a weekend night, the noise level often limits conversation, which is fine because there isn’t much to say when chowing down on the prime finger food BRGR offers. Fries are subtly spiced and are made dangerously addictive by the aforementioned cheese topping. Thickly battered onion rings leave the fingers greasy and the inner child content.
It isn’t called BRGR for nothing. In short, the burgers deliver. The Kobe Beef Burger finds a perfect compromise between salty and sweet, the crunchy pickled onions and arugula contrasting with savory blue cheese smothered below the burger. Each bite tastes slightly different; each is equally satisfying. Even the buns at BRGR deserve recognition; they can support the massive heft of the meat and toppings throughout the entire meal. The meat is lean, juicy and flavorful, hardly requiring toppings. Unfortunately, the meat’s natural flavor is occasionally overwhelmed, as in the Bad Ass Mexican Burger. Coming dangerously close to a Walking Taco, the Bad Ass is smothered in salsa, tortilla chips and sour cream. While some bites taste like a comfortable fusion, the thick layer of toppings suffocates others.
The undeniable star of the menu is meat. Vegetarians, however, can also indulge. The Tree Hugger falafel burger, liberally spiced with cumin and smothered with thick yogurt, is a solid choice for the meat-averse. If the burgers, fries and onion rings seem like a caloric overload, the seasonal coleslaw can serve as a welcome interlude. The vinegar-based slaw, enhanced with cranberries, almonds and delicately thin apple slices, is refreshing and perfect for spring.
As delicious as the burgers may be, diners must save room for a dessert. Featuring ice cream from Pittsburgh’s own Dave & Andy’s, BRGR has mastered the art of milkshakes. Smooth yet thick, the milkshakes find the perfect balance of old-school simplicity and gourmet experimentation. While a dark chocolate milkshake topped with a swirl of rich syrup offers a glimpse into cocoa heaven, the highlight of the dessert menu is a magical concoction known as The Green Man. In essence, it is a mint milkshake, though its intensely minty flavor of peppermint extract places The Green Man in a category of its own. A crisp butter cookie floats on top, polishing off a delicious desert.
Service is helpful and hospitable, though there were some unfortunate mishaps. An order of fries came out barely warm, and a hamburger ordered medium was served closer to well-done. Regardless, BRGR is a USDA prime choice for those who like an old-fashioned meal with a newfangled twist.
(Burgers range from $7 to $13. Expect a wait on Friday and Saturday nights.)