Why The Loyalist Serves The Best Burger In Chicago

In Chicago, burgers are part of the city's DNA. In a city whose meat-loving infamy dates back to "The Jungle" days of Upton Sinclair, and whose most renowned local dishes include hot dogs and Italian beef (hat tip to "The Bear" for shining more of a national spotlight on the sandwich), burgers are taken as seriously as steakhouses in Chicago. This might explain why, nowadays, there are so many great burgers throughout the city, and as competition begets innovation, exciting new takes on this Americana staple emerge.

Enter The Loyalist, a restaurant that was met with a wave of eager anticipation upon its arrival in 2016. It marked a bold new turn — and a homecoming — for celebrity chef couple John Shields and Karen Urie-Shields, whose fine dining resumes included time at vaunted Charlie Trotter's and Town House in Chilhowie, Virginia. While they're still very much proficient in fine dining, as evidenced by the Michelin stars at their adjoining tasting menu restaurant Smyth, The Loyalist allowed them to apply those fine dining skills in a more casual environment, ultimately paving the way for what many Chicagoans — myself included — consider to be the best burger in the city.

The ultimate Chicago burger

After moving to Chicago for culinary school, I lived there for 13 years, eating my way through the city. In my earlier years, I dabbled in vegetarianism, but one thing I could never give up was a good burger. Sure, the caliber of veggie burgers across the country has gotten better in recent years, but they still can't hold a candle to a classic, perfectly griddled beef patty. It didn't help my woebegone attempt at vegetarianism that Chicago is filled with amazing burgers, from fast-casual spots like Edzo's Burger Shop to the feverish fanfare surrounding the double cheeseburger at Au Cheval.

The latter, for years, reigned as the ultimate Chicago burger, commanding hours-long waits and spawning a quick-service spin-off mini-chain, Small Cheval. Let's be clear: The Au Cheval burger is good. But am I willing to wait a couple hours for it? No. Especially when there's one I like more nearby. When The Loyalist opened, there was a rush of hoopla surrounding its burger, with some — like Bon Appetit — declaring it not only better than Au Cheval, but among the best in the country. After my first visit to see what all the hype was about, I got it. There was always something uniquely nostalgic about its form and flavor, from its sesame seed bun to the way the charred onions dangled over the edge of the juicy patty. It's a burger unlike any other in Chicago, and one worthy of its rightful crown.

A recipe for success

Talking with John Shields about his now-iconic burger, it's clear that nostalgia was a key ingredient from the beginning. "I wanted to do something that reminded me, personally, more of a burger I grew up with in the sense of its simplicity," the chef explains. "I didn't want a lot of things on the burger. I wanted to basically do what all us chefs do: distill it down to a sense of what's important to me personally." Honing in on that simplicity, that meant sourcing sesame seed buns from Martin's, since that style of bun reminded him of the burgers he grew up with, and it differentiated from the brioche and pretzel buns around town.

Considering his fine dining career, Shields hadn't made a lot of burgers until The Loyalist, but applying that same meticulous diligence meant that even the simplest dish got the utmost craft and care. "I started thinking about the beef; that's the most important part," Shields recalls. "I wanted to grind it myself, make my own blend, use good product, and consistently do it right." It's that consistency, coupled with nostalgia, that puts The Loyalist in another echelon. "I took the McDonald's ideology of consistency," he adds. "It's at a high volume, and it's easy to go wrong quickly, especially if you're not built out to do high volume. It takes a lot to make 200 burgers a day, and that's just one dish on a menu you're trying to run."

It's all about the onions

The flavor profile of beef and onions took the lead on the rest of the recipe. "I love the idea of beef and onions together," Shields says, citing a love for dishes like beef au jus with melted onions. "I love that flavor the most, so I started messing around with onions and focus[ed] on that." Along with pickles and American cheese, the onions — in a lot of ways — are the star of the burger. "I kept messing around with onions and came up with a mayonnaise of onions," explains the chef. "An onion aioli, so to speak. That's where a lot of our flavor comes from."

In terms of consistency, it's as important to streamline the cooking process as it is to maintain a reliable product for years on end. Shields notes that, while the recipes may have evolved over the years since The Loyalist opened, the flavors have remained the same — "the composition hasn't changed one bit." And why change a good thing, anyway? With all the components in place, Shields takes the meaty patties ("it's got more heft than a smash-style patty," he says) and pushes them down on the griddle slightly. "We pre-press them, and then press down further on the griddle, but we're not creating any crispy edges like a smash patty would have." Served as a single patty burger, it's all topped with double cheese, pickles, charred onions, and onion mayo — and a more perfect burger in Chicago I haven't seen.

A burger star is born

For something so deceptively simple, The Loyalist's burger was met with quite the hype and acclaim, to a level that not even Shields was expecting. "No one ever expects that, and there were so many stories about it," he recounts. "It's become such a thing. Even seven years in, we were just named one of the top 12 burgers in the nation." Looking back, though, he can see why it captured such a zeitgeist. "It reminds me one of the reasons we did it: we wanted something more timeless and less in the moment."

They also wanted something familiar, consistent, and reliable, that locals could frequent. "I wanted people to come here and feel like they can come here a lot, knowing it'll be similar to what they'll get the next time they came here. That was important to us." He also notes that, in addition to being a good burger, timing plays a key role in that stardom too. "The moment was right for people to accept it, and it took a life of its own."

The burger is getting better with age

The reputation of The Loyalist's burger has only gotten better with age. A testament to its enduring reception, even as more burger concepts pop up throughout Chicago, the restaurant has cemented its status atop the beefy bucket list. It speaks to the Shields' commitment to their core ideologies that went into creating it in the first place and the adaptive dexterity that's allowed them to evolve.

"We had to change how we cooked it," Shields says about the onslaught of demand. "Bon Appetit did their top three burgers in the nation in 2017-ish, and we got number two, but once that happened, it was just lights out." Thus, they figured out a way to cook it faster. "Every 15-20 minutes, we would gently par-cook it. Not on the griddle, but with a control steam and then finish it on the griddle." Paired with a new flattop, which seared a crust fast enough without overcooking the patty, it turned a 16-minute pickup time into four minutes. It's a dedication towards consistency, nostalgia, and efficiency that's made The Loyalist the stuff of burger lore. "The continuous push for it just keeps it going, and it still blows my mind," Shields muses. "It makes me think of everything I do at Smyth with a different eye — the philosophy and the psychology of a burger, the simplicity, it makes me think a lot about food and people and eating."