Washington D.C., with its buttoned-up political culture and obdurate expectations of conformity — picture bureaucrats, G-Men and rows upon rows of indistinguishably neoclassical government buildings — is not known for its food culture. Compared to a city like New York, where the selection of cuisines is so vibrant that locals prefer to eat out regularly rather than to cook at home, our nation’s capital is a veritable food desert.
New Yorkers might be found enjoying foie gras in a fancy French restaurant on a Tuesday evening or dim sum in a Chinatown hole-in-the-wall on a Saturday morning. Washingtonians will be found at galas and working dinners and breakfast meetings where their pedantic conversations about public policy are more interesting than the fare they’re served. Food is unimportant in D.C.: merely a means to facilitate (supposedly) more important ends.
No city, however, can be completely devoid of decent fare, and D.C.’s food scene does have a few pockets of inspiration amidst its general atmosphere of ennui. There’s a Michelin-starred place here and there, a few bars known for being idiosyncratically charming and a decent selection of international cuisines ranging from Ethiopian to Chinese.
And then there’s the best burger in America.
This week, The Burger Column presents the Proper Burger, the pride and joy of Duke’s Grocery, a pub in the neighborhood of Dupont Circle.
Directions to Duke’s Grocery are simple. As you leave the Dupont Circle Metro station, head due east on P Street NW for two blocks. After you pass the Embassy of Iraq and the American Enterprise Institute, turn left onto 17th Street. Grand governmental buildings will give way to charming rowhouses, and it is in one of these that you will find Duke’s Grocery. Walk through the door, and you will be transported out of our nation’s capital. Welcome to East London, mate.
Inspired by pubs in the working-class neighborhoods of Shoreditch and Hoxton, the décor of Duke’s Grocery has a warm yet utilitarian vibe.
Exposed brick walls are painted white and intermittently paneled with slabs of reclaimed wood. Incandescent lightbulbs hang from the ceiling and cast a soft, mellow glow. Seating is divided between two floors, both of which are dominated by a bar that takes up nearly half the room. A motley of multicolored plastic barstools is chaotically strewn about. Duke’s Grocery might be accused of being hipster if it wasn’t (thankfully) so unpretentious.
However, style comes second to substance, and for The Burger Column, the only substance that matters is the burgers. I don’t exaggerate when I say this: The burger I had at Duke’s Grocery was the best I’ve ever eaten.
The Proper Burger is the only burger on the menu, and it is indeed a proper burger. Picture this: two layers of medium rare angus beef, melted gouda cheese, pickles, onions and garlic aioli stacked high between two beautifully burnished brioche buns. Add on a runny fried egg and two slices of crispy applewood bacon, and you have something deserving of a chef’s kiss.
Then there’s the first bite. With the beef flooding your palate with juicy goodness, the gouda enveloping your tongue with velvety richness and the bacon crackling on your teeth with a satisfying snap, you will approach what can only be described as a religious experience. Your pupils will dilate. Your heart rate will increase. A shiver will go down your spine as endorphins flood your synapses. They say perfection doesn’t exist. Duke’s Grocery begs to differ.
The only non-perfect thing of the Proper Burger is that getting one is difficult for the Baltimore-based Hopkins student. The MARC train to Union Station and Metro to Dupont Circle will set you back at least two hours. And more often than not, there is a line to get seats for Duke’s Grocery. Is it really worth it to make such an effort just to get a burger?
Well, let’s put it this way. The experience of going to Duke’s Grocery is not merely that of eating a burger. It’s a means of dispelling stereotypes about D.C., of seeing a neighborhood often overlooked by tourists and of experiencing something greater than one’s self. Going to Duke’s Grocery is not a trip — it is a pilgrimage. The Proper Burger is best burger in America. It doesn’t have The Burger Column’s seal of approval — it has The Burger Column’s badge of insistence. You have to go and try it.