Farm-to-table has come under fire recently. The idea promises that restaurants are using local and seasonal ingredients for at least as many items on their menus as is feasible.
But as Tampa Tribune writer Laura Bailey revealed in an April article, many restaurants that claim this label often offer more hype than substance, with produce and meat frequently flown in from far-flung locations.
Citizen Burger Bar, a Charlottesville transplant to Carytown in the old Portrait House space, is different.
“Is this your first time here?” I’m asked on each of my three visits. If anyone at the table says yes, a sincere, if rehearsed, speech ensues, touting the restaurant’s commitment to local and sustainable ingredients. The menu, in fact, has scannable codes offering information about the farms that provide the restaurant’s ingredients.
Grass-fed and finished beef comes from Timbercreek Farm outside Charlottesville, buns are baked in Albemarle County and produce is obtained locally “whenever possible,” though origins aren’t specified. Nevertheless, if you’re sorting through the many burger options in Richmond — indeed even in Carytown — fresh, local and sustainable seems to be more than a slogan at Citizen Burger.
Burgers, naturally, are the star of this refreshingly simple and straightforward menu. Sandwiches are almost the only other options, though a few salads offer a bit of variety. The assortment of toppings available provides almost endless options to make your own burger — or you can take one of the restaurant’s suggestions.
If you want to indulge, try the Executive ($21) topped with smoked pork belly, swiss cheese, black onion, a fried egg and garlic aioli, all on a brioche bun that’s been spiked with truffle oil. You shouldn’t need to eat for a week if you finish it.
All of Citizen Burger’s creations come with fries — and include the Southern ($15), topped with an almost too-generous scoop of pimento cheese and thick-cut Neuske’s smoked bacon.
The beef and chicken burgers feature a nice char, are juicy and never dry, even when a burger is cooked with no pink. And generally, quality is high across the board. Hand-cut fries are cooked perfectly, while optional sides of beer-battered onion rings have just the right amount of crispy yet spongy batter coating the mildly pungent white onion.
The one anomaly deviating from the menu’s focused theme — the lobster club ($16) — similarly features lovely ingredients smartly assembled and composed of a few large chunks of lobster, bacon, arugula, tomato and Boursin cheese. It’s an interesting and worthy upgrade to the standard club sandwich, with mildly sweet lobster meat complemented by the salty bacon and peppery greens.
Since opening, Citizen Burger has proved popular. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the bar area turns into a dance floor while a large party plays Heads Up in the corner. The creative beer selection certainly helps fuel a party atmosphere. The dark interior does as well, with little natural light, low ceilings, exposed brick and plenty of wood, which almost lends itself to a dive-bar feel, though plenty of families with children frequent the place because of its kid-friendly menu.
Perhaps it’s the popularity, though, that creates a few — mostly minor — problems. On one visit, a burger ordered rare — or in the menu’s parlance, red — comes with the barest hint of pink in the center. For a burger-focused restaurant this seems like the worst kind of mistake. On another visit, my companion and I are asked by at least five different staff members if everything is OK. While flattered by the intense interest in my dining experience, it speaks of a lack of coordination. Nevertheless, overly eager staff members who are dedicated to guests’ positive experience barely register as complaints.
For dessert, your choices are limited to Key lime pie or “birthday cake” — a basic sheet cake with chocolate icing. The pie is well-executed, if unremarkable. Although it reflects the simplicity of the menu, expanding the dessert offerings wouldn’t hurt. But honestly, who really has room after indulging in one of the extravagant burger creations?
Citizen Burger Bar should compete well in the crowded field of excellent Richmond burger joints, not least because of its location at the eastern end of Carytown across from the Byrd Theatre. Plus, it’s nailing all the basics — great burgers, crispy fries, a diverse beer selection, vegan and vegetarian options, with bonus points for ethically sourced ingredients. S
Citizen Burger Bar
2907 W. Cary St.
11:30 a.m.-midnight Sundays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays