Burger Quest: At Tavern on the Main, it all comes down to architecture 

Our ongoing mission to find the best burger in Detroit

Some guy named Steve wrote us at Burger Quest headquarters suggesting we give Tavern on the Main in Clawson a try. We dropped in on a Sunday afternoon to watch the game for a while, and try one of the joint's "perfect burgers."

To call Tavern on the Main a "burger joint" would be inaccurate. It's nothing like the bar and grills of old. More accurately, it's a bar and grill that's expanded into something a little different. In 1999, its south wall was blown out into an additional, cozier dining area, which now opens out onto an outdoor patio under a colorful canopy. One also suspects the eatery didn't always have a menu that embraced wine by the bottle, as well as a number of seafood entrées. Yeah, there were more than a dozen flat-screens beaming football at us on a Sunday afternoon, but we saw families and a large group of women take the bigger tables. It's indicative of a lot of the changes overtaking Clawson's bars, much like the way nearby Renshaw Lounge evolved several years ago: expanding, letting in light, and making a bid for families. Judging by the awards festooning the walls from the Daily Tribune, it's a popular mix.

Sometimes, we'll try the chili to test a kitchen's skills. The bowl of chili was better than most, dense and thick, with bits of ground beef, hand-chopped onion, and kidney beans. It seemed to us the kitchen used slightly better than usual ingredients. Even the oyster crackers were a notch up from what we're used to.

Our hunch seemed right, since the kitchen promised that they use nothing but "100 percent all-natural prime certified Angus beef to create the perfect burger." A prime burger for $6.59? What's the catch?

We were a bit surprised when the server informed us the hamburger patties were frozen, as were the fries. (We admit to being biased toward some of the funkier, hand-formed patties with juicy bulges.)

Classicists as we are, we ordered the usual: a hamburger with everything, no cheese, the fries well done and the burger medium. The waitress immediately brought a carousel of condiments, with French's yellow mustard, a squeeze bottle of Grey Poupon Dijon, Frank's Red Hot, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and salt and pepper shakers. It seemed a little excessive. (And where was the vinegar?)

The burger took some time to arrive, but when it did, it was worth it. The fries were excellent and mouth-burning hot. The geometrically perfect burger arrived clad in an excellent bun. At Tavern on the Main, the magic is really in the buns. They're brioche buns that have been toasted to a crunch on the inside, and steamed and warm and spongy on top. The way the bun gives under the fingers offers an almost ergonomic grip on your half-pound meat sandwich.

You might say we're a little spoiled at Burger Quest. We're biting into burgers that spill juice down all over us, flame-broiled masterpieces that still bear the divot from the talented cook's thumb. But there is something a frozen patty does well: It provides an ideal platform for toppings, such as the bacon-and-Swiss-topped Tavern on the Main Burger, or another patty, as in the tavern's Classic Double Burger. It all comes down to architecture, some might say.

We thought that the patty was perfectly good, mind you, but in lieu of that hand-formed juiciness, it almost demands that extra oomph that comes from creative toppings. We threw a few blotches of Red Hot on the last few bites, and the burger was immensely improved. Our advice at Tavern on the Main is to use that patty as a medium to carry other exotic flavors. You'll be glad you did.

That guy, Steve, who told us to go here gave us a piece of advice that bears repeating: "Wait for a warm spell to take advantage of the outdoor seating." The patio looked terrific, although too chilly during our visit. In good weather, it must be the perfect place to enjoy a burger in the open air. They always taste better that way.

More by Michael Jackman

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