There are few foods more universally appealing than a cheeseburger and, fortunately, Sarasota and Manatee counties are filled with restaurants serving ’em. Of course, not all burgers are created equally, which is why we’re constantly on the lookout for quality combinations of beef, bun and tasty toppings.
We skipped running our annual list of best burgers last year because of the pandemic and returned with more selections than ever after lots and lots of dining out locally. Last month, we featured the 20 best in Sarasota County and now we present our 20 favorites from Manatee County (with some overlap for places with locations in both counties).
As noted before, we included some locally owned chains but not a single national chain. Yeah, we know, Five Guys makes a fine burger. But guess what? These local businesses do ’em better.
The restaurants are presented in alphabetical order. Menu prices are subject to change with some, but not all, burgers coming with a side. Some of the sides, namely fries, were simply too good not to mention.
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Best burgers in Sarasota County:Which restaurants make the best burgers in Sarasota County? Here are 20 of our favorites
3 Keys Brewing
2505 E. Manatee Ave., Bradenton; 941-218-0396; 3keysbrewing.com
Several months after sharing our best burgers list of 2019, which also included 3 Keys, the family-owned Bradenton brewpub was sold to a couple based in the Fort Lauderdale area. And I immediately feared the worst: that the new owners would stop serving the burgers made with beef from free-range Lakewood Ranch cows fed 3 Keys’ spent brewery grain. Fortunately, the new owners have not changed a thing about the beef. They did make one burger alteration, though. After 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the half-pounders are served as “double smash,” which is two thin patties instead of a single thick one, in order to expedite the orders since the thin patties are not cooked to order (“pink” or “no pink”). Now, I’ve had them both ways, with my most recent visit including the double smash version of the Fun Guy burger with sauteed mushrooms, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onion and pickles on a butter brioche bun, with a side of onion rings ($13). And it was sublime, with my preference now the double smash option available whenever. The beef is so flavorful, though, I’d probably still be thrilled if they just served it to me as a formless clump!
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121 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach; 941-896-9737; bluemarlinami.com
For nearly a decade now, Blue Marlin on Anna Maria Island’s historic Bridge Street has been serving some of the freshest and smartest prepared seafood I have had the pleasure of consuming. The restaurant housed in a handsome blue 1920s cottage, with an equally charming outdoor dining area featuring a covered stage for live music, also happens to serve one of the best burgers I’ve tasted. It’s eight ounces of ground sirloin topped with smoked gouda, slab bacon and onion marmalade, served in style with a side of roasted potatoes ($17). During my recent visit, the burger I ordered medium came out perfect, with flavorful juices bursting with each stunningly good bite, the beef alone a treat and then enhanced by the top-shelf toppings that include that onion marmalade worthy of being eaten alone with a spoon. While visiting Blue Marlin, be sure to pair that gourmet burger with a bowl of locally sourced little neck clams, the Thai snapper nuggets or, really, any of the other amazing small plate selections. Also worth noting, Blue Marlin has one of the best booze selections on the island including a couple bottles of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve, which is like liquid gold for bourbon enthusiasts.
906 Manatee Ave. E., Bradenton; 941-757-0050; centralcafe941.com
Chic, casual, comfort food destination Central Cafe – occupying a historic building just east of downtown Bradenton near the new Riverwalk extension – offers an expertly seasoned Angus sirloin burger with excellent house-cut fries ($13.50). Served on a brioche bun, it’s topped with house-made pickles, pickled red onions, lettuce and some of the tastiest tomatoes you’re likely to find on a burger. (Central Cafe makes fresh produce a priority). I typically go with just a slice of cheddar but there are several burger options, with the Pickled Jalapeno Swiss also among my favorites, especially if I’m in the mood for a little heat.
535 13th St. W., Bradenton; 941-226-0110; chateau-13.com
The top fine-dining destination in Bradenton, Château 13 specializes in European-inspired cuisine and libations with a burger that should appeal to gourmands and laymen alike. The Louis XIII Burger is a juicy disc of beef covered by foie gras, truffled mushrooms and shallot jam, with a generous slice of gruyère on a toasted brioche bun. The $22 burger comes with asparagus and their house-cut fries – with other fun side options for a slight upcharge including aioli, truffle parmesan, hollandaise, or lobster mornay frites.
Clancy’s Irish Pub
6218 Cortez Road W., Bradenton; 941-794-2489; clancysirishsportspub.com
Now featuring an even larger “Freaki-Tiki” area with a stage for live music in addition to the smoke-free dining room and inside bar, Clancy’s serves the kind of two-fisted burgers that should satisfy even the largest of booze-fueled appetites (they’re also great for sharing). Nicely seasoned and hand-formed, these big Angus burgers ($8.50) are grilled to order and include lettuce, tomato, mayo, onion and pickle slices with choice of side (get the onion rings for the extra 75 cents!). There are also numerous cheese and topping choices, as well as a blackening option, all priced between $.50 and $1.50.
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D’s Breakfast and Burgers
423 10th Ave. W., Palmetto; 941-776-4524; dsbreakfastandburgers.com
Open for nearly four years and occupying a historic building right in downtown Palmetto a short walk from the riverfront, D’s Breakfast and Burgers is open daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. specializing in, yes, breakfast and burgers. The cheeseburger option is a handcrafted, half-pound patty presented as a large, thin, smartly seasoned disc on a lightly toasted bun with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, light mayo and ketchup. I typically do not put ketchup on my burger, but it totally works at D’s. So do the hand-cut fries that accompany the cheeseburger ($8.49). Looking for something a bit more substantial? Order the Breakfast Burger ($9.99), with bacon, egg and American cheese. There are many other options, as well, including a tempting Cajun Blue Cheese Burger, Chili Cheese Burger and Spicy Burger with chipotle sauce and cayenne seasoning.
5808 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach; 941-778-2501; duffystavernami.com
Owned and operated on Anna Maria Island by the Geyer family since 1971, Duffy’s lives up to its slogan of serving a “world famous burger and coldest beer in town” with a deliciously seasoned, diner-style cheeseburger served “all the way” with lettuce, tomato, onion and a dollop of mayo ($7; cash only). As a longtime fan of Duffy’s, I’ve also enjoyed the Brie & Caramelized Onion, Tex Burger, Bacon Cheeseburger, and the must-try Fresh Jalapeno & Havarti Cheeseburger. No fries are served at Duffy’s but I highly recommend the homemade chili and the navy bean soup.
Floridays Woodfire Grill & Bar
12332 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton; 941-741-8700; floridays-annamaria.com
The newest restaurant on this list, Floridays opened about a year ago as part of the Jimmy Buffett-inspired hotel Compass by Margaritaville. The hotel’s swimming pool is located just out of reach from the bar, which is part of a large, open-air tiki deck area overlooking Anna Maria Sound. In a great location just off Manatee Avenue West before you approach the bridge, Floridays serves first-rate food from its wood-fired grill, including a signature burger with the smoke-kissed beef topped by aged cheddar, red onion, lettuce, tomato, pickle and special sauce ($13.99). The BBQ Burger (bacon, cheddar, barbecue sauce, red onion, coleslaw and tomato) is also a fine option for a buck more.
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Gecko’s Grill & Pub
Multiple locations in Sarasota and Manatee; geckosgrill.com
So the locally owned Gecko’s no longer features The Gecko Burger on its menu but, guess what? You can totally build it. Covering a brioche onion roll, it’s a half-pound slab of USDA Choice Angus chuck cooked to order and smothered with chili and cheddar cheese and topped with onion rings. Gecko’s classic burger is $10 and then each additional side is $1.25. The options are cheese, bacon, onion rings, chili, fried pickles, sauteed mushrooms, sauteed onions, jalapeño and guacamole.
Libby’s Neighborhood Brasserie
1917 S. Osprey Ave., Sarasota; and 8445 Lorraine Road, Lakewood Ranch; libbysneighborhoodbrasserie.com
The locally owned Libby’s, with the original in Sarasota’s Southside Village location and a second one in Lakewood Ranch, both serve the Brisket Burger ($15.50). It’s a nicely formed and proportioned brisket blend with aged cheddar, lettuce and tomato, kissed with just the right amount of their herbed mayo. Libby’s also serves a version with Maytag blue cheese as well as an Impossible vegan burger.
Multiple locations; mattisons.com
Chef/owner Paul Mattison has three namesake locations (South Tamiami Trail, downtown Sarasota, Bradenton Riverwalk) all serving outstanding burgers made with freshly ground Niman Ranch beef, routinely cooked spot-on to order ($18 at dinner). At the Riverwalk location recently, I asked for a burger medium rare with Swiss and sauteed mushrooms (just a buck extra) and it came out perfect, the beef and mushrooms bursting with simpatico flavors from under a blanket of high-quality cheese. I’m also a fan of the version with Monterey Jack cheese and bacon if I’m feeling naughty. Also, the Bradenton restaurant is now offering a bison burger.
Oak & Stone
Multiple locations in Southwest Florida; oakandstone.com
Fans of craft beer and great burgers have been flocking to Oak & Stone since it debuted with its University Parkway location in 2017. Now, Bradenton is home to a pair of Oak & Stone locations, the most prominent being the one with the rooftop bar and dining area overlooking the Manatee River where you can pour yourself a craft brew from the beer wall and enjoy it while noshing on their Griddle Burger ($13). The juicy, mid-sized patty is smothered in a winning cheddar blend with crispy onion straws, lettuce, and a superb “secret sauce” that recalls a richer and more robust Thousand Island.
1200 First Ave. W.; 941-748-8087; pier22dining.com
A local landmark that places guests right on the Manatee River for indoor or al fresco dining, Pier 22’s signature burger is a superb combination of a half-pound of Angus beef grilled to order topped by avocado, basil mayo, a fried egg, smoked cheddar and some amazingly good brown sugar spiced bacon ($16). The only catch is that the Pier 22 Burger is only available on the weekends at brunch (11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays). The rest of the time you can still get the burger, and with the cheddar and bacon, but no egg. Pier 22’s sister restaurant Grove, in Lakewood Ranch, also offers several burgers, including a Poutine Burger topped with smoked brisket, thick-cut bacon, white cheddar, and gravy ($18).
Riviera Dunes Dockside Social Bar & Grill
102 Riviera Dunes Way, Palmetto; 941-304-3689; rivieradunesdockside.com
Located at Riviera Dunes Marina just off the Manatee River in Palmetto, Dockside serves up a thick, signature burger made with a tasty blend of short rib and chuck steak topped with cheddar, lettuce tomato and red onion ($11). Another fun option, available during brunch on the weekends, is the Bunless Hangover Burger. It’s the same choice, half-pound patty on lettuce with bacon and a sunny-side up egg, and a side of potatoes or fruit ($13).
3801 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton; 941-748-4016
One of Bradenton’s oldest eateries, Shake Pit opened in 1959 and remains one of the most popular spots in the Friendly City, largely thanks to its cherished, diner-style cheeseburgers, which are still a bargain for six bucks (cash only). Order ’em with “everything,” which means the juicy patty is served on a toasted white bun with iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, mayo, ketchup and mustard.
800 Broadway St., Longboat Key and 465 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands Circle; dineshore.com
Boasting a large, chic waterfront dining area on Longboat Key overlooking Sarasota Bay, Shore is a fun spot just to sit back, relax and watch people entering the long dock from their yachts, or perhaps spot a frolicking dolphin. It’s an even better spot to dine and drink, though, thanks to items such as the Shore Burger ($17-$19). It’s a patty made from grass-fed beef, ground in house daily, with a rocking bacon jam, Tillamook cheddar, lettuce, tomato and onion, with a side of their yummy truffle fries. The same burger can also be enjoyed at Shore’s original, second-floor location on St. Armands Circle.
4219 US-301 N., Ellenton; 941-722-7866; shakestation.com
Featuring a great, family-friendly setting that feels plucked from the 1950s, Shake Station serves burgers made with hand-pattied, hormone-free beef cooked on a flavor-rich grill that’s nearly six decades old. A big ol’ yummy mess (at least in my clumsy paws), the Shake Burger is a six-ounce patty cooked medium-well and covered in a pile of pulled pork, bacon, pineapple slaw, cheddar jack and “shake sauce” ($11.50). I also highly recommend their classic burger with American cheese ($8.50).
3901 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach; 941-778-7769; skinnysplace.com
If you’re seeking a “cheeseburger in paradise” experience that’s totally Old Florida and just a stone’s throw from one of Anna Maria Island’s gorgeous shorelines, Skinny’s is your place: a funky ol’ structure from the 1950s located right across from Manatee Public Beach. The beloved “Skinny Cheeseburger” is a fresh, diner-style hamburger on a toasted white bun with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles – “just say ‘mayo’ or ‘no mayo’” ($7). Another fun option is the bacon cheeseburger ($8.65), with the three strips strategically placed under the slice of American. And, really, no trip to Skinny’s is complete without a frosty mug or two of beer and a side of fries ($3.27). Cash only.
5866 14th St. W., Bradenton; 941-755-1998
Tucked away in a strip mall in south Bradenton, S.O.B. Burgers is, yes, a hidden gem. The highly recommended Brewmaster ($12) takes a mid-sized patty and tops the beef with caramelized onions, smoked bacon and S.O.B.’s own “brewmaster cheese sauce.” Served on a pretzel roll with a side of hand-cut fries that are fantastic, this is a comfort food triumph.
The Ugly Grouper
5704 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach; 941-896-8033; uglygrouper.com
A fun, wildly popular open-air restaurant and full bar with live music on Anna Maria Island, The Ugly Grouper serves a whole lot of fresh grouper (sandwiches, nuggets, half-pound dinner, stir fry, kabobs, tacos) in addition to outstanding comfort food such as the burgers. They’re a delectable, eight-ounce blend of Angus prime (50%), short rib (25%) and brisket (25%) that I recently had cooked to a perfect medium-rare with crispy bacon and American cheese ($15.50). For add-ons, they also offer an assortment of cheeses, fried egg, sauteed mushroom or onions, jalapenos, avocado and giardiniera; as well as a burger topped with fresh bruschetta and mozzarella.
Wade Tatangelo, the Herald-Tribune’s entertainment editor, may be reached by email at [email protected]. Support local journalism by subscribing.