This match-up is about cognitive bias as it is anything else. Now, I understand that this is a food blog and not a science class, but hear me out. A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations, which may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, or illogical interpretation.
In my dining experiences at both City Grille and Smashburger for the Denver Burger Bracket, each had their own circumstances that could have influenced my judgement. Aside from their actual burgers, the sights, sounds, and service go a long way to how we enjoy and remember a particular meal. Maybe it was just a coincidence that I left both restaurants with the feeling that my burger enjoyment and decision may have been swayed just a little bit by factors other than taste. Or maybe it wasn’t?
Let’s go to the match-up:
(2) City Grille
City Grille is the undisputed king of self-promotion when it comes to burgers. They have a giant banner above the door to their restaurant that reads “The Best Burger In Denver”. They’ve won dozens of awards from magazines, websites, and newspapers since 1999, and most recently won 5280 Magazine’s “Best Burger In Denver” award in 2011. And all of those kind words and accolades are on display everywhere you turn both inside and outside of the restaurant. When all you see are literally a 25 signs extolling the virtues of a burger you are about to eat, you’re pretty much expecting the best freaking thing to ever touch your lips, right?? I mean, the hype and build up to ordering and waiting for this burger to arrive are at an all time high.
The cognitive bias of heightened expectations has already set in, so the only place for the City Grille burger to go is down of course. Luckily, knowledge is power so after feeling the effects of high expectations I was able to rein in any biased judgement. And in the Denver Burger Bracket, taste is also power, which City Grille has a ton of. I went with the regular burger, which is a 1/2 lb. sirloin patty. I added cheddar cheese and it came dressed with lettuce, tomato, and red onion. Served with fries it topped out at $11. Two things I noted immediately upon its arrival in front of my salivating mug: the bun, which was was sort of a triangular cut of ciabatta bread (totally unexpected), and then a pile of stewed/cooked onions sitting there next to fries. These onions were a godsend, and exactly how I like to cook my onions at home (low and slow with a shit ton of butter). I was a little skeptical of the bread, but I fell in love with it by the end of the burger. It was thick and spongy, and really held up nicely to the ridiculously juicy burger patty. It was cooked exceptionally well, and provided a truly classic burger taste.
Bonus: Sit at the bar if you can, and chat with the bartender (and possible/probably owner methinks). If it’s your first time, he’ll hook you up with a cup of their green chile, which may even win a future Denver Food Guys Green Chile Bracket. It’s that good.
Much like Five Guys, Smashburger is a fast-casual burger joint with high aspirations that has exploded across the US recently. They have the distinction of starting their business in Denver, and I was able to go to their very first store on S. Colorado Blvd. Smashburger replicates some of the trends of the new fast-casual burger places popping-up with a list of burger “creations” that feature various topping combinations. I was feeling in a classic mood and went with the Bacon Cheeseburger, which comes with Applewood-smoked bacon, American cheese, yellow mustard, ketchup, pickles and onion on an egg bun. All burgers are in the $6-$8.50 range (a la cart), depending on what you want on it.
So here’s where the cognitive bias starts to creep in. My two least favorite foods on planet earth are ketchup and cucumbers (which means I hate pickles). YES I KNOW that hating these two condiments make it difficult for one to accurately rate a burger. But as we all know those condiments, and specific condiments in general, are not REQUIRED to enjoy a great burger. Ok, so now that that’s out of the way, I always have to make it a point to ask for no ketchup and no pickles. If I forget to ask, well then it’s on me of course. And if they forget and add pickles then it isn’t the end of the world because I can obviously take them off (although pickle juice residue is definitely a detractor). BUT if it’s ketchup, well then all bets are off and it can’t be salvaged. So I’m used to making a point to list these condiments as no-nos during the ordering process.
After ordering, I sat down, checked out the receipt, and noticed that there was nothing on the receipt to indicate no ketchup and no pickles. Some places have that and some places don’t, so I walked back up and talked to someone behind the counter. I said that I had asked for no pickles and no ketchup on my burger, and just wanted to double check that the order went in with those stipulations. He took my receipt, looked up the order, and confirmed that it indeed went into the system as I had asked. Awesome. So I sit back down and wait for my order. The same exact guy that I had spoken with delivers my order to my table, making sure to note that it doesn’t have pickles or ketchup on it. You can probably guess where this is going, but I open the hood to find EXTRA pickles and EXTRA ketchup (Ok maybe it just looked that way…). So now I have to take it back to the counter, and be that guy the gives the order back, even though I had double-checked to make sure. I finally get the right order, but I’m already biased at this point.
Luckily the same guy behind the counter was very apologetic, and even gave me a coupon for a free burger on a future visit. Did that right the ship of my cognitive biases? Maybe it did, and maybe it didn’t, but I think it helped. At the end of the day the Smashburger was good but not great, and pretty much what you would expect. Much better than fast food, good quality burger patty and toppings, but just didn’t have that spark needed to win.
It’s easy to be biased, as our mind and decisions are constantly influenced by both our surroundings and our past experiences. In the case of the Denver Burger Bracket, the only real bias can and will be taste though. City Grille wins this first round match-up, and has all the makings of a title contender.