There's no escaping beef where I come from. In Shepherd, a little community near Billings, the sun comes up to the sound of cattle lowing for their feed in nearby pastures. Sometimes my family had a steer grazing in our own small pasture, too. The most beloved of these was Lefty. After Lefty grew to his full weight on alfalfa hay, Dad waited until all the kids were at school to dispatch him with a handgun. When we got off the bus after school, a car-sized side of beef was hanging in the pole barn. Dad lugged a meat grinder onto the kitchen counter and Lefty became a freezer's worth of ground beef. I learned how to shape a burger patty and sprinkle it with garlic salt before I knew how to boil water.
As an adult, I've found that burgers are more often mediocre than extraordinary. The Top Hat's cheeseburger is the latter. A server will advise you that the default burger arrives at the table medium rare, and it really does—a blissful 7-ounce patty of pink-on-the-inside beef, its juices soaking the bun. That bun is slathered in butter and crisped atop the grill for a few moments. Its real genius, however, is that the Top Hat uses a flame broiler (yes, like the kind Burger King advertises). Even in the depths of midwinter, this burger tastes like it just came off the grill at a backyard barbecue in July.
I asked Top Hat chef Billy Metzger what he thinks sets his burger apart and he said, in his distinctive Alabama twang, that it's certainly the beef itself. The Top Hat sources its meat from the Mannix Ranch near Helmville, about 75 miles east of Missoula.
"The beef by itself is absolutely delicious to me, it's what makes the burger so good," Metzger says. And after four years overseeing the Top Hat menu, Metzger says he has a pretty good grasp on what draws people back. "Local" helps. Metzger also gives credit to the kitchen's garnishes, like house-made pickles and aioli. (If I ever took my dad to the Top Hat, I'd have to explain that aioli is just a fancy kind of mayonnaise.)
"We never just buy mayonnaise and put it on the burger. We don't buy pickles and put it on the burger. We add something to every ingredient before we put it on the burger," Metzger says. "It's that extra special touch that I feel makes our burger better than some other places."
As to a ranking of local burgers, I'll refrain from commenting. It's best to let the beef speak for itself.