By Jack Dickey
February 12, 2015

New Haven, Conn., happens to be the birthplace of two of America’s undisputed cultural treasures: the hamburger and the author of this story. The chamber of commerce might also cite the good universities and even better pizza. None of us native sons is above using the humble old town as a springboard to international acclaim–take George W. Bush or Michael Bolton–but I’ve learned there’s something admirably modest, and very New England, in sticking around and keeping your head down.

Which brings us to two plots of real estate, separated by a little less than two blocks, in present-day downtown. There’s a squat redbrick structure with Bavarian architectural accents situated in the front of a parking lot on Crown between High and College. That’s Louis’ Lunch, established 1895. The official legend says Danish immigrant Louis Lassen invented the hamburger sandwich there in 1900. And on Chapel between College and Temple, facing the Green, there’s a tall, freestanding glass structure: Shake Shack, established 2012. Its hamburger legend is now on file with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

On Jan. 30, Shake Shack held its wildly successful initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange. Shares more than doubled on their first day of trading, making founder Danny Meyer’s stake worth more than $300 million. Two days earlier, fresh off one of its worst financial years in decades, McDonald’s announced that Don Thompson, its CEO, would step down after less than three years on the job. (Officially, he retired.) Seismic stuff by burger-world standards. Sure, Shake Shack is small–its first three quarters in 2014 generated $84 million in revenue, compared with $20.8 billion for McDonald’s. Nevertheless, the contrast of a struggling behemoth and a surging upstart symbolically validated the growing “fast casual” sector, which includes Shake Shack, Five Guys and Smashburger, among many others.

American restaurants cooked up an all-time-high 9 billion burgers last year, reports market researcher NPD. In spite of warnings about their nutritional ravages and the perhaps questionable business practices that bring them to us, we still love our burgers.

No other dietary staple casts such a sociocultural shadow. The roadside burger’s midcentury rise paralleled the construction of interstate highways and the birth of modern consumer culture. Hot, fast and affordable hamburgers were a uniquely American triumph in an era defined by unique American triumphs. Now, America is graduating from cheap burgers to better burgers.

Just as the entrepreneurs behind the old burger empires symbolized boomer capitalism, the new burger purveyors reflect a new breed, marketing themselves as artisanal, small-batch operators–rising to take on the giants, one bespoke burger at a time.

Our Burgers, Ourselves

What makes a Burger? The answer has never been especially obvious. Hamburger comes from Hamburg steak, a ground-beef dish dating from 19th century Germany. But Hamburg steak no longer turns up on many menus. At the very least, a burger is a clump of hot, cooked ground meat (usually beef) or a substitute, on bread (usually a bun) or a substitute. The Big Mac? A burger. A zesty lettuce-wrapped turkey patty with Muenster and mustard? A burger, some dieters will tell you. Meatball and marinara on a scone? Sure, a burger too.

The ingredient list matters less than the sensation. A proper burger offers varying levels of resistance to the teeth, with each soft half-bun giving way en route to the meat, the best of which has multiple characteristics of its own–a hot, hard crust and a juicy interior. Texturally the whole package should fuse the perks of a crisp apple and a broiled steak. Toppings add other dimensions: Lettuce, onion, pickles and tomato can give their own fresh, watery crunches. Bacon will do the same, minus the water and the freshness, plus cholesterol.

One might divide the burger’s story into a few phases. There’s the late 19th century pre-fast-food disputed-origins phase that includes Louis’ Lunch and other contenders, such as Fletcher Davis, who claimed to have invented it at his Athens, Texas, lunch counter in the 1880s, and “Hamburger” Charlie Nagreen, who sold meatballs on buns at the 1885 Seymour, Wis., county fair. The burger boom began in earnest in 1921, when a Wichita, Kans., fry cook named Walter Anderson joined forces with his real estate broker, Billy Ingram. Anderson had the novel idea to grill his patties and put them on buns, while Ingram fancied himself a titan of industry and went about vertically integrating the whole operation. Soon identical White Castles were slinging tiny 5¢ hamburgers across the Midwest.

And yet it’s McDonald’s, not White Castle, whose rise came to define the 20th century business world. In 1948, California’s McDonald brothers abandoned their drive-in to build a burger shop. Ray Kroc, the Illinois businessman who sold them their milk-shake mixers, saw a major opportunity in their speedy operation and profit margins. He bought out the brothers and spread his gospel by franchising the chain–letting small-business investors open identical shops with his branding and methods for a cut of the action. The ’50s and ’60s brought Wendy’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box and Hardee’s, while In-N-Out grew its West Coast reach. The supremacy of the fast-food burger would be essentially unquestioned for 40 years.

But fear over mad cow disease and rising obesity rates–the children raised on impeccably marketed fast food had grown up large–conspired to shake fast food’s foundation around the turn of the century. Journalist Eric Schlosser reported on and synthesized the arguments against the business in 2001’s Fast Food Nation, and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock vivified the anti-fast-food case with 2004’s Super Size Me. For one month he ate only at McDonald’s. He spooked his doctors and gained nearly 25 lb., or 11.3 kg. (The movie grossed more than $11 million domestically.) What would come of this agita? The burger’s demise? Not quite. Enter the “better burger.”

New Models

Restaurant analysts split their world into two segments. There are full-service restaurants (every place with waitstaff, ranging from starched-tablecloth-and-Dover-sole sit-down joints to endless-mozzarella-stick chain types) and limited-service restaurants (primarily what people would call “fast food”). But limited service has in the past two decades spawned a stepchild category: fast-casual restaurants. Think Panera Bread, Chipotle Mexican Grill or Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches. It’s this group, characterized by made-to-order dishes and more-complex flavors, that has intrigued most big-picture restaurant observers for the past decade and a half, culminating in Shake Shack’s blockbuster January IPO.

What does fast casual have going for it? For the owners, the restaurants promise an essentially doubled average per-check expenditure compared with fast food ($8 to $12 vs. $3 to $8) without the headaches of a full-service outlet. It’s a small segment of the U.S. restaurant business, just 7.7% of total sales for 2013, or $34.5 billion, according to research firm Technomic. But it’s a growing one, attractive to investors in a climate where interest in food has spiked but fast-food visits among millennials appear to have flattened.

Seizing on the trendiness of the culinary arts, fast-casual joints like to tell stories about the sourcing of their ingredients and how they’re cooked. The goal is for diners to feel good about what they eat. (Taking the food-stories concept to its logical extreme, Chipotle even enlisted highbrow vegetarian novelist Jonathan Safran Foer to curate a “Cultivating Thought Author Series” of little essays on its cups and bags.)

From his late-’90s corporate perch as McDonald’s chief marketing officer, Tom Ryan says he saw an opportunity opening up before him. Ryan has a Ph.D. in flavor-and-fragrance chemistry and a food-world track record to match: he’s credited with inventing Pizza Hut’s stuffed-crust pizza and McDonald’s McGriddle. “I saw that burgers were America’s favorite food, but people were dispassionate about the choices they had–McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s,” he recalls. “I wanted to sell burgers made with some level of care and understanding, fast casual.” So Ryan opened the first Smashburger in Denver in 2007, with loose-packed Certified Angus beef and real glassware. The chain, which is privately owned and considerably bigger than Shake Shack, now has 307 locations. Ryan says the pizza business will soon follow burgers into the artisanal realm.

Pat LaFrieda Jr., a third-generation meat wholesaler whose operations are now based in New Jersey, says he too watched in 1999 as New York City restaurants’ buying tastes began to change. LaFrieda says chefs used to buy his family’s chopped beef–known around town for its taste because it consisted only of ground whole cuts–for their home cookouts, nothing more. Then he started getting calls for different blends for burgers: a little more richness, perhaps, maybe some brisket here or some short rib there. He would make the blends himself, tasting the meat raw from the grinder, so as not to let cooking “compromise the flavor profile.” He ground Shake Shack’s meat, among others. How good has the better-burger era been for him? In 1994, LaFrieda says, the business had annual sales of $2 million. In 2014, he sold $140 million worth of beef–20% of that the chopped product once confined to home cookouts.

Established chains have tried to get in on the act. Chili’s, for instance, now has a “craft burger” menu, piggybacking on the craft-beer boom. And Wendy’s, whose burgers enjoy a better reputation than Burger King’s and McDonald’s, according to Consumer Reports, has in recent years tried unusual flavor combinations and hyped up its story. “Our beef is fresh, never frozen, all North American. It’s practically local,” says Brandon Solano, Wendy’s marketing chief.

McDonald’s has worked up its own better-burger play: Create Your Taste, a program to allow extensive customization. Diners will design their burgers on a touchscreen in-store. The concept will be presented in March to franchisees, and the company plans to roll it out to 2,000 locations this year. “This is not just about food. It’s about the overall experience,” Thompson told investors before his departure. It will also change the company’s relationship with franchisees, allowing them more discretion to adapt the menu to local tastes.

Still, menu complexity may raise food and prep costs, slow service and confuse customers. Shake Shack offers five burgers and four hot-dog choices; McDonald’s already has 16 burgers plus 13 McChicken sandwiches. That goes up to 46 total when you count wraps, the McRib and the Filet-O-Fish. You want fries with that, or a fountain drink? Oh, what size?

Says McDonald’s spokesperson Becca Hary: “Millennials, families and our customers share a desire for quality ingredients and freshly prepared menu items. We remain focused on listening to our customers and evolving our menu to meet their expectations and changing eating habits.”

Taste Test

With a corporate card and a doctor’s note in hand, this millennial went out to sample some of the standard bearers in the modern burger game. What works? I ate LaFrieda’s vaunted Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern, a $28 dry-aged offering served with caramelized onions as its lone default topping. Each bite first tasted of buttery, rare beef. Then came the mineral-tinged tang of aged steak. The bun and even the onions hardly registered–a competent supporting cast. I wolfed the burger down, pausing periodically just to marvel at it.

Two blocks away was a McDonald’s. I washed down the Black Label Burger with two bites of a $4.78 (with tax) Big Mac. The beef tasted only like brown. Better were Wendy’s and Five Guys, whose offerings were greasy but otherwise commendable. Wendy’s pretzel bacon cheeseburger had colorful baby lettuce; the bun showed some effort. Five Guys had the density of pie; I never forgot I was eating a treat. Three-quarters of the way through the burger, I was full.

Back in New Haven, Louis’ Lunch stays busy with a mix of students, locals and travelers intrigued by TV specials. Inside, the restaurant looks and smells like a fireplace, all iron and wood. A cashier and a cook work side by side in a narrow galley kitchen. The burger is a thick patty, cooked in a vertical broiler manufactured in 1898, served on toasted white bread and presented on a six-inch paper plate with napkins on top. Ketchup and mustard are prohibited. As for taste, there’s no onslaught of fat, no special sauce, no brioche bun. It tastes like nothing more than hot beef on bread.

Shake Shack, 274 paces and more than 100 years down the street, seems to do brisk business too, with a more diverse crowd. The interior is full of natural light, sturdy, well-sanded wood and games (shuffleboard!). I’m handed a pager for when my food is ready. My table tells me it was “handcrafted” in Brooklyn; the wood used to be part of a bowling lane.

This is the apotheosis of the better-burger experience, a consumer product ready-made for a generation that ditched all of its circa-2000 demands of Big Burger except the one for better flavor.

Millennials like stories about their food. Here’s one: The Shack and its peers have fashioned the burger into an even greater indulgence than it once was. New burgers may taste better, but they’re just as unhealthy. A Shackburger and fries will set you back about 1,000 calories, just like a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with fries. Then there are the economic and social consequences. American beef consumption is increasingly blamed for hastening climate change, and fast-food workers recently protested for the right to organize and a $15 hourly minimum wage.

The Shackburger is too fatty for my liking, with its mayo-centric sauce commingling unpleasantly with the cheese and fat drippings. It nonetheless comes on a potato bun sweeter than the norm. It tastes like a treat, yes, but one too rich and too sugary for me to ever earn it. Halfway in, I’ve had my fill of this particular experiment. I quit and head toward home.

–WITH REPORTING BY BILL SAPORITO/NEW YORK

Write to Jack Dickey at jack.dickey@time.com.

This appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of TIME.

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