Burger-nomics: Is a $26 hamburger worth it?

Beef prices are expected to rise in 2012 due to low cattle supplies from last year's drought — so you might need to get picky about choosing your next burger, if only for your wallet's sake. Burger prices run the gamut, from In-N-Out's $3.75 cheeseburger with secret sauce in Southern California to Minetta Tavern's $26 prime cuts Black Label Burger in New York City. Both In-N-Out and Minetta Tavern have huge followings: Celebrities Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake and Paris Hilton have all been spotted at In-N-Out, while Minetta Tavern's Black Label Burger has been described as "without question a riveting experience" by former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni. So, is it worth paying $26 for a burger when you can get equal enjoyment from one that costs $3.75?

To figure this out, we examined 30 of the most celebrated burger joints in America according to Epicurious, GQ, Food & Wine, and Rev Ciancio from the well-regarded burger blog Burger Conquest, who we called up to chat about hamburgers.

Ciancio considers hamburgers the ultimate comfort food. He grew up watching his father grill hamburgers in the backyard, and thought trips to McDonald's were a special treat. He considers a hamburger cooked medium rare to be "photographically perfect," and in a passionate blog post, says that a burger "represents all that is good in the world and stands as a symbol of all that is important in life." This isn't a joke — Ciancio has eaten more than 475 burgers from around the globe, and he details the burgers he devours each week on his blog. When Ciancio travels, burgers are always on the itinerary whether he's in Amsterdam or South America. One of his favorite burgers comes from a restaurant called Wicky's in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, which he says is incredible.

The first question we asked Ciancio is one he gets the most: What's your favorite burger?

"In New York, it's Rub BBQ," he says. "They serve it only on Monday nights, and it's the best house-ground burger I've had. Outside of New York, I love Kuma's Corner in Chicago."

A cheeseburger at Rub costs $7.50, while a cheeseburger at Kuma costs about $13. We asked Ciancio what he thinks about hamburger prices, and if he's had the $26 Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern.

"I haven't been able to get a reservation at Minetta Tavern at a reasonable time," he says, "but I love all burgers, whether it's a burger from White Castle ($1 or so) or In-N-Out ($3.75), or from a nice restaurant where they only use products that are locally sourced and of the highest quality. For me, if you love a restaurant, it's worth it."

So we have one vote for a $26 burger being worth it. We also wanted to take a slightly more scientific approach by examining our spending data for 30 of the top burger joints in America (you can take a closer look at all 30 burger joints here). We plotted out all 30 restaurants by the price of their cheeseburger, and by their Bundle score, which is based on the popularity of a restaurant, the number of repeat visits by customers to a restaurant, and the amount people are willing to pay when they eat at the restaurant (you can learn more about how the Bundle ratings work here). A burger joint that scores between 50 and 80 gets a high rating, but for it to be absolutely considered worth it, the burger joint should have our highest rating: a score of 80 to 100. Here's our chart of the burgers that are worth it:

Click here to see the chart in high resolution, and see the list of top 30 burger joints here.

The burger joints on and to the right of the red line are considered absolutely worth it because of their very high rating. We've sectioned off the burger joints that are worth it by price point, so you'll know where to go if you're looking for a good, inexpensive burger under $10, a moderately priced burger between $10 and $15, and an expensive burger over $15. Both Minetta Tavern and In-N-Out make the cut, while the popular New York burger chain Shake Shack gets left behind due to its lower number of repeat customers (its popularity makes it a popular destination for tourists who eat once and don't come back). But remember, a score of 50 to 80 is also considered relatively good, so although they're not considered a "must visit" they're still worth some consideration.

For example, The Vortex Bar & Grill located in Atlanta, Ga. is one of Ciancio's favorite burger joints, and although it's not a must visit on our list, you should consider dining there if you want to take your burger to the "extreme."

"They have a burger that's served with bacon and eggs between two grilled cheese sandwiches," Ciancio says. "And they have a burger called the 'Elvis', which is a burger with bacon, peanut butter, bananas, and an egg."

Who's hungry?

See our slideshow of 30 of the most popular burger joints in America here.