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Food review: Citizen Burger Bar offers high-end food, urban vibe

New burger joint Citizen Burger Bar joined the ranks of restaurants on the Downtown Mall when it opened in June across from the Paramount Theater at 212 East Main Street. Described on the restaurant’s website as a “classic American burger joint with a pulse and a palate,” this new establishment holds dear certain basic freedoms, not least the enjoyment of a great burger and a beer with friends.

When I first learned of this restaurant, it seemed strikingly similar to Boylan Heights. As a loyal devotee to the Corner’s gourmet burger-slash-sports bar, I was a little hesitant to try somewhere new. After going (twice!) and sampling the menu, though, I gleefully realized I would not have to play favorites, since the two establishments lie at opposite ends of the burger-joint spectrum. Boylan provides a true sports-bar feel, serving bar food such as nachos and buffalo wings alongside its more gourmet burgers. Citizen incorporates an urban warehouse feel with a comfortable homey vibe, along with outdoor patio seating, to serve higher-end food in a more upscale environment.

The theme of the restaurant appears in a mural featuring a burger incorporated into the American flag. The management strives to keep historical aspects of the Downtown Mall in the building, including pieces of the original wall visible on the right-hand side.

The exposed kitchen and bar area show the restaurant has nothing to hide. Citizen, like many Charlottesville restaurants, uses as many local ingredients as possible in their dishes, joking on its website that “as soon as they start catching lobsters in the Rivanna, you can bet we’ll drop our Maine-based source like a bad habit.” The restaurant’s beef, chicken and dairy products come from local Timbercreek Organics, Davis Creek Farm and Mountainview Farm, respectively. The restaurant also has a feature that allows diners to scan a barcode on their menus and be redirected to the website of the farm where the menu item comes from.

The appetizers set the tone of the menu as a southern-influenced burger joint with a gourmet twist. The fried shishito peppers provide a nice alternative to nachos or chicken fingers, and every guest at my table loved the distinctive dish. The light batter coats a spicier inside, which was perfectly balanced by the sweet soy dipping sauce. The crispy fried pickles and fry board, including four tasty sauces, were exceptional starts to the meal, which got better with each dish delivered.

For those who are not avid red meat lovers, the menu has plenty of non-beef options — from salads the size of a mixing bowl to chicken sandwiches and grilled cheeses. I decided on a beet salad, which came loaded with candied walnuts, freshly sliced apples, blueberries and chevre and was more than generous as an entrée or a side to split. One of my fellow diners ordered the vegan burger, a blend of beets and grains, and was pleasantly surprised by its flavor — a variation from the usual, bland bean- or lentil-based veggie burger. The carnivores chose from three different types of beefs for their burgers, all deciding on the local grass-fed.

The menu has six specialty burgers, ranging from the “American Classic” to “The Executive,” featuring wagyu beef, foie gras, an egg and rosemary aioli. My companions mostly built their own burgers from the bounty of typical and extraordinary toppings, including nine different cheeses, avocado, truffle butter, arugula and lobster. The sauces, including everything from bacon jam to Heinz ketchup, perfect the dishes and add a decadent element to the meal. The extensive beer list (there are more than 90 types offered) and variety of house-made cocktails make the experience even more enjoyable.

Owner Anderson McClure states on the website that “the name Citizen is pretty perfect for what’s happening here — it’s a way to explain our two-part mission: highlighting fresh, authentic, responsibly grown ingredients from the place we call home, and creating a laid-back inviting atmosphere for our customers.” After visiting this establishment twice, I would have to agree wholeheartedly with his statement.

The food is affordable, delicious and a step above a normal dinner out. The ambience is lively, inviting and comfortable. Citizen takes the straightforward concept of burgers and beer and combines it with a personal view and gourmet touch without losing sight of the simplicity of a good burger. I will definitely return for a third round of Citizen.