When you belly up to that white tablecloth awash in candlelight and that tuxedoed waiter asks for your order, chances are good these days you'll say, "The burger, please."
The humble hamburger dominates the dining industry at fast food counters, where it was always king, but more notably, the U.S. staple is becoming a fixture in the lofty confines of fine dining alongside heirloom tomatoes and foie gras.
Universal in appeal and relatively easy on the wallet, the burger is proving to be a quintessential recession offering from burger-flippers and celebrated chefs.
At Tresetti's restaurant in downtown Modesto, hamburgers share the menu with the likes of Asian scallops in a sweet chili glaze, served with basmati rice; artichoke ragout; and a sandwich of oven-roasted leg of lamb marinated in fresh herbs and garlic. Tammy Maisetti, a co-owner, said burgers always have been a big seller. In the beginning, the restaurant offered them only on Fridays, but it soon had to increase the frequency because of customer demand.
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"On Monday, Tuesday Wednesday, they were saying, 'Where's the burger?' " she said.
Now, the restaurant offers a burger of the day at lunch. One day, toppings could be brie with roasted garlic, the next day jack cheese with bacon and tomato, another day chili verde.
Morton's, the fine-dining steakhouse chain, offers Morton's prime burger at lunch. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck confides that his mini-cheeseburgers go faster than anything else at Academy Awards parties. At French Laundry in Yount- ville, where diners shell out $240 for dinners, chef Thomas Keller is planning a separate burger joint.
Burgers, even with freshly ground beef and trimmings such as caramelized onions and truffle cheese, can ring up at half the price of other entrees.
Nationwide, the number of restaurants overall offering burgers has increased by more than 4 percent since 2005, but in the fine-dining category, burgers jumped nearly 19 percent during the same time span, according to data-research company Datassential.
In a down economy, diners look for value and comfort in food, said Maeve Webster, a managing director for the Los Angeles-based company.
"Absolutely, comfort food takes center stage," she said.
Jesse Layman, the new chef at Galletto's Ristorante in downtown Modesto, said people would rather spend $15 on a good burger than $25 or $30 on a steak. He also believes people choose hamburgers because they're a safe bet.
But if Layman had his way, hamburgers wouldn't be on the menu.
"We're an Italian restaurant," he said. "Hamburgers are really not what we're about. It was on the menu when I got here."
He probably will continue to serve them because they're so popular, but will make sure they're fresh ground steak hamburgers. As an alternative, he might offer a lamb burger.
After fine dining, the next largest restaurant category to add more burgers is midscale, family-style dining, such as Denny's, said Webster from Datassential. The burger offerings in that category have increased 5 percent in the past four years.
Denny's burger is second in popularity to its Grand Slam breakfast, but there was room for improvement, said John Dillon, a spokesman.
The restaurant recently rolled out its Better Burger, a hand-formed patty with an almost scientifically calculated bun-to-meat ratio, Dillon said. Coupled with new wavy fries and a soft drink, the burger sells for $6.99.
"People are looking for value, but it's more than just price. They're looking for an experience they can't get at home," Dillon said.
Burgers always have been the most frequently ordered entree, said Harry Balzer, an industry analyst with NPD Group in New York.
At lunch, 23 percent of diners will order them; at dinner, 16 percent, he said.
What is different is the variety and the kinds of restaurants that offer burgers, Balzer said. "Everyone has their own twist."
Not quite everyone.
At Biba Restaurant in Sacramento, the award-winning, acclaimed menu of owner Biba Caggiano doesn't have room for a burger, she said.
"We don't have burgers in Italy," she said. "There's nothing wrong with a wonderful hamburger, and there is a place for it," she said. "I don't think it's my place."
Bee staff writer Lisa Millegan contributed to this report.