May is National Hamburger Month, but for one group of Madison guys, every month is hamburger month.
The ringleader and co-founder of this burger bunch is an old Madison West High School Regent named Bob “Bear” Phillips.
Phillips, 59, who works at Trader Joe’s and Gallant Knight Limousine, sets a schedule that takes the group — it started with two, and has been as large as 25 — to one Madison area burger joint each month. Last week, Thursday evening, 18 gathered at Namio’s Sports Pub in Fitchburg.
The boys judge the burgers on a scale of one to 10, and this, of course, is thirsty work.
Or as the group’s official slogan, which is printed on its official T-shirts, says:
“Once a month let’s make it clear/Rate the beef and drink the beer.”
They call themselves BNO — Burger Night Out — and they have a website, burgernightout.com, cataloging their adventures, which began in 2005. At this writing, they have munched on 65 burgers. Word of their quest has gotten out to the extent that at least one restaurant contacted them recently with an invitation to rate its burger.
“It felt like we’d hit the big time,” Phillips said.
Another recent development — this came out of a conversation Phillips had with some passengers in his limousine — was the suggestion that the website would be a natural for advertising things like beer or condiments. After some discussion, the boys rejected the idea.
“We wanted to stay pure,” Phillips said.
Certainly, that’s how they started. It was a cold night in November 2005, and Phillips, who lives in the Nakoma neighborhood, was persuaded by his friend and neighbor, Dan Roehre, to walk up the hill to Tony Frank’s tavern, on Seminole Highway just off the Beltline. They ate burgers and chili, and they drank some beer. Then they drank a little more beer, at which point, as sometimes happens, inspiration arrived.
Roehre said something about how great it would be if they could go around town eating burgers and recording their impressions.
Phillips said, “We could call it Burger Night Out.”
The fact they were in Tony Frank’s made it seem like destiny. The tavern is one of Madison’s most historic. There really was a Tony Frank. In 1929, he opened what may be the oldest continuously operating tavern in the city. I remember visiting his grandson, Jim Frank, during a renovation in 2007. When he tore up the floor, Jim found an empty bottle of Canada Dry gin and a 1924 calendar. The building was a farmhouse before it was a tavern.
Phillips and Roehre reached out to other buddies in the neighborhood, and when BNO made its second stop — the Oakcrest Tavern on Old Middleton Road, in March 2006 — they numbered four. The group and the frequency of its meetings grew steadily. The current schedule of visiting a new place each month began in 2010. The largest turnout — at DLUX, a Food Fight property off the Capitol Square, last December — was 25 participants.
DLUX fared very well in the judging. Each member of the Burger Night Out group rates the sandwich and are encouraged to take things like ambiance and a server’s friendliness into consideration. The highest and lowest scores are thrown out, and the total points are divided by the number of scores to produce a numerical grade. DLUX scored a 9.08, which put it in third place out of all the burgers rated so far. (First place is held by Capital Tap Haus on State Street, with a score of 9.15.)
While they take it seriously — Phillips has spread sheets filled with names and numbers to rival a Las Vegas bookie — the primary goal is having fun.
“It’s about the camaraderie,” Phillips said. “It’s our book club. A chance to get out and have a burger and beer.”
Most nights they arrive at 6 p.m. and are home by 7:30, he said. In a sense, anyone is invited — the website instructs potential members how to get in touch with Phillips — and in recent months, a couple of Madison media personalities, Triple M radio’s Jonathan Suttin and WKOW-TV meteorologist Brian Olson, joined the group.
The guy I would like to see join — even just a guest appearance — would be George Motz, an author, filmmaker and one of the great all-time hamburger eaters. His documentary “Hamburger America” is a classic, and George now has a show on the Travel Channel called “Burger Land.”
I first met Motz, who lives in New York City, in November 2005, the same month Phillips and Roehre made their seminal visit to Tony Frank’s.
George drove up from his in-laws’ place in Chicago the day before Thanksgiving. I took him to the Plaza and Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry.
The late Marsh Shapiro never forgave me for not taking him to the Nitty Gritty. I figured two burgers at lunch was enough even for George, though he did order fried cheese curds to go from Dotty’s.
Motz would love Bob Phillips and the Burger Night Out guys. Call it a match made in hamburger heaven.