Kingston’s The Burger/Poutine Wars Revisited

Gourmet Burger Restaurants, gourmet poutine, KingstonLast August, a handful of new downtown restaurants began to emerge, while each specialized in their own brand of gourmet burgers, poutine and trans fat-laden delicacies. Kingstonist’s poll regarding the burger/poutine wars went on to crown Smoke’s Poutinerie as the most anticipated new establishment of 2010, while this post also received a record number of comments that has yet to be surpassed nearly one year after the fact.  Since the initial charge onto the burger and poutine battlefield, we’ve witnessed victories, losses, new competitors and revamped weapons of mass consumption.  The Poutine Place was the first joint to lose out, while Smoke’s and Five Guys Burgers and Fries have successfully developed loyal, belt-loosening customers.  In recent months, Harper’s Burger Bar nearly doubled the size of their menu and expanded with an outdoor patio, while The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro arrived and has had a full house since opening night.  With the new gourmet burger/poutine-era upon us, this week’s poll asks:
[poll id=”71″]
Many of our readers have commented that these places are overpriced, over-hyped, and thanks to their expansive menus, a bit overwhelming. It’s true that you’re going to pay more at Five Guys, Harper’s, Smokes, and The Works, but then again, the portions are bigger, the ingredients are better, and in certain cases, they have fancier atmospheres than your average fast food chain. For the moment, the burger blitz of 2010/2011 is not showing any signs of slowing down, but just how long can these establishments survive, and what are the long-term implications for local rates of type 2 diabetes and heart disease? Could the pendulum eventually swing back and give way to an anti-burger wave of restaurants catering to those who yearn for slow, local and vegetarian food options?
Which gourmet burger or poutine establishment do you enjoy the most? Are you hopeful that more competitors will join the fray in the Limestone City, or are you optimistic that we’ll get a long overdue gourmet vegetarian alternative? Please drop off your comments and concerns below.
Thanks to edithinthekitchen for today’s burger-tastic photo.

Harvey Kirkpatrick

Harvey Kirkpatrick is Kingstonist's Co-Founder. His features curiously explore urban planning, what if scenarios, the local food scene and notable Kingstonians. Loves playing tourist and listening to rap music. Learn more about Harvey...

59 thoughts on “Kingston’s The Burger/Poutine Wars Revisited

  • I chose Harper's because, not only do I love their food, but they're local, they serve alcohol (which is why I didn't pick my runner up, Five Guys) and their service is excellent. I would, however, LOVE to see a locally sourced vegetarian restaurant in downtown Kingston. The Goat is great for what it is but it would be nice to see something a little more upscale – something along the lines of Fresh in Toronto. It's really unfortunate that Lotus Heart Blossom didn't last but being on a side street and not serving alcohol was a bad idea. Let's get our veg on with a nice organic brew. Any takers?

    • I also chose Harper's, giving them a bit more consideration/marks due to the locally owned factor. Very interesting that their menu doubled in the weeks leading up to the arrival of The Works. Was that move related or pure coincidence? One of Harper's new options (sampled by a dining companion during my last visit) was the double down (#11). This KFC-inspired burger has grilled cheese sandwiches instead of buns, and of course a burger in between. It's an obscene amount of food…

    • RE: Lotus Heart Blossoms
      I was under the impression that the restaurant closed because the owner decided to move away from Kingston (back to her country of origin, or something that effect), and its closing had nothing at all to do with business, as it was doing reasonably well. A pity, since as you said, nothing has really stepped in to take its place.

      (The above was just what several people who ate there regularly told me, not firsthand, so it may be inaccurate)

      • Thanks for the insight Ryan. I have heard conflicting reports as to why it closed. Whatever the reason is, I didn't find LHB to be that great, or at least worth the added cost in comparison to The Goat.

        • I really have no idea why LHB closed so it's very possible what you've heard is correct. My comments on their location and lack of liquor license is why I didn't go there a lot. But, unlike Harvey, I loved the food, I just seemed to keep forgetting about that place. Unfortunate.

    • Lotus Heart Blossom was alway a Sri Chinmoy cult, which was rather a problem.

    • The reason veg restaurants don't often make it (and let's face it, they don't often make it) is lack of clientelle. Pure and simple, non-vegetarians don't want to go to an all-veg restaurant. At least not in the same way vegetarians go to restaurants that serve meat. Whether they need to change their marketing strategy, or the types of fare they offer (maybe more faux-meaty stuff to attract the wary carnivore), all-veg restaurants need to do something. As an omnivore, I enjoy going to vegetarian restaurants b/c I know I can try something different when I go. But not everyone is as adventurous.

    • Fair enough, but it's certainly most costly than McDonald's, BK and the like. Price alone, as it is on par with Harper's and The Works, is reason enough for it to be considered in this week's poll. Also, it is a part of the new wave of burger joints to appear within the past year.

  • Harpers wins by far. 5 guys has a very poor retro atmosphere with no creativity in the menu.. It felt like entering a desolate burger king when I went in there for the first time. The works gets my praise for serving drinks in measuring cups and having a decent selection. Their menu is like wing central where there are enough flavors to hold up the waitress… But I think that’s their strong point & I was thrilled to try it when I first saw the menu. Now I prefer my burgers cooked with some pink in it, and called ahead to see if this was true, they said yes. So I went there, ordered and the waitress claimed that it is not possible because of their becoming franchise. Disappointed, I ordered anyway. The burger was decent, nothing really made my experience memorable after the first bite. Different story for harpers. Much more room, great atmosphere, easy and highly creative/delicious menu, and they cook the burgers to order. I have even had thd pleasure of the manager coming to my table to ensure everything was proper. So until other burger shops cook to specified doneness, sort out their menus and provide better atmospheres, harpers wins.

    • Technically, Harpers is breaking the law by cooking to order. Ontario health standards dictate internal temperature of ground beef must hit at least 165 degrees F. I completely disagree with this standard, but it is what it is. Establishments that choose to cook to temperatures lower are, in fact, in violation of the law. The Works, due to their growth, is under greater scrutiny and must conform. I suggest you write to your MPP and let them know you want to be able to order your burger they way you want it. In the mean time, places that serve undercooked meat risk unwanted attention from inspectors.

      • They do not cook their burgers to a specified doneness at Harpers. They actually follow health standards, cooking to an internal temp of 160 degrees F.

  • Vote for The Works!! They too are locally owned and they also support local charities in their community. They have been raising money for The Partners in Mission Food Bank, Kingston Community Living and are beginning fundraising for Dawn's House. Their food is 100% Canadian and they strive to cater to a variety of diners. They have a large variety of vegetarian options for burger patties and toppings. They have many healthier options on the menu such as Turkey patties ( for no extra charge) and Organic Beef (as an upgrade), salad or their creamy Bold Slaw as side dish options and whole wheat buns. They will also cater to people who have a gluten free diet. Bring in your gluten free bun and they will put your gourmet burger on it! They also serve all Canadian wine and beer, including the local Barley Days Harvest Gold Pale Ale. Pricing may seem steep to some but for a half pounder burger with gourmet toppings and a side dish included you can't go wrong, especially when you're supporting a locally owned business who gives back to their community! – Works Lover Since 2007

    • Works lover or employee? Your comment sounds like an infommercial not an opinion.

    • Bring you own gluten free bun?…

      Mind if I bring in the rest of the burger to save a few bucks?

      .. can't you supply the customer gluten free buns?

  • Definitely voting Harper's on this one.
    To address the comment left by BurgerLover, I wouldn't commend The Works on their exceptional food quality…their veggie patty options are either a textured soy protein patty (from frozen, I believe) or a portobello mushroom cap which is, from experience, watery and bland. Harper's at least offers an in-house made chickpea patty, a breaded portobello mushroom burger, or a grilled vegetable "stack". While The Works offers organic beef as an upgrade, at Harper's it's standard. Furthermore, not only is the Harper's beef hormone- and antibiotic-free, it's pasture-raised on a farm about an hour from the restaurant. Harper's also offers two chicken options, a turkey patty, and a wild salmon patty.
    Salads and whole wheat buns are also offered at both places, although Harper's simply calls them "salads", while The Works, in keeping with their "everything has a quirky name" theme, refers to them as "a pile of rabbit food." How appetizing. And regarding the "bring-your-own gluten-free bun" option at The Works: how is this a draw for the ever-increasing Celiac population? Harper's offers gluten-free buns at no extra charge, and they purchase them from Tara Natural Foods down the road.
    Harper's isn't a chain restaurant, they're locally owned, and have demonstrated a commitment to locally-sourced, top-quality ingredients as well as to recycling and composting. In a city that is aiming to be the most sustainable city in the country, Harper's represents this goal far better than The Works.
    And lastly–why can't The Works call wine "wine"? What's with the "high-octane poutine"? Is there actually gasoline in the gravy? The brains behind The Works should spend less time thinking of clever nicknames and inside jokes for every single menu item, and more time on the phone trying to find local sources for their "gourmet" burgers.

    • Your comments about Harper's are valid, there are many great reasons why eating at Harper's would satisfy your burger cravings. But on that note, I don't believe there is reason to bash one restaurant over the other. Your opinion is your opinion, mine is that I love The Works, I enjoy the atmosphere and think the menu is unique. I also think Harper's menu is unique and they have other interesting options that The Works doesn't have. Both places offer a variety of options for diners and we don't have to choose just one to eat at. I may vote for The Works but that doesn't mean I won't dine at Harper's. Both restaurants have a lot to offer to the burger loving population, let's not hate. Just to clarify, Harper's does offer a gluten-free bun, which is a great option for those who must live a gluten free lifestyle, but it is not included with the meal, it is a 1$ charge. That is a great option that The Works doesn't have, but again, there are things we'll like and dislike about each place, but I think they both have a lot to offer.

        • I do understand the seriousness of being a celiac and I did not mean any disrespect. I don't like labeling people based on their disease or disorder so I don't say for "Celiacs" As you can see I said people who "must" live a gluten free lifestyle, I did not mean that they choose to or that they want to. I would say the same about anyone with an allergy, if I had an allergy to peanuts I would have to live a peanut-free lifestyle. No disrespect meant or insinuated, sorry if it came across that way.

  • WORKS WORKS WORKS! I agree with "BurgerLover". Works is the restaurant to vote for. They are locally owned, and support local charities. I have eaten in Harpers and Works, and on a non- biased opinion, Works is much better. I left Works feeling satisfied with my choice of meal and was quite full. When you compare the menus of the two, Works has WAY more options of burgers to choose from. When you're inside Works, you are immediately greeted by confident, enthusiastic staff. Not to say that Harpers doesn't have friendly staff; my server was quite friendly when I visited Harpers. But in Works, they carry out an interesting, fun theme. Works is more creative and exciting to be in. With the decor, music, location, setting, and staff, you're immediately more drawn to Works (especially with the open concept and the opened garage doors).

    • How can you call them creative – its a chain – all the ideas come from ‘head office’ in Oakville!

      • The ideas did not come from head office in Oakville, the company originated in Ottawa as a local business and is just newly franchised.
        The one in Kingston is locally owned and the product is local as well. Elk comes from a local elk farm, organic beef as well.
        Quirky names make for a fun atmoshpere and a good laugh

        • I don’t know why you are so afraid to admit that you are part of a chain with plans to open hundreds of cookie-cutter outposts across the country. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but please give the readers some credit and stop pretending that you are a local restaurant. Your products are local? Okay name the farm that your beef comes from and tell us about their farming practices.

    • I commented on a previous thread about my mediocre experience at the Works, so I won't rehash it all here, but I will repeat my frustration with the extremely poor service I received – a complaint I have heard from several other people.

    • Either some of readers really love and took the time to learn every single detail about one or another burger joint, or they have inside information. Regardless, great to learn more about all of these places and how they differ.

  • Works does offer great burgers. Now serving your drinks out of a measuring cup is something i have mixed feelings about ( but really do not care) . Why the measuring cup? If they want to keep it to theme then serve it out of a thermos.

    Five Guys is also good. but in a different way

  • I’ve only been to the works so I won’t vote, but I will say that the works was ho-hum. Their menu spends too much time naming every possible combo of topping and I found the waitress pushed their onion ring / steamwhistle options too hard. The burger was perfectly cooked but a little low on flavour. I’ll try Harpers next.

  • The Mansion's burgers are made with 1/3 lb of seasoned fresh local beef, seared lightly, then broiled to order, which is the same way Chien Noir cooks their $32 steaks. Their fries are cut fresh and fried twice to order for extra crunch. They have a full kitchen with very good cooks and any topping you can ever want and will make them however you want, whenever you want, from 11AM to 2AM. There simply isn't any room for improvement.

    As a Mansion regular I was accustomed to their burgers before the 'gourmet' places opened, and I was stunned by the prices. $13 and up for what costs $7.95 at the Mansion! I wasn't especially surprised that the quality wasn't better, but I couldn't believe that at those prices the portions were actually smaller.

    If you want to pay twice as much for someone to tell you how good their burgers are, go right ahead. Sorry I won't be seeing you there.

    • Granted, but there were many times during the first few months where both (Harper's and Five Guys) had lineups out the door. The Works is the new kid on the block, so it's kind of an unfair comparison to say that they've got lineups out the door not. The Works' novelty could eventually wear off, same as the other places. Sustainability over the long term is really the only way to measure success.

  • Julie, why so angry? Sure the works is a growing faster than, say, Harpers, but that doesn’t automatically equal ‘bad’. I think that’s a pretty narrow point of view. I commented on the temperature thing for the meat b/c it’s a fact. And My comment sounded like an infomercial? Why? Because I’m articulate and know what I’m talking about? It’s called a firm grasp of the subject and an expansive vocabulary. I’m sorry if that offends you. Tell you what, let’s make nice. I’ll treat you to a burger at any of the fine establishments in this poll. Let me know which one and I’ll call a head to tell them you’re coming in and your meal is in me.

    • I'm not sure what you're referring to, Sloppy Joe. Looks to me like Julia was responding to Burgerlover, not you, and the truth is, I'd like to know the answers to her questions too because I also have a hard time believing that The Works is locally sourced. And what exactly do you mean by "The Works is growing faster than Harper's"? The Works is a chain, Harper's is a Kingston original and, from what I know of the people who own it, will likely remain that way.

    • Not angry at all SJ. I was not replying to you, follow the thread. I was commenting on the fact that BurgerLover’s post sounded like a commercial for The Works. I think its pretty obvious that he/she is affiliated with the company. If you took the time to read my post you would see that I stated that there was nothing wrong with being part of a chain. What bothers me is their attempt to position themselves as a local restaurant when clearly they are not. Burger Lover (ie The Works) then goes on to claim that the products they serve are local which is a gross misrepresentation. Just be who you are ‘The Works’ and stop trying to play the ‘local card’. No thanks on the offer SJ, you are so articulate and your vocabulary is so expansive, that you are clearly a genius and I would feel guilty if I disrupted your thinking time.

      • Just to clarify, I said that The Works is locally owned, meaning the Owner of the Kingston location lives in Kingston and is from the area. I also said that The Works commits itself to giving back to their community by raising money for local charities and social services. "Works Lover <3" made comments about the products being local. That statement was not made by me and is incorrect. The Works is not a chain, it is a franchise, which means that the products for all locations come from the same place, but they are all 100% Canadian. Just so you know The Works as a company wants to be known as being a supporter of all Canadian products and they pride themselves as being as part of their community by having local owners and giving back. The Works does many fundraising activities outside the restaurant in the communities that they are in. You may think my comments sound like an infomercial, but I state facts. Also, I know it's not common but some employees do love their jobs and the companies they work for. It is my true opinion that The Works is a great company and I've been dining there for the past 3 years. That is not to say that Harper's is not a great restaurant as well, their menu is creative and they have lots of options that differ from The Works. Also, you can't assume that an anonymous post on a website is a statement from the company itself, "Works Lover <3" said that, which is clearly incorrect. The Works has not said their products are local, they said they were locally owned. Anyway, I may vote for Tne Works but I love burgers, I'll try them anywhere, I think there is room for some friendly competetion, no need to fight.

  • I've been to all places a few times. Different experiences at all places but over all – Five Guys for best value and (in the end, for me it matters the most.) taste. The Works burgers were cooked well but a little bland. The menu choices were a bit overwhelming. The measuring cups were awkward to drink from. The prices were pretty reasonable. Overall kind of gimicky. Harper's is a little more expensive but pretty yummy and service was great. However, do you really taste those higher end ingredients? Unusual ingredients are great to try (The Works and Harpers) but in the end a simpler (but well prepared) burger will always win out!

  • What about the burgers at The Queen`s Inn. Their FAT CITY BURGER is the best !

  • Well, Danielle, if Julie was responding to a different post, it wasn’t clear. If that was the case, my bad. But your comment implies that chain=lower quality. I don’t think the 2 are necessarily synonymous.

  • For years I have been going to the Queens Inn for the Fat City. Kingstons original gourmet burger. For me its the best and for something truly original The Brain Surgeon. slabs of peameal smothered in peanut butter and fried onions on a kaiser. Sounds crazy but the flavours work

    • I agree. It `s one of those best kept secret places I guess

  • Actually, I think the better burger for your buck (if you're just burgin' and need to burg out) is at Bubba's. I see Karl the butcher from the Block and Cleaver in there all the time; I think he supplies them with their meat? Now granted, Bubba's is a bit of a hole, but their burgers are pretty decent and definitely cheap. Get it with deep-fried bacon and cheese.

    • Bubba' is great – Burgers are good, but Poutine there is the best I have ever had outside of Montreal. They make the gravy from scratch and not many fast food restaurants do that. And they are awesome people too!

  • Sloppy J, just had to put it out there, you sound like a real ladies man: ‘Well, Danielle’ , ‘ Tell you what, let’s make nice’, ”Why so angry Julia’. Okay Girls I guess this is your typical Works ‘BurgerHead’, simply buying into the mass appeal of a BOX restaurant, who probably adores Walllmart!

    PS Interesting that the formally verbose ‘Burger Lover’ from The Works has yet to reply on the ‘Loca’l provenance of their beef.

    • I'm sorry if you were offended. Truly I am. I'm not sure what is condescending about using 'Well' before someone's name, or asking someone, who happens to be named Julie, why they're angry. I don't think I made a sexist comment anywhere in my replies. I thought I was polite and respectful. I think it's bit judgemental for you to imply I'm in any way sexist or mysoginstic and for you to paint a whole swath of restaurant fans with such a broad brush is, quite frankly, rude. I made a hasty response to you for what I thought was an unfriendly comment. I was corrected and I thought I had apologized. I guess you didn't take it that way. I'm not sure how else to say it, Julie.

  • I got suckered into ordering Smoke's Poutine once and in spite of the great customer service, the food tasted like dirt. It was nasty.

    Harper's all the way.

  • I was at the Works last wek and it was excellent from the time I walked intio the front door to time all six of us left. I vote it number #1 I am from St. Catharines I hope to comes our way. Make it happen Andrew.

  • Both Harpers and The Works have equal pros and cons. Being vegetarian, I'd choose Harper's chick pea patty( delicious!) over The Works veggie burger( It actually smells like crusty old poo) But, I like the topping options at The Works better. Harper's atmosphere is more inviting, while The Works just wants to get you in and out so they can seat the next customers. I could go on, but I have already made my two most important points, so I don't feel the need to list everything else.

  • Guys, I went to The Works last night…and it was delicious. If you're looking for a super casual dining experience (and waaayyy too much food) then The Works is not a bad choice. If you want local and a bit more upscale, Harper's is great. As for the better burger…I'm not sure I can make that choice. I think it's safe to say that I will visit both of these places often.

  • My Husband and I have had an opportunity to dine at The Works a couple of times since the doors have open.
    Both times our meals were excellent,our service friendly and enthusiastic. The line ups outside are a little
    daunting, but our wait was not more then 10-15minutes, and once inside we did not feel rushed in any way,
    enjoyed our seat by the open garage doors,taking in the flavor of downtown Kingston. Between the great
    burgers, super friendly servers and awesome atmosphere and location, I think it's a hit. We wish The
    Works all the best and welcome a great addition to downtown Kingston. Keep up the Good Work!

  • since the works have been around for 10 years, i would say that harpers stole their concept from the works in ottawa

    • I think "stole" is a bit harsh, and it also suggests that The Works has somehow been victimized. Perhaps "inspired by" is a bit more accurate. Then again, it's not as though The Works invented the gourmet burger concept…I wonder who inspired them?

  • Harvey, I agree 100% with your comment. And you are right, The Works was invented by a man from Ottawa, he was in Vancouver and discovered a burger with a fried egg on it, from that came one of the most popular burgers on the menu, The Hamburger Mary- mayo, fried egg, tomato, cheddar & bacon. I think all great ideas were inspired by someone elses ideas. “Ideas taken from one person are stolen. Ideas taken from multiple people are inspiration.”

  • best burger I have had in a long time we will be going back to the works again soon great job guys.

  • I am not sure I get so excited about 'gourmet burgers' full stop. Frankly, we make better burgers at home than any of these places. Harper's has certainly made more effort at sourcing than any of the others, but in the end it's still just a burger.

    I'm also disappointed to see so many blatant astroturfers here from The Works (and The Mansion too – although, I happen to agree with the comment about price and quality). You're not fooling anyone and it's very annoying trolling message boards with advertising masquerading as opinion.

      • It's my wife's, not mine… and I guess it's a matter of taste, but basically it involves not using all meat, and using a good percentage of fine quality bread crumbs as well as fresh herbs and one or two other things. Call me crazy, but I don't like 100% meat burgers. I don't think it makes sense in terms of taste or texture.

    • I doubt it was exclusively from the Works. Harper's and his other restaurants' facebook pages linked to it constantly telling people to keep voting so they would win.

  • Okay. So we went back to Harper's the other day at lunchtime, largely because the queue at Pan Chancho was ridiculously long, and my wife said she fancied a burger. The place had a really nice feel to it, great atmosphere, lovely wait staff, they took real care of our little boy, and we were feeling pretty good about things.

    Our burgers came, and they looked great. But as I was biting into mine, there was this weird hard crunchy feel. I looked at the list of ingredients on mine to see what it might be, and couldn't work it out, so I dissected my burger. It turned out the hard thing was the burger patty itself! The bottom of the patty was almost burned and fused like it had been cooked too long at too low a temperature. Turns out my wife was making faces and hers was the same, as were the mini-sliders my son had, which he was basically refusing to eat, and he loves any kind of meat normally. Oh, and the fries were limp and uninteresting, and the Caesar Salad seemed to have almost no dressing and mainly tasted of dry cheese. Those, however, were minor things compared to the hard burger.

    Now, I'd heard things about the Harper's kitchen from a friend of a friend who worked there, and who commented that the people cooking had no idea what they were doing. Unfortunately, my experiences there so far would seem to confirm this. I love the style of the place, the local food ethos, the beer floats, but you know, it doesn't matter what else you serve with them, or how many fancy things you put on top of them, if you can't cook burgers properly, you're rather missing the fundamental element of what it means to be a burger bar. And you certainly can't justify charging what Harper's charges.

    We gave them a chance, not sure we'll go back again now.

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