Do you sit at a desk all day, chained to your computer, eating string cheese and Wheat Thins and lukewarm sticky rice, dreaming of a world of lunch beers and white tablecloths and red, bloody meat? Do you fantasize about wandering into a dim, should-smell-like-smoke-if-it-were-legal steakhouse in the middle of a sunny day, and ordering a thick, juicy burger and fries, and feeling, even for a moment, that you are rich and powerful and have all the time in the world to eat lunch?
Me too! So in the name of “journalism” and #burgermonth, I undertook the arduous but necessary task of assessing the hamburger offerings of the steakhouses of New York City, with Lucky Peach’s Italian photographer Gabriele Stabile.
We set up ground rules:
- All outings must happen during the light of day. (We were pretending/aspiring to be people of leisure, also Luger’s only serves their burger at lunch.)
- Each order would include a wedge salad (or whatever seemed closest to a wedge salad) and fries.
- At steakhouses that have more than one burger on the menu, we would order two.
- Burgers will be ordered medium-rare.
- If there is the option for cheese, we will opt in.
- No bacon allowed. (Just on the burgers: pork on our forks is fine if it showed up on the salad.)
Here are my findings.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
I had never been to the original Peter Luger, in Brooklyn, having eaten steaks and hash browns only in the sea of pastel cashmere sweaters at the Great Neck, Long Island location. I have long coveted this celebrated burger—which, since it is only available during lunch on weekdays, is hard for employed people to get to—in a place I pictured as grittier and grizzlier than its Long Island cousin—a place plucked right out of a Western-movie tavern, but with tablecloths and martinis.
Psych! At an early lunch on a Tuesday, the room was filled with Japanese tourists—many of whom did not speak English and communicated to their servers largely in pantomime—and a staff that was cheery and hospitable.
First came the wedge salad, split for the two of us. And it was a real salad, not just a hi-I’m-a-wedge-of-iceberg-with-some-gloop-on-it throwaway side dish. The tomatoes were ripe and sweet even though they were out of season, the lettuce crisp and cold. The warm lardons were on the right side of fattiness and there was a healthy but not overgenerous drizzle of dressing. I ate it with delight.
And then the burger came out. The juice from the meat seeped into the bottom of the bun while the top stayed dry, making for a peak textural contrast; the American cheese had been melted so thoroughly that a corner of it was (pleasingly) charred. But the meat itself wasn’t funky, weird, I’m-eating-a-beast meat—the kind of meat you go to a steakhouse for—but more as if a Shake Shack or In-N-Out burger got a bit bigger and classier. At the time, I appreciated its lack of aggression and its lunch-appropriate portion size, which felt respectful and humane. But is lunch at a steakhouse meant to be respectful and humane?
I noted the fries as “hard and beefy.” Whatever that means, they were surely forgettable.
465 Court Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231
If Peter Luger is a sad look at a “real” New York City, Prime Meats is a look at what New York City could have been in some fictional past as seen through an Instagram filter, which is to say that it is a pretty and stylized snapshot of Brooklyn-steakhouse-slash-Eastern-European-tavern-of-yore. It is a very beautiful place to eat a burger, especially during the hours when the sunset lights the room.
The wedge salad—three wedges of iceberg generously scattered with bacon hunks—was beautiful, but too saucy. If you got in there and cut up the lettuce and mushed around the dressing and tossed it, it would be great—all of the components were there, and were tasty—but the ratios were off.
The burger, though, was killer: funky, salty, and primal, with a good char and enough juice to send some running down your arm. Let it sit for a few minutes after biting/cutting into it, and the juice will seep into the bun enough so that it all becomes a hot, gloriously homogenous mess. Eaten with a tangle of hot, bistro-esque fries, it’s one of the best burgers not just at a steakhouse, but anywhere in the city.
72 West 36th Street
New York, NY 10018
In certain moments, don’t we all want an excuse to eat a hamburger with a fork and knife? Enter the Miss Keens, a moniker to which I would maybe take offense if it wasn’t such a wonderful way to eat a wonderful burger: charred/crusty on the outside, dark pink and super juicy on the inside, slathered in ketchup, eaten in alternating bites with a nice little salad and thin wisps of fried potatoes. (Real talk: those wisps of potatoes were kind of strange and not hot and tasted a bit too much of oil but were excellent vehicles for a lot of ketchup.) Eating a burger like this, rather than bunned and baconed and lettuced and tomatoed, is a reminder that you are eating a hunk of meat, which, if you’re conforming to the gender stereotypes Keens sets up, makes the burger’s nomenclature ironic. (If a plate of beefsteak is too much for you, order the normal burger, which is similarly charred and juicy, and also buttery from the bun, and is an equally awesome lunch, though the fries were just okay.)
I dwell on the burgers of Keens, because the wedge salad was a disappointment: so cold that it was almost frozen, with pallid cherry tomatoes stolen from their destiny on a supermarket crudité platter. The dressing was delicious, and there was a lot of it, so I slathered it all over the salad and almost cleared my plate, because I am more animal than responsible human. Don’t make that mistake.
113 MacDougal Street
New York, NY 10012
There was a time when it was like impoooosssibbllee to get a reservation at Minetta Tavern, and like everyyyyone in New York was talking about the $27 Black Label Burger and people thought it was like soooo ridiculous? And then people tried the burger, and would go on their blogs and talk about the fact that it was sooooooo good and like mayyybe even worth it.
Well the burger is still sooooo good and it is like tooootally worth it if you have that many dollars to drop on a thing that will be gone in all of thirty seconds because you just wolfed it down while moaning about oh my god how delishhhhh it is. But seriously: the Black Label Burger puts aged meat funk in a dapper suit and shiny shoes and a pocket watch. It is both dirty and refined, and it is pretty close to perfect.
We ordered the Minetta Burger as well, which was Peter Luger-like in its inoffensiveness—and, at $20, still isn’t cheap. It means well, but if you’re already dropping something starting with a “2” on a burger, get the really expensive one. Skip the apps (there was no wedge, so we got the most wedge-like thing on the menu, which was a very un-wedgy prawn salad) and skip dessert. Leave happy.
The Palm Too
840 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10017
At the Palm Too (across the street from the Palm One, which was under construction) you can not only power lunch—you can power lunch and know exactly how many calories you’re consuming! You can also order something called the “837 Club Burger,” which is topped with prosciutto di Parma, pesto aioli, fontina cheese, and a very large roasted pepper! And so we did—or, Gabri did, because he is Italian and I made him do it—along with a normal cheeseburger and a wedge salad.
The wedge came out quickly, and it was a wedge in name only; the lettuce was cut into a flat plank, with the toppings (including fried onions!) piled on top. There was no balancing/spreading/iceberg-lettuce-toppling-over stress, a kind of stress that was new to me before reporting this story. The strange blueish-gray color of the dressing was a turnoff, but it tasted great, and the plank-ness of the lettuce allowed it to seep in between the leaves. Cool!
But then I smelled something. It was the heady smell of garlic mixed with melted cheese mixed with fryer grease, and it was getting closer. Lo and behold: it was the 837 burger, radiating waves of nuclear cheese-garlic-ness so strong they made me blush. We shoved our salad away and welcomed it to our table, along with the normal cheeseburger, and grasped the tops of the burgers to cut them in half. But wait—what was that stuff on my hand? Oh, just some grease that was coating the top of that shiny bun.
It tasted like…cheese and pesto. Delicioso! But only actually delicioso when you’re not actually consuming a gigantic, so-greasy-it’s-slippery burger and chewing meat and roasted pepper and bun, and yet tasting something entirely different.
Onto the standard burger. The patty was so uniformly dark brown that it almost looked fried, and there was a thick layer of unmelted cheese underneath the top’s shallow skin. You could taste the meat this time, or at least feel it: soft and moist, though brown almost all the way through. I paused when I realized the meat must have such a high fat content that it stayed juicy while cooked to nearly well done, and pushed the plate away.
Many calories later, we stumbled out into the street, taking gulps of fresh New York City air. We wandered through Midtown, dragging ourselves to the subway. Leisure feels so good, until it doesn’t anymore.