You’d think the big-chain renditions would have killed the burger. But the assault of Ronald and his pals on our national dish has only made it stronger. Increasingly, fancy restaurants like City Hall and Patroon sling bunned disks of ground meat, while humble burger joints persist and flourish. Check Zagat for the upscale purveyors, but if you seek a more proletarian product—read on, comrade.
With the Manhattan Ridge hanging picturesquely overhead, On the Park Cafe enjoys a sunny location just down the street from St. Nicholas Park. Inside, the grill guy attacks a burger like a sculptor going at a piece of clay, pulling the half-pound hump out of the refrigerator, whacking it on both sides with the flat of his hand, and then tossing it on the griddle. Never letting it alone for an instant, he repeatedly presses it with the spatula, sending juices sizzling onto the metal surface. Of 18 varieties, the Harlem ($6.40) is the pride of the establishment, melting twin Americans over the beef, flopping on a runny egg, depositing the result on a splayed bun, and finally dumping chili con carne over the whole thing—a delicious gutbomb that defies digestion. Slightly further uptown, seek out Willie’s Burgers, a yellow shack leaning precariously against the brick Red Cross building, where the burger “all the way” ($2.50) sumptuously tops a good ground-beef patty with ketchup, mayo, pickles, and onions to create a tasty, well-balanced meal.
There’s a comically small gyro behind the counter at Tony’s Burger, but the meat remains untouched at this tiny café, really a closet off the lobby of the Grand Union Hotel. That’s because everyone’s ordering hamburgers. Though there are several employees, Tony insists on cooking every burger himself. When the lunch rush is under way, he becomes a blur of activity, dancing between grill and prep, yanking out the broiler to deposit buns. If things go horribly wrong, he extracts the burned ones, flipping them like Frisbees into the wastebasket. Tony’s quality-control system leads to a nicely browned bun and a flavorful six-ounce patty cooked as requested. For maximum glop, order the bacon cheeseburger ($4.25).
Since 1962 Big Nick’s has been turning out a superior product in a chaotic space on the Upper West Side lined with smeary pictures of near celebrities. Frantically innovating, it offers dozens of choices. Skip the ostrich, buffalo, sumo (one pound), Texas (topped with an egg?), Port Cheddar (ahoy, mate!), vegetable, and veal in favor of the simple six-ouncer ($3.25), a moist beef patty grilled over a 100 percent natural gas flame by someone who is paying attention. The garlic burger ($3.60) is also recommended, though you should ask that the thin but potent sauce be served on the side, thus avoiding soggy-bun syndrome.
Brought to the U.S. by German sailors in the 19th century sans bun, the hamburger is still referred to by its original name of Hamburg steak in a few of the city’s ancient eateries. One place that looks older than the burger itself is Eureka Diner, the sole remaining building on a demolished Varick Street block. Though this modest establishment has only six stools, the burger ($2.75) is one of downtown’s best. The secret: the patty’s first cooked on a griddle, then removed to a miniature gas grill to be finished in a plume of grease smoke, while onions (request them) are fried simultaneously on the griddle. Forget Corner Bistro—this is hamburger heaven.
ON THE PARK 301 West 135th Street, 694-5469. WILLIE’S BURGERS #1 274 West 145th Street, 368-6912. TONY’S BURGER 34 East 32nd Street, 779-7191. BIG NICK’S 2175 Broadway, 362-9238. EUREKA DINER 132 Varick Street, 255-2786.