In Praise of Diner Hamburgers


The burger at Square Diner arrives disassembled–garnish it as you will.

One strange aspect of the Age of Foodism has been the fetishization of the humble hamburger. This has occurred for a variety of reasons: Cash-strapped restaurateurs have increasingly glamorized burgers because they’re an asset to cash-flow, since a pound of burger is much cheaper than a pound of steak, and increasingly fewer of us can afford to eat steak in a restaurant. Also, our gourmet approach to feeding ourselves has led us to explore new and novel ways to make a more luxurious patty, so that now a hamburger made with plain supermarket ground beef is becoming a rarity. As is finding one that’s been cooked much beyond an almost tartare-like state, oozing bloody juices and requiring several napkins to eat.

Tribeca’s Square Diner is the plainest of places, one of a dwindling number in the city.

This new approach to burgers was heralded by the opulent version at DB Bistro, where the patty famously enfolds slivers of foie gras, then carried forward by Shake Shack, where, despite its rep as imitating a plain lakeside summer kiosk somewhere in the Midwest, the rich burger patty is composed of rib meat and brisket. Indeed, meat maven Pat LaFrieda has made his reputation concocting proprietary meat mixtures for glamour burgers all over town. But in this rush to enrich and innovate the plebeian bunned meal, something has been lost.

Don’t you sometimes crave a plain burger from the past? Without all the bells and whistles and myriad of options that leave you wondering exactly which ones you want? Are you tired of reading lists of toppings so long they could double as an epic poem? And patties that run to turkey, salmon, tuna, veggie, lamb, nuts, and strange admixtures of things unrecognizable to the normal diner who lacks special dietary obsessions?

The gastro-landscape used to be paved with plain burgers, but now the best place to find them is in the city’s dwindling stock of Greek diners. Yes, the patties have often been frozen, and yes, the fries are sometimes mealy, and yes, the available garnishes are often limited to iceberg, wooden tomato, pickle, and bottled ketchup–but put these elements together and magic happens.

I’ve been studying the diner burger lately, and there’s something so reassuring about the formula of burger, bun, garnishes, fries, and small cup of slaw–if you want to go wild, you can simply dump the slaw on the burger. This is food at its simplest and most elegant, food that doesn’t want to slap your face. This is food that is simply good, and defines a sort of normalcy in eating that no longer exists. Nowadays, every meal is a challenge and a problem. Have you eaten well enough? Have you eaten innovatively, locavorically, and seasonally enough? Do you know the name of the chef? Have you visited the latest and most buzzed-about spots?

Take a break and find satisfaction like your forebears did in a plain diner hamburger.

If you really want to get kinky, put the slaw on the inside!

Read In Defense of Cottage Cheese and In Praise of the Tuna Sandwich