JG Melon (1291 Third Avenue, 212-744-0585) has always occupied a special place in my heart, partly because of my love of old New York, and partly because it takes something so very simple — a hamburger — and throws it high onto the upper rungs of New York City.
This type of restaurant is an endangered species: It’s not a tourist trap, a third generation owner is not running it into the ground, and, most importantly, it’s not changing what has never been broken. JG still does what it does as well as it can, and it has been doing it daily since 1972. In short, it still shines bright like that ol’ Acapulco moon. And it behooves you to toss on a cashmere sweater or your roommate’s khakis and take the train uptown to experience it.
Inside the space, you get the Upper East Side boiled down to its greatest hits: Preppies in the newest Vineyards Vines fall collection rub shoulders with grandmothers swaddled in mink coats that desperately need dry cleaning, and bankers with slick-backed hair, wide-striped suits, and well-manicured hands huddle at the L-shaped bar. This restaurant couldn’t be anywhere else — you only get this crowd in New York City. And you are part of it.
The best way to experience this place is to drop a few quarters in the well-stocked jukebox and then grab a seat at the counter — don’t text while you order, unless you’d like gruff service from the bartenders — skip the menu, and go straight for the holy triumvirate: burgers, bloody marys, and cottage fried potatoes. (The chili cup and BLT are worth trying someday, but I always return to the big three.)
First, the burger: Texas barbecue aficionados are given to saying that you’ll know great barbecue because you’ll get to the last bite and say, “I forgot the sauce.” That’s the experience you’ll have with this burger — it doesn’t need sauce. You also don’t need cheese, though adding it is a strong play. The beef patty, griddled on the flattop, arrives juicy on a thin bun, which kind of melts away after your first bite. You get a little pickle and raw onion on the side, but this is not a salad — so don’t ask for lettuce or tomato. Add horseradish and ketchup if you must; that’s my brother’s power play.
But while you’re rhapsodizing about the burger, don’t forget about the cottage fries, which should always be ordered well-done. Small, round, slotted, and crisp, they are great for picking up the last few burger droppings or taking a plunge in some Dijon. These aren’t the best fries in the city by any stretch, but you will find fries like these nowhere else.
And finally, whether you go to JG Melon for a post Central Park lunch, a pre-prom dinner, or a late night drunken snack (it’s open until 4 a.m. on weekends), you should order a bloody mary. Each bartender has his or her own special recipe, but you’ll get a tomato juice-vodka drink worthy of being savored like a fine 1990 red Burgundy.
One warning: JG gets expensive quickly. If you’re drinking, it won’t be long before your tab for two hits $80.
More:Old New York