I don’t really understand the appeal of “secret” restaurants and bars in New York. For the most part, if a not-so-trendy nobody like me has heard of them, they can’t be much of a secret at all. The speakeasy fad with places like PDT (aka “Please Don’t Tell”) and Proletariat, or the “restaurant within a restaurant” motif of the basement brasserie of La Esquina (beneath the taco stand), seem to me to be just cheap ploys to up the buzz about your establishment without killing your advertising budget.
A “secret” restaurant that had been on my radar for a while is Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien Hotel. I’d actually been to the hotel several times for brunch at their other restaurant Norma’s (great hot chocolate and crunchy french toast), which is located just off the lobby and proudly displayed without an entryway or door to block the view of the bustling dining room. In direct contrast to that is the hidden Burger Joint, which I had heard about from several people but never actually been able to locate on my jaunts to Norma’s. So when a recent Zagat article named Burger Joint as having one of the top burgers in NYC, I thought it might finally be time to check it out. With a motley crew (aka my past culinary cohorts Jacob, Laura, and my boyfriend Shaun) of tasting support in tow, we met up in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien, and set about trying to tease apart the legend of the not-so-secret Burger Joint.
My friend Diana, who had previously been to Burger Joint, had mentioned the restaurant being behind a velvet curtain, and sure enough, directly across from Norma’s there was a wall bedecked in red velvet. While this certainly fits the upscale tone of the hotel, the curtain would ultimately prove pretty incongruous (and probably intentionally so) with the style of Burger Joint. A helpful member of the hotel staff guided the way to a long line that was sectioned off by ropes next to the curtain’s edge. This would lead to the only entrance/exit for Burger Joint. As we made our way closer to the restaurant, the classical veneer of Le Parker Meridien gave way to a pseudo down-home, almost aggressively casual style. A burger neon sign indicates the shift as you turn into the actual restaurant, a tiny hole in the wall type shop decked out in wood paneling, hand drawn signs, and very limited seating.
The walls were covered in prefabricated writing, and everything felt like it had been purposefully aged to affect a weathered, rustic quality. I couldn’t help but be reminded of pre-torn designer jeans, carefully shredded for the ultimate haphazard casual style. The not-so-subtle aim seemed to be to shake us fancypants urbanites out of our skyscraper stupor for some old-fashioned roadside diner cookin’. Between that and the gruff service (although I’ll give them some leeway considering we were there at a peak time), I was left with the impression of overly calculated cuteness.
I’m not sure if the restrictive menu and no-nonsense attitude of the staff was a nod to the simplicity of the semi-rustic aesthetic, or to the no-BS New Yorker stereotype. Either way, you don’t have a lot of choice at Burger Joint. You can get a hamburger or a cheeseburger, with any, all, or none of the handful of toppings (lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo, etc), a side of fries, and soda or a vanilla milkshake. No, they don’t have chocolate ice cream, nor any type of flavored syrup, and no, there is not more than one type of cheese to top your burger with. Better than McDonalds, though, they will cook your burger to order (from rare to well done).
My group decided that, considering the hassle of waiting on line and scrambling for seats that we’d already gone through, it was worth it to go whole-hog on our orders. Ever the model of restraint, I ordered a cheeseburger with tomato and ketchup (I like tomatoes, deal with it), french fries, and a milkshake. Astonishingly, my check came out to close to $18. The similarities with ready-shredded designer clothes continued to mount.
Burger Joint does get points for efficiency, however. The entire food production operation takes place inside a tiny counter space, with one cashier and four or five other employees to prep and cook the orders and bus the restaurant. It probably took less than 10 minutes for all four of us to get our food, which isn’t half bad considering they cook the burgers to order on a small flat top.
Unfortunately, once we got our food, it became increasingly clear that Burger Joint is one of those places where there’s an unspoken surcharge for “the experience.” The only item that seemed to be equitable in the “bang-for-buck” category were the fries. The burgers and milkshakes were pretty small considering what I had paid for them. My cheeseburger was about the same size as what you’d get at a Burger King, and the milkshake was served in a 12 oz cup. Now this is probably the result of my American expectations of unreasonable portion size, but as Laura rightly pointed out, if I’m paying nearly $20 for not-so gourmet food, I would expect at least to get a fair amount of it. After all, I don’t think Mayor Bloomberg’s beverage ban applies to milkshakes.
Okay, so if we not getting quantity for our money, are we getting quality? Yes and no. On the whole, everything was solid. I appreciated the fact that my burger was in fact cooked to medium rare — there was a nice pink center surrounded by a crispy cooked edge. And my toppings tasted fresh — I had a thick slice of tomato, and the cheese was a mild cheddar, so a step up from the hastily assembled toppings on the McDonald’s line. But there was nothing that really made the burger stand out. The meat had reasonable flavor, but no real depth to it, and I’m not sure I could articulate a real difference between some of the better bar burgers I’ve had in NY. Shaun, who is more of a hole-in-the-wall burger connoisseur, remarked that a really great “dive burger” carries with it the flavor of some of the seasoning from the surface it’s cooked on. And much like the prefabricated rustic-style walls, Burger Joint’s grill did not seem to have the caked-on-through-the-years grit and gristle that elevates a real down-and-dirty burger.
The same was largely true for the fries and the shake. The fries were crispy and well salted, but were just as much from a pre-cut frozen package as the ones you get at the drive-thru. And as someone with a rich history of milkshake drinking (doing well on a test in elementary school meant a trip to Baskin Robbins for a black and white shake), I found Burger Joint’s version to be about par for the course. The vanilla ice cream had good flavor, but nothing outstanding beyond what you’d get scooping out of a Breyer’s pint at home. This shake had no subtleties of vanilla bean richness, and because of its simplicity, no real contrasting tastes or textures. They do get credit for blending a thick shake, but man did I want some chocolate syrup to liven things up a bit.
In the hierarchy of the dining scene, Burger Joint seems to sit in the “fast casual” category — offering a more unique experience than the average corporate-cut fast food franchise, but without table service or a wait staff. I accept that they’re not trying to compete with a gourmet burger like those at The Spotted Pig or The Little Owl, or even with a quality steakhouse burger like the one at the famed Peter Luger’s. Burger Joint is just trying to put out a straightforward, old-fashioned burger. Because of this, it seems fair to judge it against the other members of the fast casual burger club — places like Shake Shack or Bobby’s Burger Palace. And disappointingly, Burger Joint just doesn’t measure up to the standards of those contenders. You end up paying more for a sub-par meal, with none of the variety of topping and seasoning combinations you would get at Danny Meyer’s or Bobby Flay’s casual ventures. Burger Joint doesn’t even offer a vegetarian option.
Now you could make the argument that Burger Joint is hearkening back to a simpler era, a time before black bean burgers and sweet potato fries. But if the intention is to provide a contrast with the high-falutin environs of Le Parker Meridien surrounding it, Burger Joint needs to go all the way. Either offer a limited menu in a small space for a high price and make some mindblowing food, or admit the standard quality of your offerings and cut the prices a bit. Because I for one feel gipped when I have to pay extra for “the experience,” when said experience means a long wait, a crowded closet of a restaurant, a cash only requirement, and then the same kind of food I could make at my own backyard barbecue. I guess I just have to disagree with Zagat on this one — perhaps the real secret of Burger Joint is that it’s not actually worth all of the hype.
Burger Joint @ Le Parker Meridien Hotel
57th St between 6th and 7th Aves