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Martin Sheridan on Burgers and The Ear Inn's History

Photo: Martin Sheridan outside the Ear Inn, Claire Nugent/ENY

Established in 1817, The Ear Inn has had many lives. It got its start as a tobacco shop, then it was reborn as a brewery in the mid-18th century. It was a speakeasy during Prohibition, then it served as a clubhouse for sailors and longshoremen. Over the last few decades, the restaurant and bar has developed a loyal following of customers who stop in for a pint of Guinness and a juicy burger, or to listen to Jazz on a Sunday nights. Owner Martin Sheridan is the man behind it all. Spend just 10 minutes in his presence, and you'll quickly understand just how much he means to the neighborhood. People wave as they walk by, some even stop in to give him a quick hug and to see how he's doing.

Eater sat down at the corner of The Ear Inn's old bar with Sheridan this week and talked about burger basics, the history of the Ear Inn, life after Hurricane Sandy, and the right way to eat a burger.

When did The Ear Inn originally open?
1817 is the first record we have of any alcohol being sold here. And so the food items, I would imagine, came in the 1860s or 70s when the dining room was built. I would imagine they started putting burgers on the menu all the way back then. I can't see them doing burgers any earlier than that, because I don't think the process was around before then. But it's been around a long time.

When did you take over the restaurant?
I took over in here, let's see, in '79. Wow, that's a long time ago. But it's been fun. We have a fun crowd...a great mix here. You get your Wall Streeters, and a lot of artists in the community still hang out here. It's a destination spot, you don't really just happen to walk by it. We're tucked away. In '77, my friend Rip [Hayman] took over—he had been living upstairs for cheap while he was at Columbia University at the time. And didn't enjoy it too much, so he asked me if I wanted to take over. So we're in it together. I was a regular customer for years prior to taking it over. I'd come in when it opened and Rip would give me a shot and a beer. I'd hang out over on that side of the bar. It's a great feeling here. We've got a great, a massive and loyal crowd. And you know, we've estimated over 70 people have met here and have gone on to get married. They send me pictures of their kids after they move away. It's great.

Would you ever sell the Ear Inn?
No. The Ear Inn will never leave the family. I can't sell it, it's got to be forever. I just want a tradition of keeping it in my family. I mean our kitchen staff, some have been here 15 years. The bartenders, most have been here 15 years. Some waitresses have been here about 10 years. People don't leave the job just to go to another job. Usually they're going away to live somewhere else, or they got an acting gig. I'm very happy to see people leaving, actually, because it usually means something great is happening for you. As I always say, "I hope you're not here too long." But, no, this has got to be forever.

Being so close to the water, were you impacted by Hurricane Sandy?
We had a lot of water in here, the whole basement was flooded. We lost about $200,000 worth of equipment, all of our produce. Like most people, we weren't insured for flood insurance. We opened up as quickly as possible. Got the upstairs cleaned up within about three hours, got all the water out, and then the basement took a few more days. And we did every basement in the neighborhood, took all the water out. My nephew had a pump, so we pumped all the water out. We also had a generator, so we plugged it in over there by the front door—and remember this area was dark. It's unbelievable how dark things can get over here when all the lights go out. So, we got the generator here and hooked it in to the Ear sign out front. It was the only light in the neighborhood. The fun part was when people would come around and plug in their phones—we had lines of 20 people down the street. We gave away bottles of beer for three days after the storm. I went uptown and got ice and I would order pizzas at night and bring them down. I'd get about 25 pizzas and use our gas oven to reheat them because that was still working, and just give them away. But that sign being lit, the only thing lighting the street, it was good for the neighborhood. It was really important to have a light and to know that something was open here.


What makes a burger a good burger in your mind?
There's just the basic things you have to do for a great American burger. You know, you have your juicy meat, a slice of tomato, you have your lettuce, and that's your basic American hamburger. That's the basis of all burgers right there. And it's wonderful when served with a martini. A great burger, one martini. It's heaven. When you get the juice coming down your face, and you need three napkins to wipe it up. A good martini before-or during-that's a perfect sort of New York style burger.

What's in your burger?
We get them nude, just the meat. The best way to do it is with a mixture of different peppers—three or four different peppers kind—some salt, and you just pat them down, to sort of form them. That gives it a nice crispiness on the outside when you put them on the flat top. Just for a minute or so, to get it crispy. That crispiness is beautiful, just gives it a nice flavor. And then you flip it, and just cook on the flat top according to what people order, what temperature they want. And our buns...we get sesame seeds buns from Rockland Bakery. They're delivered fresh every morning. We just toast them, just very lightly. So they're not too well done. Just a little crispy. Our burgers are about half a pound, it's a big burger, big and juicy. A few inches thick. A lot of people share a burger as an appetizer.

Has the recipe ever been changed?
It's changed over time. Because you have to find-you don't know your meats-so you have to find how it works on the flattop. So you experiment. That's what you do. We've come down to like 83 percent and it's the best grade meat you can get, this grade A meat, and you sort of experiment with the meats out there. We've come to have this wonderful meat. Last time I changed it was probably about 15 years ago. We had burgers before, but it just depends on what kind of meat you get and then you eventually find your right formula.

How do you cook it?
Burgers are sort of the mainstay of places like The Ear Inn. We do it a little bit differently here. We do our burgers on a flat top. We do a Grade A meat, and we do 82 percent lean, 18 percent fat. So the secret is being able to cook the bloody thing once you make 'em. So the flattop is a lot different than the grill. A grill, everything, all the fat just burns through it. With a flattop, the fat will burn off, but won't go very far. So it's a different kind of burger here.

How do you serve it?
We present it the old-fashioned way. It's presented with an open bun, then the burger, and then a big old tomato—and it has to be big, as big as the burger, not one of these tiny little things—and then a little red onion. That's your basics. It's served open-faced, so then it's up to you to do what you want. Here, people like cheese, you know, blue cheese, and then there's fried onions, fried mushrooms, you name it. Everyone's got their own individual burger. Everyone eats them differently. But that's your basis, that's what you start with. And people love covering their burgers with ketchup, this HP sauce, and mustard. That surprised me over the years, that's not my thing. Oh, and we usually serve it with two to three napkins under the plate, cause you have to enjoy it! It's a messy dish.

Where do you get your meat from?
We get it from the same chap...he deals from the meat market. We're one of his smallest little clients. He's an old friend of mine, Larry Kurtz. I met him up a while ago at the meat market on Sundays. We used to go up there, but now he does some drops downtown. Sometimes I go up to him. I actually go up sometimes just to check the meats to see what's what. It's been interesting because people are a lot more aware of what they're eating — where's is it from, the history behind it. But I'm happy they're interested because that means they care about what they're eating.

What do you serve alongside your burgers?
A little salad. And we don't deep fry anything here, so there's no French fies, but we have home fries, as we call them. They're done on a pan. And that's not common in New York. A few years ago, we put in a new kitchen, and everybody wanted us to put in fryers and to start doing French fries and to put in a grill. I said I didn't want to, because it's a different taste. So I didn't. Everything we serve is fresh — from the fish to the tomatoes on the burger. So are our fries. I just don't believe in frying. I believe it's the biggest killer when it comes to taste. It's $9.50 for a solid plate of food: burger, salad, and home fries.

So where do you get your produce from?
I have a farm out in Connecticut, Sheep Dog Hollow, that I've had for about three years now. They provide enough tomatoes and lettuce for four months of the year here. The next stage would be to build a greenhouse to be able to provide for 11, 12 months. And maybe I'll dabble in winter crops. This year, I'm hoping to get enough for five months. It's great to grow your own stuff, because you can taste the difference.

Do you offer any variations on the burger?
Well, our menu changes every day. So we have prime rib, chicken pot pie, fish...but there's our lamb burger. We added that to the menu about a year ago now. And it's spicy, the way a lamb burger should be. We use a blend of—a secret blend of—eight different spices. It's becoming quite popular. And then there's our veggie burger. We try to meet everyone's burger needs.

What do you think of the modern New York burgers?
These days, burgers are done differently. They're done quickly. But burgers have always been part of the city, the American fabric. They're the ultimate American taste. I've never seen a time when people didn't like burgers. There's been an upsurge in popularity with the new burger places. But the new style, I don't think they'll be able to last forever. That's why the old places, places like The Ear Inn, that have been doing the same thing for over a hundred years, are still here.

Is there a right way to eat a burger?
Absolutely. There are people that eat it with a knife and fork, and they cut their burger. And I'm like that's not how you do it! Best way to serve it is medium rare with juice coming out of it. Just a wonderful taste. There's no taste like it in the world. That's a truly an American taste. Take a bite, juice dripping down your chin so you need two or three napkins to wipe down your face. And the true American thing to do, would be to have a martini with it. That's what we've been encouraging of late here. I love it, so that's what I always do. But a lot of people love having their burger with a Guinness, too. But my ideal is a martini in one hand, a burger in the other. That's my thing. I won't change it. And it needs to be real nice and juicy. You should show it on your face when you're eating it. That's how to eat a burger.

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Ear Inn

326 Spring Street, Manhattan, NY 10013 (212) 226-9060 Visit Website

The Ear Inn

326 Spring St., New York, NY