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Chefs and Restaurateurs on the Pros and Cons of Burgers

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All Photos by Daniel Krieger

What does it mean for a restaurant that isn't focused on burgers to put one of them on the menu? Burgers are familiar and filling, and they tend to be less expensive than most entrées on a menu. A few chefs and restaurant owners see serving a burger as indicative of a lack of ambition — and, also, a threat to check averages. Many, though, love the idea of offering the dish and attracting diners. They acknowledge that in some cases the attention the burger gets can overwhelm, but they argue that, ironically, the item can help your restaurant be a bit more dynamic. Here now, Andrew Tarlow, Michael White, Christian Pappanicholas, and Harold Dieterle discuss the pros and cons:


Harold Dieterle

Chef: Kin Shop, Perilla, and The Marrow

What's your take on serving burgers at a restaurant?
Kin Shop obviously doesn't play into this, except for a burger we did for Burger Week a few years ago. But at my other places, I like to think I'm a neighborhood restaurant kind of guy. People like burgers, and that's why I do it. We've done a burger at Perilla for a while, and we just started doing one at The Marrow.

Do you worry about it lowering check averages at Perilla, since you serve it at dinner?
Here's the thing behind the burger: in general, it's a pretty good profit margin item. You want a mix of stuff that is moderately priced and good for cash flow, as well as stuff that's good for food costs. It's good to have a mixture of the two in restaurants.

What about the concern I've heard some chefs voice that it could overshadow other dishes you've put a lot of effort into?
That's not a problem in my restaurants. We try to do great burgers, like the duck burger at Perilla — which uses basically the same meat as the duck meatballs — and we sell a nice amount, but it doesn't overshadow the rest.


Andrew Tarlow

Owner: Diner, Reynard, Marlow & Sons, Roman's

What went into the decisions to put burgers on the menu at Reynard and Diner? I'm especially interested in talking to you, since those burgers have become really, really popular.
It's unique for us in that we have a whole animal program. The burger ends up being a huge help, since we can use a lot of the stuff from that. It doesn't totally facilitate the whole animal program, but it certainly helps. We pretty much buy a whole cow every week at Reynard, and we butcher everything in-house.

Do you think that all the attention those items get can drown out the rest of what's going on, or is it worth it to have that kind of buzz?
I think it's super worth it. It's a popular food. We make our buns and grind the meat every day, so the quality is there and we can stand behind it. It's not a throwaway there or at Reynard.

What about the question of chefs who think that putting a burger on the menu is pandering or too safe and uninteresting?
You know, I think that used to be the case back in the day — way, way back. Not to repeat myself, but now that we know how it fits into the workings of both restaurants, it becomes an important part of the whole process. It helps things exist.

Anything else that comes to mind when discussing this subject? Any other pluses?
It's also something we can cook the whole day without much difficulty, so people can come in and eat at odd hours. It's a little different to plate the grilled sardines with radicchio or what have you, so it lets us stretch our services out.


Michael White

Chef: Ai Fiori, Marea, Osteria Morini, Nicoletta

You put the White Label Burger on the menu at Ai Fiori. How did that all come about?
It was an easy decision for us to put it on here. Burgers are part of the fabric of a hotel. You can go to basically any solid hotel in the world, and there will be a burger there. Therefore, we wanted to definitely have a burger on the menu, and something that was representative of the type of cooking that I did. It had to be the same level of quality. It's been a winner since inception.

You serve it only for lunch?
We serve it just for lunch, and then in minis at the bar during dinner. It's a square burger, so I can cut it in fours.

Does it affect check averages?
No. We charge $19 for a burger, and for the quality of product, it's about making something great. Some days we'll sell 20, some we'll sell eight. People are coming to the restaurant for other things, so it doesn't really affect our check average. Obviously, at dinner time, we would not have a burger on the restaurant menu. It would seriously affect the check average.


Christian Pappanicholas

Owner: Resto and The Cannibal

Can you tell me the Resto burger story?
The burger was sort of an afterthought when we opened in 2007. It was scrap from the hanger steaks, the beef cheek carbonnade, and then we added the pork fat so we could hammer them and not take a temp to order. It's a six-ounce patty and is very rich, so we kept the accoutrement very simple: pickle, red onion, mayo, gruyere.    

And it exploded, right?
When New York gave it best burger in New York in 2008, it was one of the hardest times in the restaurant. One of our line cooks had to cook over 120 burgers a night. There are still dents in the fridge, since he would punch it when the tickets came in saying "Order fire, 10 burgers."  

Did it smooth out?
Seth Johnson is now a sick, talented chef, and we would not have gotten through that time without him. We had just gotten two stars from the New York Times and were trying to focus on the rest of the menu, but it was hard keeping up with the production. It took a few months for it to even out. I have to say, looking back, that it helps build your brand.

Do you still sell a lot of them?
We still sell a great deal of burgers. I actually just ate one. I still think they are pretty damn tasty.

· All Coverage of Burger Week 2013 [~ENY~]


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