The hamburger ascended along with America's fortunes during the post war boom. And while the egalitarian comfort food went on to conquer the hearts and minds of the middle class America via the drive-in and the back yard grill-out — becoming the closest thing the U.S.A. has to a national dish along the way — there have alway been attempts to elevate the form into the realm of luxury. Here's a look at the history of the ultra-luxe trend, in seven burgers.
'21' Club debuted America's first gourmet burger in 1950. It cost $2.75 in an era of five and 10 cent burgers. The once lumpen burger soon became America's most dominant menu item. Today it is featured in restaurants of every stripe and color — from the lowliest greasy spoon to the swankest joints in town.
21 Club still serves a burger but the recipe has changed numerous times over the ensuing decades. The original was seasoned with fennel seeds and cooked in duck fat. For much of its time the recipe was more akin to meatloaf being heavily spiced. There was once a time when it wasn't even served on bread, making it technically a hamburger steak. These days it is a relatively traditional affair served with lettuce, onion, pickles, and tomatoes, with a patty made of prime dry-aged beef from Master Purveyors. It costs $36, but a steak from the same butcher costs $68 on the menu, making it a relative value, and of course you are dining at 21 Club, which carries its own expense.
DB Bistro Moderne
In the modern era the luxury burger movement kicked into high gear when Daniel Boulud unveiled his foie gras and braised short rib-stuffed, black truffle dusted DB Burger at DB Bistro Moderne in 2001. It cost a wallet-busting $27, which was enough to earn it a world record for most expensive burger at the time. That title was soon ceded to others who saw the PR value of jacking up the price with superfluous additions like gold leaf and caviar. But as Boulud has stated, "the cost of the burger is in the craft." The short rib alone takes eight hours to braise, then there is the assembly of the burger itself, with its pricey foie gras inner core and seven-cut beef blend. The burger is surely the most labor intensive on earth, and the price is a relative bargain at $35 considering that it cost about the same in inflation-adjusted dollars as it went from novelty to icon. It is worth noting that a foie gras terrine costs $24 on the DB Bistro Moderne menu.
Old Homestead Steakhouse
Around the same time that the DB burger launched, venerable Meatpacking chophouse The Old Homestead debuted a 20 oz Kobe burger. It has remained on the menu ever since — albeit fluctuating in both price and composition. At one time, it cost $81 and featured true Japanese Wagyu. These days it costs $42 and is fabricated from Snake River Farms American "Kobe-style" beef. While $42 is a lot of money for a burger, 20 oz is well over twice the size of most patties, even those in this survey, save the DB burger. If you think about it as buying two 10 ounce burgers, the cost is actually quite reasonable, especially considering the quality of the beef. And while there is a notional argument that the benefits of using intensely marbled Kobe are mitigated by grinding, where, after all, one can control the percentage of fat, the distinct flavor of the beef makes a compelling argument in favor of the practice.
After DB Bistro Moderne, the Black Label at Minetta Tavern is surely the most hyped burger of recent years. It benefitted from the Internet and the food blogosphere in a way that the DB burger never could have. In fact, it arguably hit at the perfect point just before food blogs fragmented into a thousand Twitter and Instagram accounts, a time when people posted lengthy entries on single subject, now reduced to a single snapshot or wry tweet. Crafted by chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr with a custom blend from Pat LaFrieda, the Black Label features copious amounts of dry-aged ribeye, giving the burger a profound steak like taste. It remains a top seller at the restaurant and while the price now costs $30, it reflects only a $4 increase over the $26 price that the restaurant launched with back in 2009. By comparison the price of the NY Strip has risen in price almost 70 percent in the same time period, going from $36 to $62.
The Beatrice Inn
If Minetta Tavern set the template for clubby West Village restaurants serving dry-aged burgers chef Angie Mar of the The Beatrice Inn took the idea to an illogical conclusion. The restaurant serves a 45-day dry-aged eight ounce burger topped with nine hour red wine-caramelized onions, and d’Affinois cheese. This tops even the Black Label in terms of funkiness and in price, costing $38. Guests can also order it with a duck egg and a generous portions of shaved black truffles for the price of $52.
Hunt & Fish Club
Reflecting the ostentatious gleam of Hunt & Fish Club, the restaurant's signature burger is dubbed the Mirrors & Marble and features an eight ounce patty composed of dry-aged Prime ribeye, NY strip, short rib, and brisket, with bone marrow folded in. This results in a patty with an almost pâté-like texture and richness. It comes topped with black truffles, Nueske's bacon, and onion rings and sells for $52 (omitting the truffles will save one $20) Available at lunch only chef chef Ben O'Sullivan reports that it is the biggest seller and feels it is a bargain as "you are getting dry-aged steak, truffles, and bone marrow in the same dish."
The most recent addition to the luxe burger rumble is a somewhat unlikely source: PYT Burger, the stunt sandwich specialist from Philadelphia which opened on the Bowery this fall. While the other restaurants on this survey are punching below their class by serving a burger, PYT is definitely punching upwards. The Basquiat burger costs $64 on a menu where the average burger costs $15, and appears to be a play on the suggestive dichotomies of the late artists. The burger gets its name because Basquiat once lived in the building that now houses Japan Premium Beef, PYT's meat supplier. JPB specialize in American reared Japanese breed beef. The burger is made up of six ounces of 100 percent Washugyu ribeye slathered with spicy truffle butter mayo and served on a fresh roll from Kam Boat Bakery on the Bowery. It is served in a wire handled Chinese food container. While PYT has an interesting 1980s video game themed decor, it PYT's Tommy Up claims to have sold 69 of them last week alone.
While these luxury burgers are hardly cheap they do offer a relative value considering that most of the menu items they sit amongst are far costlier (excluding PYT, of course). In many cases they offer a glimpse of the finer ingredients on the menus — dry-aged or rare breed beef, truffles, foie gras, duck eggs — for a lot less than you would pay to eat them in other dishes. The other consideration is that historically luxury burger prices have remained fairly steady. Both the DB burger and the Black Label prices have risen along with inflation, while the cost of beef has rise exponentially in the same time period.