New York is having a moment of glorified common fare — regional pizza, artisanal breads, breakfast sandwiches. But we are not, by any measure, living in a golden age of restaurant burgers.
Make no mistake: We love burgers. The problem is the culture behind them. Nearly 15 years since Daniel Boulud received ample publicity for gourmandizing the burger — stuffing it with foie gras and short ribs in a style that evoked the meaty terrines of his Native Lyon — chefs are still largely focusing their efforts on transforming the lowly burger into something of gustatory excess and charging a lot for it.
Here’s some advice: Don’t order the burger at restaurants. Not at Emily, where the pretzel burger is obnoxiously listed as "limited availability." Not at The Grill, where an everything bagel-style burger with fries costs $41. Here’s why you shouldn’t order a fancy burger at restaurants:
- They're too big and they're too rich. The restaurant burger has followed the path of the restaurant steak, which is to say it's fattier and bigger than it's ever been, a de facto main course for two even though it's listed for one. The restaurant burger would be better off shrinking from 8 ounces to 4 to 6 ounces. This is true even of the indisputably outstanding Spotted Pig and Breslin burgers; both of those masterpieces could easily benefit from being halved in size.
- They’re not charred enough. One of the joys of a diner burger is the beefiness that’s the result of the Maillard char. The post-Boulud gourmet burger is cooked more gently so it’s softer and juicier, but often it’s more bland. And the existing char is often overwhelmed by some sort of add-on or fancy bun.
- They're overloaded. Cheffed-up burgers often have too much stuff on them, so they’re overburdened with so many toppings they end up detracting from the meat. This is as true of a watery tomato as it is of a slice of bacon. (Related: Please do not put a thick slice of canned pineapple on a burger and call it “Hawaiian.” That is atrocious.)
- They’re too expensive. Rather than serving as a reasonably priced counterweight to pricey meals, the burger is increasingly a manifestation of the fact that literally everything is becoming too expensive in New York restaurants. But chefs get away with it, using LaFrieda blends to lure the sheeple into dishing out $27 or more for a burger. (The Beatrice Inn charges a whopping $38.) If a restaurant offers a burger over $25, it should offer another one below $18.
- They’re boring. The irony of the cheffed-up burger is that instead of being conducive to variety, it has become indicative of uniformity plaguing the gastronomic world. Despite custom beef blends, most burgers are oddly similar across different restaurants: They’re not used to showcase lamb or meats from different animals.
- They don’t show a chef’s vision. If a restaurant wants to succeed, they typically must offer items like a burger, thrown on to appeal to people who are too scared (or too conservative) to order more ambitious dishes. Even if the restaurant offers an objectively delicious burger, chances are it is not as good or as interesting as everything else on the menu. If you truly care about learning more about a chef’s style, ordering the burger is rarely the move.
- Burgers, on occasion, don't even come with fries. This is a crime against a burger if there ever was one. Separating fries from a burger is a way to make it seem more accessible behind an artificially low price, a way to turn patty eating into the same obnoxiously a-la-carte affair of choosing a steak and picking sides for add-on prices.
The restaurant burger, in short, needs to be slimmer, should show off some char, would benefit from fewer toppings, and could be forged from a larger variety of animal meats (or vegetable proteins). And it should cost less than $20. Until that happens, ordering a restaurant burger is often a waste of time, money, and calories. If you must, order a burger at Shake Shack, P.J. Clarke's, or a fantastic diner instead.