A new burger in New York rarely goes unnoticed, but Billy Durney’s Red Hook Tavern enjoys an outsized level of attention, even by Big Apple carnivore standards. Meat expert Nick Solares, writing for Taste, detailed the precise cooking techniques over the course of a 1,000 word essay (“I don’t believe in the one-flip concept. I am constantly moving the patty,” Durney said). New York magazine’s Adam Platt rhapsodized about the burger as well, adding that it was particularly beautiful “to photograph,” for those who collect and cherish pics of lush beef patties. Times critic Pete Wells even seemed to invoke the modern lexicon of blogging in his own review, declaring it “one of the few absolutely mandatory burgers in New York City.”
Indeed, it is a very good burger. But whether you should actually go through the hassle of ordering one requires a more nuanced level of Suttonalysis. The short answer is: It depends on how long you’re willing to wait.
Durney, the force behind Hometown Bar-B-Que, opened Red Hook Tavern in July as an homage to — and subtle elevation of — the working-class pubs of New York, venues like McSorley, Donovan’s, and Corner Bistro. Translation: Aside from a few natural wines here, and a corn and ‘nduja dish there, diners can expect ambitious, if run-of-the-mill, fare. That means buttermilk salads with bacon, roast chicken with mashed potatoes, and steaks with creamed spinach. And then there’s that burger.
The eight-ounce patty sits on a golden Italian-style bun, underneath a slice of yellow cheese and atop a slice of raw onion. The kitchen doesn’t lavish it with lettuce or tomato, and there is no option to add bacon or a fried egg. Three wedge potato crisps accompany the creation as does a neon green pickle spear. That’s it. Everything lies on an off-white plate, arranged with the haphazard elegance of a platter of chicken fingers. It’s a hefty, two-handed burger, standing taller than a fat New York strip and weighing more than one of those fancy new iPhones.
Durney modeled the burger after the lunchtime-only affair at the historic Peter Luger in Williamsburg. It looks nearly identical, down to the bun (which comes from the same “secret” baker), but the cooking process is quite different. While Luger singes its burgers under a broiler — somewhat unevenly — chef Allison Plumer at Red Hook opts for a slower searing on the griddle, warming up the patty and moving it around until it reaches medium rare.
This careful approach, along with the generous 75/25 ratio of beef to fat (dry-aged strip and chuck) results in a burger that boasts a distinct char yet a loosely-packed texture. The exterior acts as a salty, peppery shell, yielding to a crimson, pâté-like core. It’s a luscious burger that needs no mayo, though the raw onion functions to keep the fattiness in check — and the bottom bun free of sog-inducing burger juices. A dry-aged tang is apparent at first, then quickly gets out of the way.
If Luger is the inspiration, a gourmet burger spot like Minetta Tavern or DB Bistro is a better point of reference regarding the quality of searing, sourcing, and seasoning. Is the cooking a more precise at Red Hook? Yes, but only by a whisper, and the bovine funk — if that’s what you like — is more pronounced at Minetta. Do these other venues charge more? Yes, by over $10. But will patrons have an easier time getting into Red Hook? Unfortunately, no.
A two-hour wait quote is not abnormal, and those who show up at 9:45 p.m. on a Friday might not get a burger at all, as the host can stop taking names for the waitlist over an hour before closure. Tables are available to reserve online, but that effectively means booking a Tuesday night at 10 p.m a full month from now, which is more notice than some folks give for tasting menus or international vacations.
So here’s the full analysis: For bona fide meat lovers, the Red Hook burger is a BUY, a rating that also holds true for locals who don’t mind putting their names down for a long wait. But for a regular patron who wants a stellar, impromptu burger on any given weeknight, the hefty queue pushes things into HOLD territory. Most burger-eating humans don’t think taxonomically. They just want something delicious and close, and there’s no shortage of fine gourmet patties throughout the city.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).