This is the fourth installment in a new series called Is It Still Good? Eater NY will be revisiting long-established restaurants that have acquired towering reputations and still generate plenty of traffic to find out if the food quality justifies our continued admiration. The last review was Jackson Diner.
As a column title, “Is it still good?” suggests a binary. Perhaps an excellent product or restaurant has taken a downward spiral. Or maybe the opposite is true; a once-famous dish has defied historical odds and evolving tastes to remain compelling. This brings up the curious case of Corner Bistro. The West Village institution, which opened in 1961, remains wonderful and welcoming in so many ways. In that general sense, yes, it’s still good. But the venue has also experienced issues with its signature burger for quite some time. In that case, the prevailing question is rather: Is it still bad?
Alas, it is.
Under normal circumstances, this sort of thing might be worth letting fly under the radar. The cash-only establishment remains a cherished bastion of affordable fare in this overpriced city. It charges just $5 for most beers. It peddles a respectable BLT. And the offending bacon cheeseburger runs just $12.75, a few bucks less than most cocktails.
But since the burger still receives high praise from a variety of respectable publications, and since the owners opened a Long Island City outpost in 2015, as well as a shinier credit-card only location at the Gotham West food hall in Hell’s Kitchen this year, it’s worth re-litigating a bit of bovine business. More precisely: You should absolutely come to the original West Village location. Just not for the burgers.
Bill O’Donnell, the venue’s late owner, traced his bar’s “destination hamburger” status to a 1978 review by Times critic Mimi Sheraton. She called the signature product “thick and wonderful.” But as the city underwent a burger renaissance in the aughts, from high-minded fast food like Shake Shack to pricier dry-aged creations like at Minetta Tavern, critics began taking a more sobering view.
Times critic Frank Bruni was one of the first big names to cast doubt, writing in 2009 that his burger had “a dull flavor, and was flabby through and through, with no crispness whatsoever on the edges.” J. Kenji-Lopez Alt, writing for Serious Eats, had even stronger words in 2011. He wondered whether it was the city’s most “overhyped” burger, and then went onto suggest as much over the next 1,100 words.
I first visited a few years back, remembering how a New York magazine journalist had taken Alain Ducasse there for a bit of rustic bliss. “At the end of the meal, he dipped his fries in the bacon juice and said, “Now, that was some good fat,” the author wrote. There was no good fat on my visit. The sirloin patty was overcooked and bland.
Last week, the meat exhibited little improvement. A bartender took my order and minutes later, out came a tall burger on a tiny paper plate. Eating it required compressing the architectural layering of lettuce, tomato, onion, and bacon. Condiments fell onto the bar top. Juices dripped down. This was not a displeasing state of gluttony — until I actually thought about how it tasted.
The salamander cooking process, which shoots down intense heat onto the burger, results in an unevenly cooked patty that’s devoid of any char, or salt. The burger does not rest after it’s broiled; it steams as you eat it. Some bites near one side are flaccid and greasy, while the bulk of the burger is dry and gravely. It is grey, textured umami on a bun that quickly turns mushy.
One could argue that this is simply how Corner Bistro builds its burgers, that it’s what regulars have come to expect. So what’s confusing is how the product is identical at the brand new Gotham West location — where there’s no nostalgia to capitalize upon. The burgers suffer from the same issues here. Yes, the bacon and American cheese help bring up the salinity levels. And things start to taste average enough when you start to empty the contents of a salt shaker onto a juicy part of the burger. Then you continue eating and realize half the patty is dessicated. A vegetarian Impossible Burger (which is quite good) tastes closer to actual meat than this coarse grind of bovine nothingness.
Sheraton, in her old review, called the fries “acceptable.” They’re actually better than that now; the matchstick-sized crisps sport a crisp, golden exterior, and a welcomely fluffy interior. They wouldn’t go bad with a BLT, some cheap beer, and perhaps an ice cold Hendricks gin martini ($10), served by a no-nonsense bartender. All of those things are wonderful hallmarks of the original Corner Bistro. New York is lucky to have it.
It is still good. But the burgers, dear readers, are still bad.