One of the few nice things about the original J.G. Melon, perennially packed and irrationally celebrated for its no-frills pub burgers, is the soundtrack of sizzling meat.
A semi-open kitchen stands in the middle of this nearly 50-year-old institution, founded by the late Jack O’Neill and Georges Morgues. Cooks slap fat patties on a griddle with such frequency that the Pavlovian hiss of browning beef never ceases. One could mistake the low-level hum for an ambient mood tape — like a soothing track of summer rainfall or ocean waves. It’s the type of quirk that draws you into the cash-only establishment on the Upper East Side; it makes you want to become a regular here. Then you come to your senses.
After listening to this carnivorous symphony for 30 minutes — the typical wait for a seat at the worn-wood bar — and after getting bumped by gruff staffers ferrying cups of maroon chile con carne, you’re ready to eat. You’re thirsty too, because scores of folks are drinking frosty beers or Bloody Bulls, and yet no one acknowledges your presence. Still, because the digs are somewhat charming — the whimsical watermelon artwork, the green gingham tablecloths, the red tin ceilings — you convince yourself that here, in a space that’s as crowded as a rush hour 6 train, you will sample a cheeseburger that will transport you. The $12.50 affair will function as a wonderfully affordable counterpoint to all the $30 bespoke blends out there, you declare.
If only — J.G. Melon isn’t quite good anymore. In fact, its burger is a far cry from the reputation it’s come to hold.
No shortage of publications, including Eater, has placed J.G Melon among its ranks of top New York burgers. What makes the venue unique, however, is some of the more unexpected voices it has attracted to the fray. Former mayor and billionaire presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg has professed his love. Town & Country, a society magazine for people too wealthy to shop at Pottery Barn, called it the city’s best burger, before going on to recount the pub’s appearance in Metropolitan, Whit Stillman’s meditation on privileged Manhattan preppies.
These pronouncements refer to the first J.G. Melon, which opened in 1972 on the corner of 73rd Street and Third Avenue. A separately owned location in the West Village, with a much friendlier staff and a marginally better burger, debuted in 2015.
True to the ethos of the Upper East Side, here’s what you might encounter at the original: guys in Yankee caps; fathers drinking martinis with their toddlers in tow; a silver-haired dude with AirPods yelling at a hardworking busser; and a young man in a tech vest who holds a 20-minute phone call at the bar before putting in an order. Waiters brusquely shove you aside with one hand — as if they were doing crowd control at a protest — to shout orders at other staffers. When you ask for a pint of Stella, a bartender uses another patron’s dirty napkin as your drink coaster.
J.G. Melon is the real life version of a fictionalized rom-com New York, where someone takes a Greyhound to the big city and finds that everyone is an amoral businessperson or a mean cab driver in a cartoonish, “hey, move it pal” kind of way. See those guys in blazers who showed up after you? They’ll find a way to snag a seat at the bar before you. Here, you must fend for yourself, including when you leave. The front door swings inward, which maybe isn’t the safest setup for a place this packed.
If you must eat here, order the chile con carne, which is about as nourishing and warming as any decent version at a local diner. A grilled cheese sandwich, by contrast, shows little sign of being grilled with butter or margarine; it is more of a mealy toasted cheese sandwich with chewy bacon.
But really, almost everything that comes out of the kitchen is a burger. Nick Solares, writing for Eater in 2015, called the blend, by Bronx-based Master Purveyors, “plump and juicy,” while adding that the patty was so loosely packed “you wonder if it is even formed” before cooking. He did note, however, that the burger was completely unseasoned and contained too much overcooked meat. Things have gone further downhill since.
You can ask for a medium rare burger, just as you can ask the finance bro next to you to buy you a Lamborghini Aventador. Good luck with either proposition. A few minutes later, out comes a well-done patty (sorry!) garnished with a slice of half-melted American cheese. The hefty offering sits on a squishy white bun, which is the best tasting thing here.
The burger does not smell richly of beef, like a proper Shake Shack specimen, nor does it pack any succulent juiciness. Consistent with the Solares assessment, it does not show signs of having been seasoned. It is simply a dry, bland, hockey puck of a burger. Even the charred exterior betrays little bovine aroma or umami richness. It tastes less like real beef and more like something forged from rehydrated tree bark and marinated asphalt.
Cottage fries come unsalted. They are soft and puffy at first, but quickly turn gritty before you’re halfway done.
Getting the check is almost as difficult as getting a seat at the counter. You glance at the bartender, nod at him, make eye contact, call him, and try speaking to him while he’s right in front of you — to no avail. He’ll get around to you, eventually.
Perhaps some of these absurdities would be tolerable if the place were truly dirt cheap, if J.G. Melon accepted credit cards, or if the food were actually good. But the cost of a cheeseburger, with fries, is $19, or a dollar extra with bacon. That’s just $3 less than the softer, juicier, beefier version at P.J. Clarke’s, a friendlier throwback tavern that’s kept up with the times despite the fact that it’s over 100-years-old. J.G. Melon, located just a mile uptown on the same avenue, and not even half the age of P.J.’s, remains mired in a past that doesn’t deserve our nostalgia.
This is the latest 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.