One day I was strolling up Seventh Avenue through Chelsea whistling a pop tune under my breath, when a chalkboard sign in front of Peter McManus Cafe jumped out at me. Dating to 1936, McManus was already familiar as one of the city’s oldest and best Irish bars, with antique fixtures in the front barroom and a cozy dining room in the rear. I’ve visited on St. Patrick’s Day for corned beef and cabbage, but the sign made an astonishing boast: Best Burger In Town.
I didn’t hesitate then, continuing to walk northward. But a couple of blocks later, I stopped still, vacillating between two contrary attitudes. One was the incredulous thought: How could this possibly be the best burger in town, as 30 or so great burgers presented themselves to my memory in all their oozy glory? The other was a feeling of hopefulness. If this were indeed the best burger in town, it would save me a lot of work, and the endless search on the part of all the city’s food writers might be over.
When I visited a few days later, I passed through a thronged and boisterous barroom into a quieter dining room, one decorated with oil portraits, commemorative platters, and further bits of Irish memorabilia. Seated at a plush but somewhat battered corner booth, I surveyed tables of office workers finishing their shifts with pitchers of beer and baskets of cheese-drenched nachos.
When the waiter came, I ordered the so-called classic burger ($12). It was not exactly what one would have thought. Presumably this slightly oddball configuration had historic antecedents, causing me to think of visiting other old Irish bars to see if their idea of a burger was the same. This one featured a half pound of very fresh beef that came with tomato, bacon, and raw onions. No lettuce, no cheese.
Well, OK. The burger, already a seeming deal, at least in this neighborhood, came with a choice of steak fries or tater tots. Wahoo! The tots won out, of course, and when they arrived proved profuse and well browned. And wondrously crunchier than usual. But the burger?
It was big and bloody (yes, I know it’s not really blood), and the matted pile of bacon on top added a whisper of smoke, though a restrained one. The raw onion dominated, making each bite taste something like steak tartare. I’d ordered medium rare, but this was a shade rarer. As I left licking my lips, I reflected that this was indeed a great burger, but the best in town? Not so sure about that.
My journey had not ended, though. Two days later I found myself walking down Bleecker Street in the West Village and I happened to glance at the menu by the front door of a combo Italian grocery, salumeria, and restaurant called Suprema Provisions. And damned if the hamburger didn’t make a nearly identical claim, calling itself the “highest rated burger in NYC.” Is highest rated the same as best? Or does “highest rated” cast a shadow of doubt on how good the burger actually is?
But I had to try it anyway — at least to see if it was better than the one at Peter McManus. This one seemed a bit of a stretch for an Italian restaurant. Called the Suprema burger ($19), it entailed black garlic sauce, aged cheddar, roasted tomatoes, and Iberico Bellota jam (hmmm, not the fiendishly expensive ham, as one might misread, but jam instead).
When it arrived, brutally sided with Brussels sprouts, the thing was a giant mess, with what must have been the black garlic sauce (or was it the cheese?) cascading down the sides like a flow of anemic zombie blood. The tomato stuck out and the jam asserted its dark but not undesirable sweetness. Yet, in spite of the difficulty of maneuvering the thing, and visual drawbacks (this is one ugly burger), it really delivered on the flavor front, with the sauce seeming like mayonnaise applied with too free a hand.
Yes, it was good. But the highest-rated burger? The observation turned out to be attributed to the Gotham Burger Social Club, described as “Gotham’s premier burger club.” Who knew? Are burger clubs a thing, and I missed it, I wondered disconsolately? Well I shouldn’t have wondered long, because the New York Post describes the club as, “a members-only, men-only society dedicated to seeking out the city’s best burgers.” Are you going to believe these poobahs?
Ultimately, I’d eaten two burgers that bragged they were the city’s best but clearly weren’t. C’mon readers, do you know of any other burgers that make the same claim? If you do, please let me know at email@example.com.