Stumble down Orchard Street before 3 a.m. on a Friday, and that’s where you’ll find it: a mess of lettuce, pickles, patty, and cheese otherwise known as the Big Shmacc. It unofficially stands for “smash burger Big Mac,” and standing outside of Smashed on a recent weekday night, the name is almost perfect, given that most of the people uttering it are visibly shmacked themselves. There’s just one thing: Like most of the city’s best burgers right now, the Big Shmacc isn’t all that big.
The burger, an ode to the bread-filled McDonald’s menu item invented a half-century earlier, weighs in at around 3 ounces a patty. Online, it hulks and quivers in an undersized sesame seed bun. In person, it fits in the palm of your hand. “I’m not worried about some juicy, greasy burger with mounds of ketchup,” says Jamie Chester, the owner of Smashed, who prefers to be addressed by his nickname Cee. “That’s so 2018.”
Exhausted by the pandemic, and the years of disappointing burgers that preceded it, restaurant owners across the city are now opening burger spots with reckless abandon. Their reasons for opening and methods of preparation might vary from griddle to griddle, but most are serving the thin, made-to-order patties more commonly known as smash burgers. In a city hungry for nostalgia, they’ve been one of the year’s biggest hits.
Shaped into patties of roughly 1 to 3 ounces of beef, then smashed to order over a griddle, the burger style originated in the Midwest and was popularized at the region’s state fairs. The thin patty shape was as much about the caramelized, crunchy edges as it was about quick cooking time, which can be as short as two minutes. The method of preparation isn’t new in New York — chains like Shake Shack and Five Guys have been smashing their patties for years — but in recent months, the simple burgers have started to appear at a handful of independently owned restaurants as well.
“I’ve always been a smash burger fan,” says Jerrell Obee, who opened his vegan smash burger spot Jerrell’s Betr Brgr in Soho in August. “The closest thing to that before was really a franchise spot. You weren’t seeing a lot of mom-and-pop shops offering that.” In Manhattan, where the borough’s hunger for charred, shaped-thin beef has reached a fever pitch in recent months, that’s starting to change.
Since April, more than a half-dozen burger spots have opened their doors in Manhattan alone, including several from established chefs not previously associated with counter-service restaurants. The teams behind Roberta’s pizza, Morgenstern’s ice cream, the Michelin-starred Contra, and popular restaurants Wayla and Kimika have all opened burger businesses, smashed and otherwise, in the last year. The trend shows no signs of letting up.
For chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske Valtierra of Contra and Wildair, part of the draw of opening Mighties, their burger stall in the Market Line food hall, was stepping away from their table-service restaurants. After a year of navigating staff shortages and coronavirus guidelines, “It was nice to do something where we weren’t worrying about reservations and the other aspects that make a seated restaurant stressful,” says Stone, whose burgers are not technically smashed but weigh in at a manageable 5 ounces a patty.
Billy Barlow, Jan Warren, and Nick Patton, who opened Best Burger in the Meatpacking District in May, have turned to the smash burger as a way to channel pre-pandemic nostalgia, they say. Not unlike the espresso martini fervor earlier this summer, “The explosion of burger places is about comfort, coming out of a time when everyone has been feeling uncomfortable,” according to Warren. Their standard burger — topped with American cheese, shredded lettuce, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle — is made using two, 2-ounce beef patties.
Part of the appeal is that no matter how many burger spots seem to open, there’s always room for one more. Seven blocks north of Smash, Kevin Rezvani opened a casual takeout counter called 7th Street Burger in June. Four months later, the restaurateur claims that he serves between 900 and 1,000 patties on a typical weekend night. His busiest hours? Minutes before the restaurant closes at 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
“There are that many people who want burgers right now,” he says. “It wouldn’t even matter if someone were to open next door,” which nearly happened a month after he opened, when Bronson’s Burgers landed in nearby Nolita.
One of the first restaurants in the latest wave of openings was Smashed, a Lower East Side burger counter whose dining structure sometimes doubles as a joint-rolling station after 7 p.m. Cee, the restaurant’s owner, had never opened a food business, but he’d had his eye on the industry for years, waiting to make his move. Two years earlier, he watched as birria tacos made their way from Southern California to New York. When he visited Los Angeles on a road trip last year, and found a city captivated by pressed-thin, 2-ounce patties, he figured smash burgers could be next.
“There was nothing like that in New York at the time,” he says over the phone while walking home from a workout session at rapper Action Bronson’s Brooklyn loft. “When this thing peaks, crashes, whatever, we will have been the first brick-and-mortar smash burger spot to my knowledge.” He opened Smashed in April and, two months later, the restaurant’s Big Shmacc had been crowned the burger of the summer by the New Yorker.
Lines for his smash burgers, which range in price from $8 for a single to $17 for a triple, often stretch into the late night.
The way Cee talks about “peaks” and “crashes” makes his namesake product sound less like another food trend, and more like that unforgettable week of the pandemic when everyone was investing in shares of Gamestop. One result of what occurred on the stock market earlier this year is that amateur investors signaled to the world their overwhelming frustration with the financial powers that be.
Something similar is happening in the world of burgers right now, where the fast rise of smash patties is at least partially motivated by the failures of the burgers that came before them, chefs and restaurant owners say.
“A fried egg on your burger in this economy?” says Jackie Carnesi, the executive chef of Nura in Greenpoint who helped open Roberta’s short-lived burger shop Burgie’s last December. “There was that era where everybody wanted an 8-ounce gut-buster with a fried egg and bacon. I can’t say I’m not glad that we’re not doing that anymore.”
Whether topped with avocado, onion rings, gold leaf, or Gruyere, the owners behind today’s smash burger restaurants, who also happen to eat a fair share of burgers in their downtime, say that they’ve had enough of piled-high, half-pound burgers. “Let’s jump into the future,” Cee says. “Let’s put broken glass on a burger. Let’s put something that’s going to explode in your mouth, not a fried egg.”
Barlow of Best Burger previously served an 8-ounce burger as a sous chef at West Village restaurant the Spotted Pig. “I can’t mentally imagine eating that ever again,” he says. Rezvani of 7th Street Burger likewise says his days of eating thick-patty burgers are behind him. “I’m older now,” says the 34-year-old restaurateur. “I can’t eat a half-pound burger for lunch and go back to work without taking a two-hour nap.”
George Motz, a “burger scholar” and television personality, asserts that part of the reason smash burgers have taken off is that most people simply no longer want to put up with the fuss of eating a half-pound burger, many of which are served in sit-down restaurants. “Whenever you do eat a thick-patty burger, you’ve committed to a few things: A higher price point, sitting down somewhere, maybe even a reservation,” he says.
Convenient and caramelized, smash burgers have presented themselves as an obvious heir to the throne, and it’s not just New York City that’s noticed. The burger style has “exploded” in Los Angeles and elsewhere in recent years, according to Motz, as diners once again fall for retro, smashed-to-order patties that can be eaten on the go. “It’s happening all over the world,” he says. “People are smashing burgers everywhere right now.”
Eventually, the bubble may burst, and New Yorkers may come to malign the triple-smash patties caked in blue cheese that currently dominate social media feeds — but for now, “things are just starting to heat up,” Cee says. “The smash burger wars are still on the horizon.”