Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood is home to one of the last remaining accumulations of diners in the city, with at least six still operational. Only one is free-standing and iconic: the Art Deco, stainless-steel-clad Empire Diner. The others occupy the ground floors of commercial and residential buildings — pleasant enough spaces with swirling stools, Formica counters, and a pie case near the front door, intended to draw you inside like a magnet. These diners offer a conventional menu of burgers, chops, soups, salads, seafood, and the occasional Greek or Italian dish. And there’s always Jell-O and coleslaw.
Two neighborhood diners stand out: The Malibu Diner at 163 West 23rd Street near 7th Avenue, and the Hollywood Diner at 574 Sixth Avenue at 16th Street, borrow their names from Los Angeles. But why? The appeal of the beach at Malibu with its surfers and movie stars is plain enough, even though the diner is decorated with gray photos of Iceland. But the Hollywood Diner goes even further with its theme, mounting a frieze of movie stars up along the ceiling and declaring itself to be “a little bit of Hollywood in Manhattan.”
Maybe a little sunny Los Angeles might be what diners want on a gray day with storm clouds looming over Chelsea. I recently went to both in quick succession to check out the cheeseburgers to see which rules: Malibu or Hollywood?
Malibu Diner was founded in 1978 in the former home of the Traffic Cafeteria, which had been located in the Traffic Building since 1927. Nowadays, Selis Manor, an apartment building catering to the blind, is a few doors down, and its residents form an important part of Malibu’s customers. Inside, Plexiglas panels separate a long Formica counter flanked by plush but timeworn stools from the waiter’s walkway.
I seated myself and ordered a cheeseburger with fries, pickles, and slaw ($17.90). It arrived almost immediately, passed nonchalantly under the Plexiglass panel. It was a half-pound of black Angus beef cooked to within an inch of its life, with the tomato and lettuce only partly replacing the moisture. The fries were the kind of frozen fries of medium size that one usually finds in a diner, tasting quite good if ketchup is freely applied. I thoroughly enjoyed eating the burger as patrons passed behind me on the way to the main dining room, kibbitzing with the waiters positioned along the way.
The history of the Hollywood Diner is more difficult to discern. The last renovation, with glitzy metallic tiles, certainly dates to the ‘90s, which is the era of the latest movie depicted on the frieze — Pulp Fiction (1994). The floor plan is more open than Malibu’s, with big picture windows facing south and the Hollywood star motif on display throughout the restaurant.
I ordered the cheeseburger deluxe ($16.75), which includes the same assortment of items as the one at Malibu. Two slices of American cheese had been annealed to the top and bottom of the bun in the salamander, and the half-pound patty extensively seared on top and bottom. It was a pretty plate to look at, though the beef itself was gray and tasteless and the slaw was sparse. However, the pickle was fresher and the fries a shade better than the other place, maybe because they had been fried a second time just before they hit my table.
For both burgers, the beef patty itself was the weak point. The superior sear at Hollywood made that burger a shade better, but the double slices of melted American on both did the heavy lifting when it came to flavor. The tomatoes and lettuce were also better at Hollywood, and the bun was embedded with sesame seeds, so I’ve got to say the Hollywood Diner version tastes better by about five percent. But read on for a few hacks that would make both burgers better.
Diner Burger Hacks
Nothing can begin until you deconstruct your burger into its components, and for this reason it may be fortunate that the cheese is annealed to the inside of the bun. One Twitter commentator deplored the practice of welding cheese to bun, while another noted it was ubiquitous in NYC diners.
First off, neither burger arrives seasoned even slightly, so a vigorous shake of salt makes the burgers taste much better in spite of their mediocre-quality beef and overcooking.
Second, both burgers were presented dry, with no sauce on them whatsoever. Remedy this by requesting mayo and then mixing it in equal parts with ketchup, to make a reasonable facsimile of the sauce served on most franchise burgers. If you want to go really wild, put some mustard in there too, and you have something like the special sauce of a Big Mac.
Third, carefully cut the pickle spear into chips with the dull knife provided and rearrange them inside the burger between the greenery and the American cheese stuck to the bun.
Reassemble and you’ll have a much tastier burger than the one delivered.