Burger scholar George Motz loves burgers so much that he’s written books about them, traveled the country in search of regional varieties, has developed a following on his burger YouTube show, and served what he says was around 30,000 burgers out his window down a slide for the three years of the pandemic — that he just ceremoniously retired from use last week.
His next project, the restaurant called Hamburger America — like his book — will open early summer at 51 MacDougal Street near Sixth Avenue, a partnership with Andrew and Jonathan Schnipper, behind the small chain of Schnipper’s burger spots. With 50 seats, it’s a to-go or walk-up ordering for three types of burgers, two of which will always be on the menu. This ode to hamburger history adheres to the past both in style of the burgers and in the decor.
The first burger on the menu is his favorite, and if you’re a Motz follower, the one you’d know: the Oklahoma fried onion burger. “It goes back a hundred years,” he says, noting that the onion was the burger’s first condiment and predates McDonald’s. Over Zoom, he pulls out an old black-and-white photo of an old-time venue for such a burger, at an Oklahoma place called the Toot-n-Tell-Em, a restaurant where people would drive up, honk their car horns, and someone would come out and take a burger order.
The second is “a regular smashburger,” he says, with an option for single or double orders on the menu, served on a toasted bun, with diced onion, pickles, and mustard. “No ketchup.” Though there will be ketchup for fries — oversized shoestrings — ketchup wasn’t traditionally a burger condiment, he says, until around the decade the first McDonald’s opened in the 1940s.
The third burger will be a monthly regional style, say, Santa Fe’s green chile burger, which will kick off with Motz bringing in his favorite New Mexican purveyors of the regional style to cook signature burgers in-house. “I’ve already got the first two years planned,” he says.
None of these burgers, you might note, is associated with a New York-style pub burger, one he claims, “You can get anywhere,” such as JG Melon to PJ Clarke’s. It’s a thick style on a white squishy bun, “where all you can taste is the beef,” he says. It’s not to be mistaken with a steakhouse burger, made of fancier cuts and trimmings, bigger, “with a better bun,” often dressed with lettuce and tomato, he says.
He’s almost as excited about drinks as the burgers — particularly a collection of milks. There will be an egg cream, as well as Rhode Island-style coffee milk, mocha milk, and a plain glass of milk — “I love a burger with a glass of milk,” he says. They’re in lieu of milkshakes. Sodas will also be available as well as fresh-squeezed lemonade that’s a replica of the one at Roll N Roaster in Sheepshead Bay, the 50-year-old, one-of-a-kind, fast-food roast beef sandwich joint. There will also be a lone beer on the menu, starting with Miller High Life — and if you’re looking for more, you might want to ask for the secret menu.
Of the 12 stools at the front, he wants to bring back the retro way of waiting for seats: When a diner was on dessert, someone would stand behind them for their spot at the counter. Motz says he’ll be working there to encourage it, managing the restaurant and cooking at the front-facing flattop that will allow him to talk to customers — much like the ones at the Jersey City original White Mana from the 1939 World’s Fair.
He wants the decor to look as if it’s evolved, not the 1950’s “Johnny Rockets” version, but one that feels more like a diner, like Apple Pan in Los Angeles or even the newly opened S&P in Manhattan. It should feel “as if it has endured time,” which he thinks it’ll look like, “after a couple of weeks,” he quips.
During the day, he doesn’t want to have music, so people can hear the sizzle on the flattop and utensils hitting the bus bin that he associates with a classic burger restaurant. He says of Hamburger America, “No one wants to walk into a loud party.”