Long before the likes of Shake Shack, In & Out Burger, and a myriad of other hamburger hotspots that have skyrocketed to fame and foodie fortune, there was, and still is, Burger Joint.
Sequestered behind an imposing velvet curtain in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien on West 56th Street in Manhattan, Burger Joint isn’t the modern, fad-du-jour eatery typically found in today’s upscale hotels. On the contrary, lovers of a good-ole neighborhood dive—sans the seedy drunks and odor of stale beer—will feel right at home here.
Upon entering the hotel, if you don’t know what you’re looking for chances are you’ll miss it. At first glance I thought the short, dark corridor leading to Burger Joint led to public restrooms. The only evidence that something special was around the corner was a small burger-shaped neon sign I could barely make out from a distance.
Once inside, the marble floors and sky-high ceilings of the Le Parker Meridien transform into a gritty, urban roadhouse, replete with faux wood paneling, a thick coating of graffiti (you’ll find celebrity scribblings from Ashton Kutcher, Bill Clinton, Heidi Klum, and Leonardo DiCaprio), old vinyl booths, and a collection of bobble head dolls that sit next to the Costco-sized condiment jars and packages of hamburger buns on display above the check out counter.
Ramshackle publicity photos and stickers pepper the walls mixed with a smattering of promotional posters for the Ramones, the Sopranos and Sex and the City, among others. In keeping with restaurant’s theme, the images are haphazardly taped to the wood in a style that looks as if the perpetrators were blindfolded before they were hung. In the background, a mix of blues, disco and 50’s tunes play, and the thick smell of French fries, warm and salty, fills the air.
I first went to Burger Joint over a year ago when a friend suggested it after we found ourselves in Midtown’s restaurant vortex. (The area is a wasteland for good, casual fare). I’d never heard of it, (apparently I live under a large rock), and I was intrigued by its unusual location. Walking down the darkened hall to the entrance I felt like I was privy to a secret, one I couldn’t wait to tell someone about even before I tasted the food.
As you might expect, the menu is no fuss, no frills. If you’re looking for truffle oil, you won’t find it here. You will find hamburgers, cheeseburgers, a “cheesburger without meat” (a.k.a a grilled cheese for the kiddies or vegetarian tag-a-longs) and, well, that just about covers it. French fries or a pickle make up the sides, and for dessert you can spoil yourself with a gargantuan brownie or a milkshake. If you’re brave and want to push the caloric envelope, try the brownie ala mode.
The crowd spans all ages, with singles and families equally represented, and in large part they are international. During my last visit I heard customers speaking Arabic, German, French, Spanish and Swedish. It’s like a grunge version of the United Nations’ cafeteria. To help foreign visitors with ordering, the restaurant provides handy-dandy, menu cards in a variety of languages. No need to worry about what to say, just circle what you want, hand it to the waitress and you’re good to go.
Proud to support the classics, I order the same thing every time I visit: a cheeseburger with everything—medium rare—fries and a diet Coke. Fifteen minutes later my order is handed to me piping hot, wrapped in white deli paper and stuffed into a slim, brown paper bag—the kind moms use for school lunches. It’s perfect really and charmingly apropos. Plates and silverware feel like they would be overkill here. More importantly, the burger was delicious. Flavorful. Fresh. And perfectly cooked. It’s no wonder they sell over 1200 burgers a day.
Take that Shake Shack.