1291 3rd Ave
+1 212 744 0585
Resistance to change can be attractive in a restaurant scene as fickle as New York’s. JG Melon is nearly 40 years old and you get the feeling nothing has changed since the day it opened. It’s a small, pub-like building with dark wood, chequered tablecloths and waiters who seem close to retirement age. The tiny kitchen serves a short menu from which the burger ($8.95) with cheese ($9.25) or bacon ($9.95) is the star. It’s unpretentious, delicious and comforting. Caramelised crust, juicy pink beef, simple bun. Clientele are well-heeled Upper East Side types who have grown up with the restaurant. At the bar the signature cocktail is a “Bloody Bull”, a Bloody Mary with beef bouillon substituted for half the tomato juice – an acquired taste but one regulars swear by as a hangover-buster.
Madison Square Park
Danny Meyer owns a clutch of New York’s best restaurants, including Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern. Shake Shack – a burger shack in a park – represents a welcome diversion. There is no inside seating, so you perch on one of the outdoor tables, find a sunny bench or take your burger away. The queue is a spectacle in itself, stretching into the hundreds soon after the 11am opening time. People are prepared to wait up to an hour for a Shake Shack hamburger. And that’s because it provides perfect hamburger for everyman – soft, squidgy bun and a thin, juicy patty, oozing American cheese. They’re also ridiculously cheap – $4.50 for the standard burger. I liked the way they come in a wax paper pocket, so you can eat them easily on the go without getting too messy. Other good things include crinkle-cut fries, shakes, hot dogs and custards (a cross between a shake and frozen yogurt). Shake Shack has now been developed into a franchise, but the original in Madison Square Park remains the pick of the bunch.
119 West 56th Street
Housed in the Parker Meridien Hotel, with its marble floors, high ceilings and modern furniture, this is not a typical burger joint. Customers pass reception and head down a narrow corridor where only a simple neon hamburger sign indicates what lies beyond. Inside is a space that more closely resembles a store room than a restaurant, with beaten-up wooden tables and chairs, grubby shelves, cardboard boxes and graffiti-strewn walls. It is the antithesis of the typical restaurant model and the message is clear – you don’t need a clever name, heaps of money, fancy designers or a big menu to be popular. The burgers are similarly pared back but taste unbelievably good. Queues stretching out the door and back up to the hotel reception complete the sense of post-modern irony.
Five Napkin Burger
630 9th Ave; 2315 Broadway; 35-01 36th St;
Names can tell you a lot about a restaurant. Five Napkin Burger betrays the owners’ penchant for a particular type of burger, one that is substantial, juicy and very deliberately messy. The original five-napkin burger ($14.95) comes on a soft bun and is 10oz of ground chuck, which gives it a steak-like texture. You get a nicely charred crust and a sizeable pink interior. It also comes with caramelised onions for a touch of sweetness, melted Gruyère for added flavour and a rosemary aioli for lubrication. It’s perhaps a little poncey for purists, but it is still an amazingly indulgent eat for when you’re really hungry or want to treat yourself. Crispy homemade fries are also good, and the 50-strong beer list features many artisanal craft producers.
113 MacDougal St
This restored Greenwich Village relic is a recent offering from Keith McNally, creator of some of New York’s most iconic eateries (Balthazar, Pastis, Odeon, Schiller’s Liquor Bar). Minetta Tavern is a speakeasy bistro reminiscent of, say, Waverly Inn. It’s clubby and chaotic with just 70 seats and all McNally’s trademark design cues: tiled floor, smoke-stained mirrors, vintage bar, tin ceiling, red leather banquettes. The preference for old over new lends it the magical feel of a long-standing institution.
The menu is classic bistro stuff with a reputation for great steak supplied by top New York butcher Pat LaFrieda. Much has been made of the $26 Black Angus burger, due to its price tag. On my visit I’d arrived direct from Newark airport and secured a pew at the heavy wooden bar. After sinking a couple of excellent Tom Collins cocktails in anticipation, the 8oz burger arrived in a lightly toasted seeded brioche bun (from McNally’s Balthazar bakery) with caramelised onions and shoestring fries. The secret to this outstanding burger is not its secret blend of ribeye, short rib and brisket, but in the ageing of the beef. At 42 days, this gives the flavour an unusual but highly discernible tang and funk. It’s not an everyday burger but it deserves its reputation among New York’s finest.
Tom Byng is the founder of Byron. www.byronhamburgers.com