Tavern on Jane

Where the Beef Is

by Chris Erikson

August 1, 2004 — Next time you sit down to eat a hamburger, say happy birthday – America’s favorite sandwich turns 100 this year.

While nobody knows who was literally the first to put a chopped-beef patty between bread, it’s generally agreed that America’s love affair with the hamburger dates back to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, when a Texan named Fletcher “Old Dave” Davis created a small sensation by selling them on the midway.

A hundred years later, the burger is booming in New York. Whether you’re after a fast-food quick fix, a late-night pub meal or a luxe version complete with fois gras and a double-digit price tag, the city is increasingly loaded with options. In honor of the burger’s centennial, The Post tracked down some of the city’s best, researched over a few gut-punishing days. We’ve skipped the high-end models, and instead looked far and wide for the kind of everyman burgers that would have made Old Dave proud.

OK, let’s get this out of the way: For our money, the finest burger in the city is served at Peter Luger (178 Broadway in Brooklyn; [718] 387-7400). And at $6.95, it’s not only the best burger in the city, it’s one of the best food deals period.

Many who flock to the city’s top steakhouse to feast on aged porterhouse overlook the burger, which is only served until 3 p.m. A 10 oz. beauty made from chuck mixed with ground-porterhouse trimmings, it is served on a perfect sesame roll adorned only with a thick slab of raw onion and for a dollar extra, a small handful of thick, crispy fries.

Luger’s infernal broilers give the exterior a rugged crust, while the inside remains lush and juicy, and the meat has a depth of rich, beefy flavor. Ordered medium-rare, it came in decidedly on the rare end of the spectrum, which is exactly the right way to eat this one.

The barbecue restaurant Blue Smoke (116 E. 27th St.; [212] 447-7733) one-ups Luger by putting three cuts of beef in its burger – chuck, sirloin and brisket. It’s a winning combination that makes for a hefty patty with a nice char from the grill and a succulent interior, accompanied by some nicely seasoned shoestring fries.

At $10.95, it came a perfect medium-rare on a brioche roll with raw onion, a few leaves of red-leaf lettuce, some nice ripe tomato and best of all, a half-dozen slices of Blue Smoke’s excellent house-made sweet pickles.

New York’s Irish bars have inflicted a lot of rubbery corned beef on barflies, but they’re also the source of some seriously tasty burgers. Chief among these is Donovan’s (5724 Roosevelt Ave. at 58th Street, [718] 429-9339), a pleasant pub in the shadow of the 7 train tracks in Woodside, Queens.

Served on a garden-variety bun that’s no match for the hefty slab of juicy, loose-knit beef, the Donovan’s burger ($6.50 with cheese and fries) is a beautifully messy affair that requires a handful of napkins. Two things ought to accompany this burger – an expertly poured Guinness and a wondrous pile of sweet, buttery sauteed onions. The fries are weak, and the tomato slices are pale and lifeless, but believe us, you won’t care.

In Manhattan, the star is Molly’s (287 Third Ave., between 22nd and 23rd streets; [212] 889-3361), a dark bar with sawdust on the floor that serves a behemoth burger. Sauteed onions are a key ingredient here too, though they have a darker flavor than those at Donovan’s.

It doesn’t quite match Molly’s, but you won’t go wrong at McHale’s (750 Eighth Ave., at 46th Street; [212] 997-8885), a Theater District tavern that serves a gut-busting burger. If you’re a lover of bacon burgers, this is your place – their version comes piled with it. This old-school barroom is a great alternative to the tourist haunts that riddle Times Square, and it’s open late, no doubt to the gratification of many a hungry stagehand.

In Brooklyn, another good bet is Skinflints in Bay Ridge (7902 Fifth Ave., at 79th Street; [718] 745-1116), a gorgeous old bar with tin ceilings and stained-glass windows. The char-grilled cheeseburger here ($6.75) is leaner than its counterparts above, and a bit too dense, but it’s served on a wonderfully chewy oversized English muffin with good skin-on fries.

For a more rarified bar-burger experience, in terms of both the cuisine and the surroundings, there’s Rare Bar & Grill in Murray Hill’s Shelburne Hotel (303 Lexington Ave.; [212] 481-1999). Here, $21.50 will buy a burger made with Kobe beef or topped with a slab of fois gras. There’s also a crab-and-shrimp burger, and truffle butter is offered as a topping for an extra $5.

We kept it simple, though, with the half-pound “Rare Classic” ($7.50, $1.50 with cheese, fries are $3.50). The beef (chuck ground every hour, says the menu) is top-notch and relatively lean – the only drawback here is the oversized brioche roll, which overwhelms the 8 ounce patty.

On West Fourth Street in the Village, head toward the Corner Bistro, where crowds gather for the celebrated fist-sized cheeseburgers – but then skip the line and cross the street to Tavern on Jane (31 Eighth Ave.; [212] 675-2526). That’s the advice of Mr. Cutlets, the author of “Meat Me in Manhattan: A Carnivore’s Guide to New York,” who swears the tavern’s burgers are a cut above those of its celebrated neighbor.

“It’s the most perfectly constructed of the city’s big bar burgers,” he says. “It’s similar in its succulence to the place across the street, but it’s bigger, and the meat is better. And no one knows about it.”

Continuing his contrarian streak, Mr. Cutlets also champions the burgers at Veselka (144 Second Ave., between Eighth and Ninth streets; [212] 228-9682), the 24-hour East Village Ukranian diner better known for borscht and pierogies. He gives their “exquisitely proportioned” burger his top rating – “It’s almost in a class by itself,” he says.

In Hell’s Kitchen, Island Burgers and Shakes (766 Ninth Ave.; [212] 307-7934]) is a sliver of a restaurant that turns out big, beefy burgers ($7.50) that smack of the charcoal grill. Two caveats: there are serious lines at peak hours, and no fries, as the tiny kitchen can’t accomodate deep fryers.

On the trendier side, there’s the Meatpacking District’s Pop Burger (58-60 Ninth Ave. between 14th and 15th streets, [212] 414-8686), with a food counter out front and a sleek cocktail lounge hidden in the back. Here $5 buys a pair of miniature burgers that come domed by shiny brown rolls.

These aren’t White Castle sliders, though – they’re round and thick, adorned with cheese, tomato, shredded lettuce and a mayonnaise-based sauce. Ordered medium-rare, ours were overdone and thus a bit dry, but they were satisfying nonetheless. Pop gets extra points for the oily Belgian-style fries.

If it’s a slider-style burger you’re after, you’ll find an exemplary version at Schnack, on the western fringe of Carroll Gardens (122 Union St.; [718] 855-2879), where superb little 1.5-ounce “Schnackies” can be had for a buck apiece. The rolls are fresh, and the mustardy “Schnack sauce” adds a nice kick. Don’t forget to order a side of their outstanding onion rings.

Where Manhattan sliders are concerned, Jim Leff, the food writer who founded the Chowhound Web site (www.chowhound.com), recommends the “robustly beefy” versions at Patriot Saloon (110 Chambers St.; [212] 748-1162), a beer hall whose menu offers only three items – burgers ($1), fries ($1) and onion rings ($1.50), all of them “perfect,” says Leff.

“It’s hard to cook a burger that flat – there’s an extremely narrow window of opportunity between juicy and dry, and the cook there absolutely nails it,” he says.

To try one of the city’s more unusual burgers in both name and style – and one of its more obscure – head for the First-Way Deli in the West Farms section of The Bronx (1030 E. Tremont Ave., off Cross-Bronx Expressway; [718] 620-2300). An otherwise unremarkable bodega nestled under the West Farms Square/E. Tremont Ave. stop on the 2/5 line, it’s famous locally for its oddly monikered “Murder Burger.”

The Murder Burger’s thick patty is vaguely meatloafish, with a smattering of ingredients including eggs, adobo seasoning and Worcestershire sauce. At a half-pound, dressed in lettuce, tomato, onions, and a special sauce, it’s a satisfying meal – and at $4.75 with fries and a soda, a cheap one.

Contact us!

  • Address: 31 Eighth Ave at Jane St., New York, NY 10014
  • 212-675-2526
  • tavernonjane@gmail.com

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