5 East 51st Street, New York NY 10022 (b/n Madison and 5th; map); 212-759 4730; primeburger.com
Cooking Method: Broiled
Short Order: Classic 1960s décor and effusive service do not compensate for a hamburger that is past its prime. The modern palate asks, "Where's the beef?"
Want Fries with That? No, no you don't
Price: Cheeseburger, $5.95; fries, $3.75; onion rings, $4.50
I can't have it both ways. I love to wallow in nostalgia and I love a hamburger that has remained unchanged for decades. But I also love what the hamburger renaissance has brought us in terms of custom hamburger blends. Increasingly I tend to find that our contemporary vision of the hamburger—our expectations regarding meat-to-bun ratios and the quality and cut of the beef itself—tends to render even cherished and revered institutions passé. I found this when I tried Bob's Big Boy a few weeks back: The burger was too heavily balanced in favor of the bread. This is not surprising considering the Big Boy sandwich was conceived in the days when skinny two to three ounces were the norm. But obviously in this day and age we have become accustomed to bigger burgers with more emphasis placed on the beef itself.
Prime Burger, a decades-old diner that I want to love for its food, suffers from a similar malady: The patty is so skinny that it is in danger of being obscured by the cheese. But Prime Burger has other charms: service that hearkens back to a more genteel era (the waiters still wear white coats); decor that has remained unchanged since at least the mid 1960s, including a unique seating scheme dubbed "the track"; and to top it all off, a James Beard Award.
The Prime Burger's origins lie with the now defunct Hamburger Heaven chain that was immortalized in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. When the Hamburger Heaven company dissolved two of its former locations became Prime Burgers, of which only one remains. Located in the shadow of St. Patrick's cathedral the Prime Burger has changed little in the last half-century. The burger are still cooked in an industrial broiler and the decor, with its optimistic and decidedly mid-century outlook, has worn down to a dull patina.
"A Burger is a burger is a burger...ours is prime," is the Prime Burger motto. That may well be, but there is plenty of stuff on a prime steer that you wouldn't want in a hamburger. Unfortunately, the patty at Prime Burger had a fair amount of gristle in it. And that was not the only problem. The first hamburger came out overcooked. So did the replacement, at which point I realized that there was no way that I would get a rare burger out of the kitchen. The burger was surely par broiled to meet the demands of a busy lunchtime crowd. Good for service; bad for burgers. I gave up any hope and ate the burger at medium temperature.
To add textural insult to gristle-laced injury, the patty was mealy and curiously dry. I say "curiously" because the first bite produced a lot of juice that unfortunately leaked out all over the plate. The culprit? Beef that is too lean and then has to have fat added to it. Since the fat is not integral to the meat it tends to just wash out of the patty, ending up as a pool on the plate.
I put a dollop of the house "special" relish—a tangy tomato-based hamburger relish—on the dried out burger and it added some welcome moisture. But while I liked the relish it did not help the beef's flavor assert itself. On the other hand, I loved the bread. The lightly seeded bun had a perfect sponginess and conformed around the patty perfectly. It could have easily contained a patty twice the size of the standard Prime Burger burger; I regretted not ordering the Prime Burger Deluxe, which contains two patties. The beef-to-bun ratio is way off in favor of the latter, with even the thick slice of perfectly melted American cheese threatening to obscure the patty.
The fries and onion rings were no better than the burger. The potatoes were mealy and the onions greasy and unable to retain their batter, which flaked off in large shards. I did my best to cover up the fact that I hardly touched either by stacking the plates on top of each other, figuring they would be whisked away without incident. No such luck. My very friendly waiter picked up each plate individually, noting that the contents of each one had barely been touched. "I am a bit full" I proffered meekly.
On reflection I realize that perhaps I have been hard on the Prime Burger. It is certainly far superior to the fast food drek that is available, and the service is almost as fast and much friendlier. Prime Burger is a place I think every New Yorker should eat at, at least once. It is, quite literally, a touchstone to the past. But in the modern world the burger here is just a relic, rendered obsolete by our contemporary expectations.