131 Duane Street New York, NY 10013; map); 212-227-7777; cityhallnewyork.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: A classic steakhouse-style burger combines short rib and brisket on a custom onion brioche. Significant because it's the first custom blend made by Pat LaFrieda
Want Fries with That? Comes with superb fries
City Hall Restaurant is significant in the story of the New York City hamburger because it is the first custom blend created by Pat LaFrieda when he took over his meat company from his father. Before Shake Shack, the Minetta Tavern Black Label, and the burger from Michelin-starred The Spotted Pig; before he crafted over 50 custom blends for over 1,000 restaurants; before all the magazine covers and TV appearances; before the gilded age of the hamburger, there was just Pat LaFrieda with his meat and chopping machine and chef Henry Archer Meer and his vision of what the burger at his new restaurant should be.
The year was 1998 and Meer had left the celebrated Lutèce after a ten-year stint working with Andre Soltner to open City Hall. Despite his traditional French training and work experience Meer sought to create the "classic NY dining experience." Back in 1998 this meant prime steaks and seafood and, of course, a hamburger.
At this time LaFrieda had only recently quit a job on Wall Street to run the meat company started by his grandfather in 1922. This was despite his fathers stern warning that "there's no money in it." Pat made the switch anyway because being a butcher was "the only profession that made sense to me." When Meer told him what he was after—the burger was to be big and would be cooked on a grill—Pat got to work building on the blend that his grandfather had crafted years ago but amping up the flavors to reflect the rest of the City Hall menu.
While LaFrieda was busy creating blends, Meer got to work on the rest of the dish fashioning a homemade onion brioche with significantly reduced sugar. He loved the textual properties of brioche but not the sweetness, so he omitted the sugar and added a savory onion kick for good measure.
Meanwhile, LaFrieda came up with what he felt was the perfect combination: chuck, short rib, and brisket, all made from whole muscles, not trim. Meer loved it; it was exactly what he was after. It had all the hallmarks of a great burger—succulence, a flaky texture, a subtly sweetness—but the short rib added a brawny, steak-like flavor that made the burger unique. The blend has remained unchanged, almost a decade and a half later.
The rest of the burger remains unchanged as well. The bun is still made in house, the fries would still make Soltner proud, and the crisp collection of lettuce, onion, and tomato still looks as if styled for a photo shoot. You can order cheese on your burger but there really is no need—the juiciness and steak-like properties of the patty make it unnecessary. I would put aside the roughage as well; this is a burger that deserves to be eaten plain.
The kitchen does an expert job of seasoning the patty liberally with salt and pepper and putting a crusty sear on the exterior while leaving the innards perfectly cooked to order. The blend is robust enough that even at medium it remains juicy, but I like the textural and flavor contrasts of a rare burger.
While there are a lot of burgers that might be overhyped, the one at City Hall deserves more attention because it is the prototypical custom LaFrieda burger that ushered in the gilded age of the hamburger.