5 Napkin Burger (Atlanta)
990 Piedmont Avenue NE, Atlanta GA 30309 (map); 404-685-0777; 5napkinburger.com/midtown-atlanta
Cooking Method: Flat top
Short Order: NYC chain sets up shop in Atlanta with slightly smaller-than-NYC burgers at NYC prices
Want Fries with That? Sure, but skip the Tuscan add-on, or just go for onion rings instead
Price: Bacon-Cheddar Burger, $12.95; Piedmont Burger, $12.95
"Holy Hudson River, it sure FEELS like New York City..." That was my first thought walking in to Atlanta's seven-month-old outpost of 5 Napkin Burger. Sitting in my back corner booth, it could have just as easily been Hell's Kitchen...or Union Square...or the Upper West Side. Turns out that's the point. The porcelain subway tile, black-and-white checkerboard flooring, meat hooks and exposed Edison bulbs hanging from the steel ceiling track, chalkboard art and food scales as butcher-shop decor—every last bit of the mini-chain's Big Apple vibe has been boxed up, shipped out, and re-assembled in Tab-A-Slot-B fashion according to some corporate Plan-O-Gram. In fact, I found that the New York state of mind at 5 Napkin Burger is so damn realistic, they even overcharge you with Manhattan prices.
Since the 9th Ave and Astoria shops have already gotten the AHT treatment, I felt no obligation to try the flagship 5 Napkin Burger. Instead, I opted for the Bacon-Cheddar, which gets a fair bit of love from online reviewers, and the Piedmont, an Atlanta-only burg that tops the patty with griddled onions, pickled jalapeños, and pimento cheese.
Once a hyperlocal specialty unheard of beyond South Carolina's borders, the pimento cheeseburger has migrated west and now seems to be what everybody puts on their menu when they want to honor Atlanta. The Piedmont is a tasty homage in theory and I'm usually a big fan, but 5N's version was overcooked and overwhelmed by the peppers' pickling juice. Raw jalapeños would still bring the heat and add crunch, all without inducing puckerface, and would have been preferable by a country mile.
The Bacon-Cheddar seen above was a far more accurate interpretation of medium rare. The cheddar had a better melt going than in many a kitchen, with thick bacon and LTO in welcome proportion. The "soft white roll" was quite good, although my sesame-seeded version bore no resemblance to the glossy brioche-looking thing on the website.
After looking up the other locations' menus, I found another curiosity. The Bacon-Cheddar is listed as a 10-ounce burger at every 5N location...except in Atlanta, where it's just a seven-ouncer. What the hell?! Serious Eats overlord Ed may have wished for a smaller burg on his 5N run, but I'm a bigger-is-better kind of guy. And aside from the original 5 Napkin Burger and the Pounder, every burger on the Atlanta menu is listed at seven ounces, well under the standard ten at every other 5N, even in Boston and Miami. I've inquired with corporate brass about this oddity in sizing; no reply as of press time, but if we get to the bottom of this mystery, I'll update accordingly.
What my burger lacked in size, though, it made up for in juiciness. Much is often made of this restaurant's burgers not quite living up to this restaurant's name. While I didn't need five napkins, I did go through more than one and was left with a sizable puddle on my plate when all was said and done. I guess I found 5N's "custom ground beef" tasty enough (despite what seemed to be an exceptionally fine grind), but it's a bit hard to tell, what with every burg on the menu being pretty well gussied up toppings-wise.
Our sides ran the gamut. The regular fries were good and plentiful, with a nice bit of crunch encasing fluffy interiors. Less stellar were the Tuscan fries, where you get to pay an extra dollar for parsley and garlic and parmesan and basil and some other herbs that my server rattled off, yet I didn't really taste.
The stack of onion rings, ordered as an app, was the real surprise. Each thick onion slice shrouded in a crispy coat of cornmeal crumbs was excellent on its own, so I largely skipped the dipping sauces of blue cheese (too bland) and 5N Sauce (Thousand Island-esque with waaay too much relish).
On the whole, I enjoyed my little pretend trip to NYC, and while some of the food was hit-or-miss, I did enjoy my Bacon-Cheddar burger. I'm dying to know why the home office thinks we can't handle full-size burgers down here in Atlanta; even the beautiful people of South Beach get 10-ouncers at their 5N, and apparently they can still manage to squeeze behind the wheels of their Lamborghinis.
My final hope was that a smaller burger size would mean a smaller bill. No such luck; these babies rang up at $13 a pop. That kind of number may not raise any eyebrows back in the Theater District, but here in the 404, that's a particularly pricey burger. (Actually, menupages shows this to be $1 less than in the City. Technically cheaper, but still...) With several of the local scene's true heavy hitters (Vortex, Grindhouse, George's, Yeah! Burger) just minutes away and all less expensive, it's hard to argue that Five Napkin is worth the inflated cost. Would I go back again? Sure, if someone else suggested it as a meeting place...and was therefore picking up the tab. Would I recommend it as a uniquely Atlanta burger experience? Not in a New York minute.