977 8th Ave, New York NY 10019 (map); 2 other locations in NYC; 212-245-2200, clarkes-standard.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: Standard burgers distinguish themselves from the competitors but won't knock your socks off
Want Fries with That? They're all right, but you'll want the Fried Mushrooms instead.
Price: Cheeseburger, $7.50; bacon, +$1; Brooklyn Au Poivre, $7.75; milkshake, $4.75; fries, $3
In the past I've made my feelings about Midtown burgers very clear. They're often overpriced, underwhelming and, at their worst, insults to the word "hamburger." Add the swaths of clueless tourists and 95 degree heat and you've got yourself a recipe for never enjoying a burger in Midtown no matter how good it may be.
Recently, however, I found a Midtown burger that I could actually get behind, if not fully champion. Clarke's Standard, a slow-fast burger joint offshoot of PJ Clarke's (à la Shake Shack), recently opened a location near Columbus Circle (others in Flatiron and Financial Districts) and after walking by it for a week the smell of burgers finally proved irresistible.
Even before one considers the food, Clarke's has a lot going for it. The narrow space is bright, clean, full of seating and, most crucial for summer dining, aggressively air-conditioned. Additionally, no burger on the menu exceeds $9, which is usually the starting price for a regular hamburger at one of the rackets masquerading as a burger joints between 59th and 34th Streets. I was hoping to find a solid alternative for the Shack and to some extent I did.
The Standard burger ($7.95) came out in about five minutes looking a bit diminutive and unremarkable in its cardboard container, but after removing the 8.5"x11" sized piece of lettuce it actually looked all right. The six-ounce patty of fresh ground angus, cooked a bit past the requested medium-rare, was thicker than the average quick-style burger and had developed some nice crust on the nearly brand-new flat top. Removing the lettuce monster left a couple slices of tomato, a slice of American, and a barely detectable swipe of Standard sauce as the toppings.
The first bite revealed a burger that could have been truly notable with the addition of some pickles and more special sauce. The beef was juicy, ground coarse, and packed tightly but not compressed—a bit more salt would have made it even better (though this might be a function of the new grill). Most impressive was how the patty developed a bit of fire-grilled flavor despite the flat top method—something I had never experienced on a burger before. With some minor alterations, this would be a burger I would definitely return to.
The bun, however, was an abomination. The website says that all burgers are served on a St. Joseph roll. I don't know who St. Joseph is or why he bakes bread, but I sincerely recommend Clarke's burgers file for divorce from these Catholic buns. As a firm believer in the church of St. Martin's Potato Rolls, I simply will not settle for this thick, chewy excuse for a bun.
The Brooklyn Au Poivre ($7.75) was a slight improvement. The Au Poivre title meant more pepper on the patty, but not overwhelmingly so—the seasoning definitely helped the burger. Sautéed onions and peppers added some moisture and sweetness to the mix and the gouda was tasty-but-unassertive and sufficiently melted. Moreover, the patty was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, making this somewhat unique but still classically appealing burger my favorite of the two (I'm heading back soon for the Green Chile burger, which I think will be excellent).
Sides cover the standard players of fries and tots in various outfits like cheese and chili-cheese. The Natural Cut Fries ($3) were crisp, salty, and greasy in a Lays Potato Chips sort of way. In fact, because of great execution and a somewhat unique flavor profile, these certainly outshine both Shake Shack and Burger Joint fries.
The milkshake ($4.75) on the other hand could take a few lessons from the Shack...or Mister Softee. Hardly a shake at all, the confection is essentially above-par soft serve blended and poured into a plastic cup. Skip it and get a cold Pacifico instead.
Is a Clarke's Standard burger objectively better than a ShackBurger? No, but the lack of lines and a relatively unique burger make it a very attractive option. All the Time Out-reading masses heading to Le Parker Meridian or 77th and Columbus should think twice, however, and head to Clarke's for a pleasant experience and a very good hamburger. I'll be back...but probably with my own buns.