La Bonbonniere. Yeah, I had to look it up, too. It's a wedding favor—a crystal or porcelain trinket box that traditionally held a few sugar cubes back in the day when sugar was expensive and symbolized wealth.
Is La Bonbonniere a box? You could say that. Does it or its contents symbolize wealth? Not these days. It's a typical greasy spoon coffee shop with formica counters and padded vinyl stools.
Meg Hourihan first tipped me to its burger, saying, "I think what makes it so perfect is they put cheese on both side of the bun, so the juicy, flavorful meat is sandwiched between bread and cheese. I used to live nearby and went there often. Now it's not so convenient, so I don't just drop in for lunch. I really miss that burger." Meg and I made vague plans to visit but never did, so I finally went on my own yesterday.
The place is plastered with art and posters and, interestingly enough, headshots of and postcards from plenty of stars. Like, people you'd recognize, people. Ethan Hawke, Molly Shannon, Julia Stiles, James Gandofini, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
And, while I was there, I felt I got a little peek at the history and real charm of the place. A woman whom I took to be one of the owners kept staring at a bearded, graying late 30s hipster outside, talking to diners at one of the three two-top tables on the sidewalk. "That's Mike, I think," she said. "That's Mike." She checked a framed piece of art on the wall and confirmed it.
Minutes later he came in, gave her a hug, and caught her up on his life. "I'm in L.A. now, still making music. I just came by to visit while I'm in town."
He looked like someone I should have recognized but didn't. So I checked the art on the wall as I left the place. It was an autographed CD, Live at La Bonbonniere, by the Candy Butchers. Looking online later, I found out his name was Mike Viola and he's in town playing Joe's Pub tomorrow night.
The place has clearly made an impression on a number of folks, and it's easy to see why. It's comfortable and laid back. They serve you quickly but then let you linger; I stayed a bit, doing my crossword puzzle and soaking up the atmosphere (after having soaked up some grease).
How was the burger, though?
It is flavorful and very juicy, as Meg is quoted above, and they're still melting two pieces of American cheese on both sides of the bun. It's griddled. It looks like it has some exterior char on the patty, but there's no satisfying crunch to that char.
It's served on a puffy white-bread bun with just a hint of sesame seeds, and the whole thing is uniformly textured—for the most part. The bun is so squishy soft and the meat is just as yielding that there's almost no difference in bite-resistance from bun to meat. Which is great. The meat, which tasted as if they're using all chuck, was flavorful enough but was juicy as all get out.
Its got a medium-coarse grind on it and is lightly packed, as you can see in the autopsy. Beef to bun ratio is good. My only complaint is that there was a bit of gristle in the patty. Not much, and only in my first couple of bites, but enough to make me say hrmgh.
It's basically a decent little greasy spoon burger. Is it a burger I'd go out of my way for? No. But it's good for the neighborhood. I wonder if Meg feels the same way or if she's gone out of her way to revisit the place.
28 Eighth Avenue, New York NY 10014 (near West 12th Street; map)
Notes: They close around 6 p.m., which I've found out the hard way many a time while trying to take a hungry girlfriend there after work