Save Prime Burger, A Burger Shop With Real Character
5 East 51st Street, New York NY 10022 (b/n Madison and 5th; map); 212-759 4730; primeburger.com
Cooking Method: Broiled
Short Order: Order correctly and you can get one of New York's great burgers in a unique setting.
Want Fries with That? No; they're not fresh or crisp.
Price: Hamburger, $5.25; cheeseburger, $5.95
Notes: Specify that you want your burger salted and made from scratch.
I walked into Prime Burger the other day around 1:30 p.m., and my heart sank. It was half-full. "This is not right," I thought to myself. We're talking about Prime Burger, the last remaining old-fashioned burger joint in New York City.
How old-fashioned? It's been around since 1938, when it was called Hamburg Heaven. Back then it was open 24 hours and it catered to movie stars and politicians. Its location across the street from St. Patrick's Cathedral led its owners to proclaim on its menu, "The Gates of Heaven Never Close." Don't you love that? Hamburg Heaven's customers did too, but the good folks at St. Patrick's didn't, so the line was removed from the menu. Although it's no a 24 hour restaurant, it's still open for breakfast, when they serve a unique breakfast combination, the Breakfast Delight ($5.50): a burger, fried egg, and hot buttered toast.
But nostalgia is not the only reason we must all band together to make sure Prime Burger stays around at least another 70 years. If you order right you can also get one of the greatest classic, small, perfectly sized burgers to be had anywhere. But ordering right is key.
Since taking over in 1965, Prime Burger's owners Michael and John DiMiceli (they're the ones taking money at the register in the front of the restaurant) still get a delivery of fresh 85/15 prime chopped beef every day from one of the city's best wholesale butchers, Master Purveyors. They still make their burgers in two classic huge salamander broilers—one in front of the restaurant, one in the kitchen.
So why the need to order right? Because to keep up with the fast food chains, the DiMicelis started par-broiling their burgers. Par-broiling produces a less juicy burger. So when you order at Prime Burger specify you want your burger ($5.25 for a hamburger, $5.95 for a cheeseburger) made from scratch, and that you're willing to wait the extra few minutes.
But that's not the end of your special ordering at Prime Burger. Ask your cheerful and efficient server still elegantly decked out in railroad porter-like white coats to tell the broiler man to salt your burger before he puts it in. Our server, Chester Hawkins, who has been working at Prime Burger for almost thirty years, relayed our request without complaint. The result: a juicy burger that tastes a lot like a Shake Shack burger. Salt, after all, is one of the Shake Shack burger's not-so-secret weapons.
When your burger comes you will want to put on a spoonful or two of the classic sweet red hamburger relish you will find in metal servers. It's not made in-house, but it's another only-at-Prime Burger aspect of eating here.
If you follow the above instructions you will certainly end up with one of New York's great burgers, served on a properly toasted hamburger bun.
Do not order the french fries, which are neither fresh nor crisp. The French Fried Onions ($4.50) are the way to go. It's a tangle of freshly battered and fried sweet onions. They also need salt, so it might be worth asking your server to ask the kitchen to salt the onions before putting them in the fryer.
A year ago I would have told you to have a piece of pie to complete your perfect lunch. But this past March Prime Burger pie baker Eddie Adams, who had been baking pies here for 63 years, retired at the age of 85. The DiMicelis tried without success to keep baking the pies in house—they never found anyone who could replicate Eddie's stunning achievements. Now what you find here are standard diner-like pies.
To make sure you are getting the full Prime Burger experience you must sit in one of the 24 seats with swing-out trays. The tray swings out so that you can climb into your seat. There is no other seat like it anywhere else as far as I know.
New York and the nation need iconic places like Prime Burger to survive—even thrive. They're part and parcel of our nation's cultural fabric.