21 Club: NYC's First Haute Burger, But Hardly the Last Word on the Subject

"Cooked all the way through, it would have essentially been a meatloaf."

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[Photographs: Nick Solares]

21 Club

21 West 52nd Street, New York NY 10019 (b/n 5th & 6th Avenues, map); 212-582-7200; 21club.com
Cooking Method: Grilled
Short Order: America's first haute hamburger is a ham-fisted, oversized and overseasoned anachronism.
Want Fries with That? Comes with one side. Fries were good at first, but they got a bit soggy from being wrapped in a napkin. Still, you can't seriously order brussels sprouts with a hamburger.
Price: $30!

The 21 Club, one of New York's most storied and celebrated institutions, recently retired a rule that had existed since time immemorial: They relaxed the dress code. Gentlemen are still required to wear jackets, but ties are now optional, even though the management states that ties "are still preferred and greatly appreciated." For the record, I am against the abandonment of the rule, although I suppose it is reflective not only of the sad state of the economy but also the city's new casual dining zeitgeist. But since the 21 Club has seen fit to abandon a decades-old tradition, perhaps they can also give up something else they have been doing for years: serving an awful hamburger.

Long before the Minetta Tavern Black Label Burger, The DB Bistro Moderne Burger, and the foie-gras-and-gold-leaf-topped Kobe burger from The Wall Street Burger Shoppe, the 21 Club served America's first haute hamburger. It was in 1950 in fact, just two decades after the birth of the modern hamburger, that the 21 Club debuted a burger that cost a whopping $2.75 during a time when you could get a burger for a dime. It was cooked in duck fat and spiked with fennel seed. Of course, like the 21 Club itself the burger has changed over time and has become more expensive—today it costs $30.

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It was not always served on bread (making it a hamburger steak) and even since bread was introduced, the recipe has evolved. Once blended simply with celery and seasonings, the burger now reportedly contains thyme, rosemary, coriander, thyme, cayenne, fennel seed, and egg. In the mid-1980s, when it cost $21, the burger was served on grilled Italian peasant bread. It now comes on a jumbo-sized brioche.

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I tried the burger last week. Technically, it was perfectly cooked. The massive patty—I am guessing 12 ounces—had a thick crust emblazoned with clearly defined hatch marks, and the inner flesh had a rare and buttery texture. The beef is a house ground blend of top round and sirloin. It is juicy and the grind is coarse, like a steak tartare. Sounds pretty good so far, right?

Not so fast. The beef was so aggressively spiced and seasoned—to the point of tasting like a gyro—that it really didn't really feel like I was eating a burger at all. Cooked all the way through, it would have essentially been a meatloaf.

Served on an oversized brioche bun (another strike against the burger), the massive object is impossible to eat without cutting in half or even into quarters. Any flavor the meat might have exhibited was completely masked by the heavy handed seasoning. And even if the beef-to-bun ratio is correct, the thing is so large that it is all for naught—you would need to decouple your jaw to get it around the thing.

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Clearly, with the relaxation of the dress code, the 21 Club is attempting to drag itself into the new century (and we're only a decade into it). Perhaps it is time to overhaul the hamburger as well. While the one that they serve might have been notable—exotic even—15 years ago, it is a hopeless anachronism these days. For its $30 price tag, the burger has a paucity of gourmet ingredients. I am not suggesting that they lard it with foie gras or decorate it with gold leaf (actually, I suggest they do the opposite); rather, I would hope that they would offer meat of a much higher quality for the princely sum of $30, such as dry aged beef or Kobe (or even better, dry aged Kobe).

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