331 West 4th Street, New York NY 10014 (map); 212-242-9502 ; cornerbistrony.com
Cooking Method: Broiled
Short Order: Best deal in the neighborhood, extremely inconsistent
Want Fries With That? Thin and crisp but often tastes of old grease
Price: Bistro Burger $6.75; french fries, $2.50
Here's the dirty little secret: none of us here really like it that much.
Ok, it's out there, I said it. We talk about burgers a lot here at A Hamburger Today headquarters. I mean, a LOT. Favorite burger lists are an almost daily conversation, and when it comes to New York, certain names pop up a frequently. Shake Shack. J.G. Mellon. Fairway Cafe. Bill's. Spotted Pig. But Corner Bistro? Nope, not once, not ever.
And yet, by popular standards, it remains one of the most venerated, celebrated burgers in the city. George Motz himself, Mr. Hamburger America says that "it's the burger that became the standard by which all others would be measured" in his exhaustively researched (and awesome) book.
Is there something we're missing?
I've got a few theories about this.
Theory 1: Luck of the Draw
Despite having grown up in New York, I only tasted my first Bistro Burger back in 2008. I wrote about it here, when I tasted it essentially side-by-side with nearly a dozen other burgers from the city. It was by far the most disappointing of the bunch (I described it as "Big, bland, and boiled tasting"). I took a lot of flak for that assessment, though I still stand by it to this day.
But I figured, perhaps I was just there on an off day? I mean, there was no salt or pepper on it (though the bacon helped in this department), the cheese was unmelted, and the beef tasted of ... nothing. I was there in the middle of the afternoon when maybe, just maybe they didn't have their broiler fired up to full steam, which would explain the total lack of browning on the exterior despite the center being overcooked.
So I gave it another chance. And another. And another. I remember a lukewarm burger at lunch, which, judging by the speed at which it was delivered and its dryness, must have been par-cooked and rewarmed to order. I remember one at 9 p.m. during a particularly crowded Thursday night. The burger was clearly freshly cooked, plenty juicy, but devoid of any charring. After work around 6 p.m. on a Friday: lines to get in, a few mugs of lukewarm ale while waiting for a seat at the bar, and a burger nearly raw in the center. Mushy, wet, and bland. I don't remember ever tasting any hint of salt or pepper on these patties.
Serious Eats overlord Ed opines that the broiler they cook their burgers under simply does not have the output necessary to properly sear a burger. I'm totally with him there. Even when your burger is delivered nicely medium rare in the center, there's an enormous band of overcooked meat around its rosy center.
Clearly, consistency is an issue, but suffice it to say, the only time I've ever had what I consider to be a great burger there was on a Saturday night around 2 a.m. at the end of a night of heavy drinking, which brings us to ...
Theory 2: The Alcohol Effect
Ask any Corner Bistro booster when the last time they had a great burger there was. Most likely, the answer is similar to mine: after a night of heavy drinking. It's the only spot in the West Village that you can get a hot meal for under $10 late night on a weekend, and that alone is worth something.
But even the blandest burger can taste awesome through the reality-distorting lens of a few too many picklebacks, am I right?
If you've never had it, the Bistro Burger ($6.75) is BIG. The patty itself is a good 6 to 7 ounces. It comes with a melted-if-you're-lucky slice of American cheese, a few crisp strips of bacon (certainly the best part of the sandwich), a slice of mealy tomato and wan iceberg lettuce, pickles, and a whole mess of thickly sliced onions on a sesame seed bun. When stacked up, it's comical in appearance.
Taller than it is wide, nearly impossible to eat without some major squishing, it's the kind of food that's really fun to eat when you're drunk, you're in a good mood, and you're really really hungry. But that don't make it a great burger.
Theory 3: Changing Standards
This is really the most likely explanation for what's going on here. There's no denying that Corner Bistro is a West Village institution. It's hard to imagine it's changed much beyond its prices in the last 50 years, and even those probably haven't changed all that much. The $6.75 you pay for a Bistro Burger will get you just shy of half a cocktail at most other bars in the West Village.
Here's the thing. We've simply come to expect more of our hamburgers these days. Even as little as ten years ago, you didn't get ground short rib and brisket. You didn't get a custom propriety Pat LaFrieda blend. Hamburger was hamburger was hamburger. Some of it was fresher than others, but it was still just plain old hamburger.
For better or worse, that's just not good enough any more. People hit up the Shake Shack not just because they like the thin, smashed, well-browned flavor of the crust on the patty, but because the beef is almost a dish unto itself. It's bold, it's balanced, it's beefy and it's fresh, and it's not the only burger joint in the city that is actually paying attention to the meat in their patties. "Fresh" and "high quality" are the bare minimum, de rigeur, and Corner Bistro's meat doesn't go far beyond that. Heck, they don't even season it consistently before cooking. I'd wager my left foot that if another restaurant opened up in the West Village serving burgers exactly like those at Corner Bistro, they wouldn't even see the light of day. At any other place in the city, the Bistro Burger would be considered sub-par.
And yet, Corner Bistro continues to weather the changes, to thrive even, and that's because what Corner Bistro sells these days is not a great burger. What it does sell is a great burger experience. When you wait in line, grab a space at one of the worn down, carved up bistro tables and get your burger on that paper plate with a side of watery McSorley's ale, you're not really buying a burger. You're buying a ticket to a museum, a pass to a West Village experience the way things used to be in that neighborhood. And that, my friends, is a flavor that really is worth tasting now and again.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.