NYC: Bright Lights, Big Burger at The Odeon

AHT: New York

Burger reviews in the New York City area.

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Odeon

145 West Broadway New York, NY 10013 (map); 212-708-7414;
Cooking method: Grilled
Short Order: A classic burger at a historical restaurant.
Want Fries With That? Solid, well-seasoned shoestring fries come with the burger.
Price: Hamburger, $16 at lunch, $18 at dinner; $2 more for cheese

When intrepid editor Robyn Lee asked me to review burgers for A Hamburger Today, I rushed to formally compile what had been a collection of disparate Google Maps listing half-remembered burger recommendations alongside scribbled, hand-written notes whose references seemed obvious at the time, but later proved undecipherable on sober examination. Still, I slogged through, compiling a thick Google Map I boldly titled "On the NYC Burger Trail." Though I was confident that the sheer quantity and potentially quality of burgers would keep me busy until global warming sunk the City, new burger recommendations sprung up daily.

The Odeon was one of those places, added on the strength of no less than Daniel Boulud's proclamation in AHT's roundup of chefs' favorite burgers in New York City that "after 30 years they still make a kick ass burger!" Who can argue with such detailed praise? Regardless, I was intrigued, and The Odeon was soon added to the burger trail.

Thirty years is a long time to sell anything, and The Odeon has a more interesting history than most other restaurants. In fact, Gael Greene named it one of the top ten "most important" restaurants in New York City (whatever that's worth). The Odeon opened in late 1980, the first restaurant for now established restaurateur Keith McNally, his brother Brian, and Lynn Wagenknecht (who now owns the restaurant). It soon caught fire, with the blazing neon sign screaming "CAFETERIA" and "ODEON" beckoning artists, actors, and writers to once grimy, now hip Tribeca. Writing for Vanity Fair in 2005, Frank DiGiacomo's oral history of The Odeon is worth a read if you're as interested as I am in stories of fist fights, Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat throwing wet balls of toilet paper, John Belushi raiding the walk-in after closing, and cocaine-fueled binges involving Lorne Michaels, Martin Scorsese, Rick James, and Robert DeNiro. And these are the stories they printed!

Ignoring the ghosts of the The Odeon for a moment, let's get back to the food. The burger ($16 at lunch, $18 at dinner), according to executive chef Vincent Nargi, has more or less remained the same since he took the position in 2005. Nargi uses a Pat LaFrieda blend of chuck and short rib from Creekstone Farms. The patty is an eight-ounce portion, rubbed with chopped garlic and grilled over charcoal. It's served on a toasted sesame seeded challah bun from Amy's Bread and comes with a choice of Gruyère, roquefort, cheddar, or goat cheese for an extra $2. Another $2 will get you a topping of bacon.

Crisp, well-seasoned shoestring fries are included with "Odeon Sauce," which is essentially their version of a chipotle mayo. Here, it was a little less assertive than I'd hoped.

We opted for Gruyère along with bacon. The patty was exceptionally beefy, with a pronounced grill flavor. I could find few complaints about the beef, and even fewer about the well-toasted, barely sweet bun holding everything together. The bibb lettuce, red onions, and tomato proved as fresh as I could hope for without interfering with the beef and bacon.

Overall, this is a good burger—until you consider the value. For a few dollars more, you could make the short hop to Minetta Tavern for the Black Label burger. You could also find a solid burger at the similarly priced Balthazar, or head over to Brinkley's on Broome for a few dollars less. Still, some people will pay a premium to eat a burger in the same booth where Richard Serra or Jay McInerney once frequented.

The Odeon's days as the coolest spot in Manhattan are far behind it, but you can still sidle up to the old art deco bar and imagine John Belushi fixing a late night hamburger while high-fiving Andy Warhol over an unconscious Elizabeth Taylor. That's nearly worth the price of admission.

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