My brother and his girlfriend were in town for his big birthday bash a few weeks ago. She had never been to the city before so we did a crash course in New York City tourism. In one day. We started at 30 Rock for a quick tour of the studios graciously guided by a dear friend who devotes her weekends to bringing you the news. We peered into the windows of the Today Show set, ambled past the skating rink (still a bar for a short while), and made a much-anticipated stop at the amazing new Lego store…by request of the aforementioned birthday boy, no doubt.
It’s a straight shot up Fifth Avenue to Central Park, so we strolled uptown gliding past Tiffany’s, the Plaza, and the forgotten landmark that is F.A.O. Schwartz – all sad and lonely, dwarfed by the Apple store’s shiny glass box. Once in the park we made the obligatory Home Alone 2 reference (“Kids are a scared of the park”), did a mini photo shoot on a cobblestone bridge, and passed a wayward young lady smoking something that resembled a crack pipe. At least I assume that’s what it was, having never been in the presence of a crack pipe.
At this point we were hungry. Famished really. All that sightseeing can really take it out of you. And we’d only seen a fraction of the city. The rest of our afternoon would take us down through Times Square, generally a nightmare, but more so on this day due to some ridiculously unnecessary live concert in the middle of the street. We dragged my bro to Soho to check out the shops and jewelry-laden street tables, but appeased him in the end by taking him to Wall Street which he will be taking over some day soon.
But before we ventured out of midtown it was necessary to find sustenance. What else would I talk about? This is a food blog after all. I am typically hard-pressed to come up with suggestions for restaurants when guests are in town and instantly feel like the worst New Yorker ever if I don’t come up with a brilliant little place for each neighborhood. Midtown just below the park is a no man’s land for food, unless you want overpriced pub food or fancy schmancy upscale fare. As our hunger transitioned into crankiness I flashed on a friend telling me about the time she paid a visit to the mythical Burger Joint tucked inside the lobby of the Parker Meridian Hotel. This story stuck out to me because she spotted Leonardo DiCaprio while she was there. That is not something easily forgotten by any girl who was 14 in 1998. On the brink of losing my companions to a crappy pub, or worse, a fast food chain, I immediately shouted out “Wait! I know a place.” Triumphantly I re-routed us and veered in the direction of Seventh Avenue, dodging horse-drawn carriages and pesky guys trying to sell rickshaw rides. No I will not pay you $40 per person to drag us around in a wagon behind your bike, sir.
Bedraggled and starving, we entered the pristine lobby of the hotel, but nary a burger was to be seen. We followed the crowd to the back where a staircase led to a restaurant full to the brim with the bustling brunch crowd. Could this be it? I typically don’t associate white linen tablecloths with a place that has the word ‘joint’ in the name. But oh please, let this be it. We needed fuel. My heart sank when I glanced at the floor and saw ‘Norma’s’ stenciled in shadow. This was definitely not it.
Defeated and even more ravenous, we shuffled down the stairs. I was about ready to give up when my now 30 year-old brother took it upon himself to ask the concierge. How helpful and grown up of him! We stood waiting in anticipation and prayed he had good news to share. As he walked towards us after his conversation at the desk, a grin spread across his face. “It’s just around that corner under that sign. And the guy’s exact words were ‘you’re gonna love it.'” At that moment I knew we had made the right decision. Sure enough, as we rounded the corner, a small neon sign in the shape of, what else — a burger, came into view. A telltale neon arrow pulsed as it pointed towards our destination. We sidled down the hallway and took our place in line behind equally hungry patrons. I couldn’t believe we’d actually found it.
But our adventure did not end there. This place literally was a joint. I can’t think of a better name. And it has no earthly business being part of such an elegant hotel. But it totally works. As if the juxtaposition of classy and trashy makes the experience that much more memorable. Every square inch of the walls, table tops, stools, and counters were covered with hand-written scrawls. Graffiti of the most flattering variety. A small sign on one of these ink-covered walls requests that patrons kindly not write on the walls. I’m assuming this is a joke.
The ordering process brought on more undue stress, as it’s the burger version of the soup Nazi. There’s a limited menu, specific ordering instructions, and a definitive time limit for making your selection. A large piece of poster board printed with magic marker bubble letters tells you to choose a hamburger or a cheeseburger. Simple, no? It also conveys, quite clearly, that you must be ready to order by the time you reach the counter or risk going to the end of the line. This of course would bring great shame and added embarrassment to the already peckish patrons who fail to follow the guidelines.
Fortunately, we had our wits about us in spite of our hunger and spilled out our order as quickly and efficiently as possible. Our part in this quest was over and our satisfaction now lay in the capable hands of the men behind the counter. I suppose at this point I was merely assuming their hands were capable as I hadn’t tasted the food yet. Our luck started to turn when we snagged a booth in the back corner and sat down to admire the messages left by customers of yore. After we’d taken in all the “Mike was here”s and “For a good time call”s our food was ready. The table was suddenly piled with greasy paper bags emitting heavenly aromas. I don’t think anyone spoke for the next five minutes.
In the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, “That is a TASTY burger.” It was incredible. I ordered mine with the works, because, why not? In this case the works consists of ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onion. All the classic elements were present and accounted for. The soft, white bakery bun was practical and no-nonsense, serving as the ideal vehicle for the thick, juicy, grilled-to-perfection patty. From the moment I took the first bite, the flavors mingled on my tongue like yuppies at a cocktail party. My empty stomach gurgled in approval as I gobbled down the precious cheeseburger. The crispy shoestring fries were the icing on the proverbial cake (I couldn’t write a whole post without at least mentioning the word ‘cake’, right?) The quaint plastic red squeeze bottle of ketchup made its rounds and was nearly empty by the time we were finished.
As we chomped on the last few bits of burger and dumped out the stubby ends of fries from the bottom of the bag, we sat for a moment in utter satisfaction, reveling in our victory. My brother’s girlfriend leaned in and genuinely inquired, “Hey, what’s the name of this burger joint?” I couldn’t help but laugh, after all we’d been through to find the place as I replied, “Um. Burger Joint.”