A 2020 Guide to What’s Left of Downtown NYC Burgers

2020 was supposed to be a record $899 billion dining-boom before COVID-19 happened. By May it wrenched into a $120 billion reversal loss, which the National Restaurant Association is predicting to go up to $240 billion by year’s end. A lot of good restaurants are closing up for good. Are we ready for the wave of ghost kitchens or the meatless Beyond/Impossible trend for vegan and sustainable foods?

I’m optimistic about how NYC evolves in the new decade, but change for sure is coming. Many of the places I love are still open for business, so support them while you can!

No. 1 East Village Newcomer
Nowon
What is American cheese, two Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors patties, kimchi mayo, and dill pickle on a sesame seeded bun dry-aged burger? That’s my favorite Pat LaFrieda blend interpretation which puts it up against a healthy competition of other restaurants such as Minetta Tavern, Shake Shack, Union Square Café, Blue Smoke, and Market Table. The honey butter tater tots are just a bonus finish.

Whatever you may think of this third-generation New Jersey meat purveyor’s complicating legacy, LaFrieda has left its mark in New York fine dining scene, asking us, “What is quality meat?”

Dry-Aged Steak Double Cheeseburger ($18), ‘murican cheese, kimchi mayo, dill pickle

Raoul's burgers
Photo credit: Business Insider

No. 2 SoHo Steakburger
Raoul’s
Once a not-so-secret, daily 5pm drop of 12 precious $19 burgers has now become a permanent menu fixture. It’s another Pat LaFrieda product, but it’s more about Chef David Honeysett’s French interpretation. Mind the bowl of au poivre dipping sauce for a proper French dip-style experience, throw in some drinks too for a boozier calm as the scene whirls on by.

Sadly, my photos were so underwhelming I could not do this burger injustice, which means I just have to go back again.

Raoul’s Burger au Poivre (was $27, N/A post-COVID), with St.-André & pommes frites

No. 3 The Gramercy Park Diner
Joe Junior
The city diner (SHOUT OUT Golden Diner) is a rarefied breed nowadays, especially something as antique as Joe Junior. I Googled “When did Joe Junior restaurant open?” and still don’t know when it opened. Is it a resurrection of Joe Jr’s? Whatever the case is, they’re still serving unfrozen, fresh chuck beef over a good old fashioned broiler. As others have noted, order it “no plancha” for a juicier patty.

Imagine the relaxed ambiance of wooden panel finishes, mechanical cash register, and pick-up bell ringing for the one waiter who slowly works through the tables. Sit back outside and enjoy this unpretentious, humble burger from all walks of the block.

Cheeseburger Deluxe ($10.70), fries

No. 4 East Village Bar Food
Paul Da Joint Burger Joint
“You have to start with a good meat, a fresh meat. We get fresh meat delivered every morning. Nothing is frozen, everything is made to your order. We’ve been working with the same butcher for all this time now. He has our meat down to what we want it to be. Then you don’t want your meat to be overly spiced or overly salted, because you can’t go back on that.” That was Matt Wardrop who took over the 25-year old Paul’s Da Burger Joint, from his cousin Paul himself, in 2007. The staff is expedient, the place is divey.

If you know the line cooks, you’re sitting at the bar counter chatting away. The half-pounder (8 oz.) burger comes with a large swathe of fixings, cheeses, and a bunch of diner sides. Get it to-go and walk around the Village that has become an open container/outdoor dining Vegas.

Cheeseburger Deluxe ($11.50), fries

No. 5 Flatiron Restauranteur
Shake Shack
I love Gramercy Tavern’s burger, but I couldn’t put two Danny Meyer spots on such a shortlist. This burger has become a publicly traded, bonafide global US export which once helped me nurse an 8AM red-eye Kuwait City layover. Visit the OG Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, where there’s a live cam of the ordering line.

It was East Coast’s decadent answer to the In-N-Out and yes, the crinkle-cut fries are superior fries, the library is closed.

ShackStack – Cheeseburger and a ’Shroom Burger topped with lettuce, tomato, ShackSauce ($10.49)

Honorable: West Village Classic
Minetta Tavern (Temporarily Closed)
Minetta’s been in business since 1937 and defines “burger institution.” Their burger’s ribeye steak hangs with no fancy window dressing truffle, foie gras, or even cheese. I went back just to check in how it’s aged in the years since I’ve had it. Honestly, not that great given the price point. But the ambiance and excellent service reminded me of why they once led New York City’s 2009 ascent as the capital of dry-aged beef.

Black Label Burger ($33), selection of prime dry-aged beef cuts, caramelized onions, pommes frites

If you got this far, what are some of your NYC burger gems? I’m always down for new burger recommendations. Special thanks to all the homies for the pre-COVID company and Melis for helping with the edits!

*Burgers eaten (in alphabetical order): Au Cheval, Balthazar, Bar Sardine, Benson’s, Boulton & Watt, Brindle Room, Breakroom, Covina, David’s Cafe, Emmy Squared, Farm to Burger NY, Golden Diner, Gramercy Tavern, Holy Cow, J.G. Melon, Joe Jr., Lure Fishbar, Nickel & Diner (RIP), Minetta Tavern, Paul “Da Joint,” P.J. Clarke’s, Raoul’s, Ruby’s, Shake Shack, Spotted Pig (RIP), Superiority Burger, Two Hands, Waverly Inn, Whitman’s Dinner, Upland. For my own sanity, I’ve excluded Brooklyn burgers.

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