Prime Burger

Whenever I find myself near Fifth Avenue and 51st Street at lunchtime, I make an obligatory stop at Prime Burger, which is right across the street from St. Patrick's Cathedral. The burgers here are so good, however, that "near" has become a relative term. I am "near" Prime Burger if I am on 61st and Madison at Barneys, say, or 37th and Fifth. Especially if the weather is nice enough to warrant a walk down Fifth Avenue. Okay, even if it's raining.

If the food was totally crappy, I think I might come here anyway just to take in the décor. Everything about this place is old school. Not only the walls but even this clock is covered in dark brown fake wood laminate. The ceiling lights look a lot like the lights in my parents' basement in the 70's.

The staff is old school too; this waiter has been here at least since I started coming here in 1995. You'll note that he is wearing a tie, a decision that must have been completely voluntary, since several of the other waiters weren't. Supposedly some other guy has been making the Prime Burger's pies and cakes - including an especially tempting coconut cake - for 55 years. That's a lot of pies and cakes.

The menu is one of those long coffee shop dealios, but I generally ignore most of it and focus on the burgers. I don't know why they're so good; they just are. Perhaps because, as the name implies, they only use prime meat in their burgers. Or because they're broiled in an old-fashioned broiler, not fried. The end result is so delicious that this coffee shop won a James Beard Award - how crazy is that? N.B. that you have to say you want lettuce and tomato on your burger if you do. Then they charge you 15 extra cents or something similarly amusing. Non-meat-eaters can order the grilled cheese, which is also excellent. Either way, if you've already broken your diet by coming here, you might as well get one of their chocolate milkshakes.

Like Momofuku Ssam Bar, there is a definite masculine vibe to Prime Burger. Part of that stems from the décor, which resembles a 1960's bachelor pad as described by a prime decorator of the day, Carleton Varney. "Any bachelor can easily capture the feeling of a hunting lodge in his apartment," he writes, in one of my favorite, most fascinating decorating books You and Your Apartment, 1967. "To bring out the lodgelike appearance, use plywood, or simply cover [ceiling beams] with a wood grain wallpaper. If you select a wallpaper, choose the darkest wood paper available."

Prime Burger still attracts bachelors. Unfortunately, the less attractive one of these two - I'm sure you can tell to which one I refer - was the one who spoke to me, saying, "We thought it was very admirable the way you attacked that burger." There must be something sexy/threatening about a youngish, not-fatish, reasonably well-dressed woman eating red meat and carbs during the salad hour at an ostensibly male hangout. The compliment was a backhanded one, laced with the image of me "attacking" my lunch when I was eating it as slowly and politely as possible.

Oh well. Such is the danger of occupying the tiny intersection where fashion and carbs meet. I thanked him and turned back to my milkshake.

Prime Burger
5 East 51st Street, between Fifth Avenue and Madison
New York, NY 10022

Addendum: Anyone interested in finding out where the hell to eat lunch in midtown should check out Midtown Lunch, which discusses different burger joints here.


Anonymous said...

We didn't have lights like those in the basement.