Pity the New Yorker who wants to eat an excellent burger for dinner while sitting at a proper table. The city is awash in outstanding burgers, but the simple task of ordering one at prime time feels like it’s become increasingly difficult. The problem: More top New York chefs limit their burgers by selling them in very small quantities, or only at lunch, or only for the first 30 minutes their restaurant is open, or maybe just to the people sitting at the bar but not in the dining room, or possibly only on Mondays.
What gives? Sure, lots of places sell great burgers at all hours of the day, and Limited-Edition Burgers aren’t exactly a new phenomenon (Atlanta’s Holeman and Finch famously set the national standard for LEBs when it opened way back in 2008). But in New York, the number of restaurants that don’t sell their (great) burgers all the time continues to grow: The Gander’s $16 dry-aged burger is a lunch-only item. The $15 Perla burger is sold from 5:30 until either 7 p.m, or — more cryptically — whenever they run out. At Porter House New York, you can get the burger for $19 at lunch, or $26 at night at the bar (if you ask nicely enough, they’ll let you eat it in the dining room at night, but do you really want to be that guy?) . Peter Luger’s famous, bare-bones burger is only available at lunch. Navy’s burger is lunch and brunch only, as are the burgers at the Dutch, Lafayette, ABC Cocina, Union Square Café, and Gramercy Tavern (where the burger isn’t even listed on the menu).
This seems like lunacy: Why make it harder to order what will usually be the most popular item on a menu? It’s true that some kitchens use burgers as a way to repurpose butchering scraps, so there’s not enough product to make burgers all the time. But often, chefs tend to resist burgers because of their popularity.
There are a few reasons for this. First, some chefs will admit that burgers are just sort of … boring. Dutch and Lafayette co-owner Andrew Carmellini would rather allocate limited kitchen space and resources to putting together more complex dishes at dinnertime: “We pull the burger off the menu in the evenings because we want you to have a proper dinner. There’s nothing wrong with ordering a great burger for dinner if that’s what you want to eat, but you’re not really discovering anything, either,” he told Grub Street. “For a chef to cook a burger, it’s not the most fun or interesting thing,” says Jesse Schenker, chef at the Gander.
Then there’s the fact that a well-made burger still has the unique ability to become, in essence, the only dish people order at a restaurant. “I saw what the Black Label burger did to the Minetta [Tavern] dining room,” Raoul’s chef David Honeysett told Esquire recently. “It just takes over.” A recent lunch at Minetta proved the chef’s point: Nearly every single diner was eating or Instagramming their very own Black Label burger. Thus, Honeysett’s new burger is available in limited numbers, and sold only at the bar. It doesn’t matter: They still sell out instantly. Turn up at Raoul’s half an hour after opening, and you’ll find a bar with standing room only while the restaurant’s dining room sits empty.
Also, burgers aren’t the profit-drivers most people think. In a fine-dining setting, the kind of setting where Limited Edition Burgers are most often found — or, rather, not found if you arrive at 8 p.m. on a Friday — popular burgers can actually weaken the bottom line. At dinner, Schenker says, “a burger would draw the check average down.” As Noah Bernamoff explains, “You’re hitting someone up for a $25 cover instead of a $45 cover.” Bernamoff originally offered Mile End’s smoked-meat burger one night a week at his Brooklyn outpost before making the switch and selling it every day. “Our ticket average isn’t that huge, our other food isn’t comparatively expensive, and people really enjoy the burger,” he says. “It made sense for us to have it all day.” But it makes no financial sense at a restaurant like Peter Luger, where selling a burger ($12 at lunch) during the dinner rush would only invite people to order it instead of steak (starting price: around $50 per person). Hence: Strategic burger deployment. Chefs figured they can make burgers work for them like a high-profit happy hour, luring customers in with killer hamburgers during off hours when the need to fill seats outweighs the need to pump up the check.
It is a frustratingly effective strategy, one that burger lovers, perhaps drawn even more strongly to a more elusive quarry, are powerless to resist. Once someone gets it into their head that they need to try a Limited Edition Burger, they often can’t be deterred. On a recent weekday afternoon, I was looking for a colleague in the office who was, surprisingly, nowhere to be found. Instead, he was at Raoul’s trying to score a burger. At 5:30, he returned, dejected. “They were already sold out,” he said. “I’m going to try again on Monday.”