The Other Critics

Can Alan Richman’s Takedown Kill the Bill’s Burger?

Photo: Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine

Nick Solares of A Hamburger Today expressed disappointment in the sliders at Mark today, and you knew someone was also going to swim against the tide of adoration being washed upon Bill’s Burger and Bar. Unsurprisingly, it’s noted crank Alan Richman, who usually waits a while before turning on a restaurant (witness his review of Peter Luger), but wastes no time here. Not only does he take Bill’s down several notches in his GQ review, he uses it as an excuse to scold bloggers for “going berserk” about the burger.

Richman basically says that the burger beasts who initially set the laudatory tone were influenced by pre-opening press previews, and that “judging a restaurant by the food served at press events is like judging a baseball team by the home runs hit during batting practice.” Richman’s opinion: “The burger is flat, dry, and overcooked, as well as served on a second-rate bun … The cheese was innocuous American. The bun was innocuous seeded Arnold’s. The onions were finely diced and — no surprise — innocuous. This was not perfection. This was not the best burger in New York. This was not even a good burger.” It goes on from there, until Richman kisses off the whole operation: “I feel sorry for Bill’s Burger & Bar. It’s a mediocre spot in the Meatpacking District, where restaurants with low expectations can endure.” Ouch.

For all of his dismissiveness about bloggers (he goes so far as to question departed Feedbag editor Josh “Mr. Cutlets” Ozersky’s critical acumen about hamburgers, of all things), Richman doesn’t mention anything about the Underground Gourmet’s assessment. Perhaps calling out those easy-target bloggers is kosher, but doing the same with fellow critics would be too much of a break from form? You’ll recall that Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld praised the patty (they found it “almost as crisp on the outside as a falafel ball and cooked through — but still fairly juicy thanks to its loose and crumbly construction”), but weren’t crazy about the construction: “While decidedly a great burger, and already one of New York’s best, it’s not as juicy and cohesive as its Shake Shack rival, and its construction can err, depending on the night and the cook, on the wrong side of floppy.” Apparently the construction really erred on the nights Richman visited. Or maybe the burger wasn’t the bad taste in his mouth — it was the fact that the bloggers got to the party first and were controlling the conversation.

Whatever you believe about this burger, it’s clear that it’s the current foodie barometer — just like David Chang’s ramen before it. The genius of the Bill’s Burger, like that ramen, is that anyone can try it for cheap, without much of a time commitment (ignoring the waits at Bill’s), and have an opinion about it. And if you don’t think that opinion goes a long way in foodie conversations, consider the fact that Ozersky has revived the Feedbag (previously in a “fugue state” after his departure as Citysearch editor), just to heap still more paragraphs of praise on the Bill’s Burger. (The post seems to have been written before Richman’s review, which isn’t mentioned — so you can probably expect yet another follow-up before the ’bag is kaput.)

Long and short of it: The burger is officially a conversation piece (even more so now), and Alan Richman’s calculated takedown won’t succeed in taking it down at all. All the opposite: Steven Hanson’s recession-minded philosophy of hugging the customer (and the bloggers first and foremost) is poised to pay off big time. It remains to be seen whether the Bill’s Burger achieves the immortality of the Shack Burger in foodie circles, but if nothing else, it’s a coup of burgvertising that deserves to be studied in Marketing 101 for a long time to come.

Update: Cutlets Defends Bill’s Burger; AHT Goes Gaga for Bulgogi Burger

Can Alan Richman’s Takedown Kill the Bill’s Burger?