“This place feels like someone’s idea of a dream man cave,” one of my guests observed the other day, as we wedged ourselves into one of the few decent-sized tables at 4 Charles Prime Rib — the new, extravagantly hyped, pint-sized West Village chop house from Chicago’s Hogsalt restaurant group. The guest had a point. The tiny dining room on Charles Street is described on the website as “an intimate supper club,” and unless you’re prepared to enjoy your supper close to midnight, the wait for one of the café-sized tables might take several months.
The little room sits behind a thick wooden door (and a crushed-velvet curtain that’s nearly as thick). To get inside, diners must walk in single file, like sailors ducking into a submarine. The brown, wood-paneled walls are crowded with tastefully procured bric-a-brac (oil paintings, sportsman sketches, etc.) that seem designed to summon up the golden age of the great American beef house, and the light sconces are covered in beads of glass like mini-chandeliers. The lighting itself is low and intimate in the style of many retro, clubby restaurants these days, and the close-set tables seem to be filled mostly with parties of gentlemen from law offices and trading desks around town — sawing at great hunks of gently bleeding beef, yelling at each other about the stock market, the crazed state of Donald Trump’s America, and last night’s Rangers game.
As the restaurant’s name indicates, hunks of meat are the specialty of the house, but what professional gluttons like me arrive for, on my first visit, is a taste of the vaunted house “American Cheeseburger.” For better or worse, the city is in the midst of another prolonged burger moment. In the last few weeks, at curated, low-lit joints like this one, it’s been your faithful critic’s duty to gobble burgers doused in onions braised in single-malt Scotch (the underwhelming “Whisky Burger” at Augustine), burgers aged for what seems like several weeks too long (the funky “45 Day Dry Aged Burger” at the Beatrice Inn), and supersized monsters drenched in, among other things, wads of sweet onions and melted bone marrow (the excellent, but unwieldy, burger at Chumley’s).
Like a champion prizefighter arriving in town from another city, the 4 Charles burger’s reputation precedes it, thanks to the very similar, nationally praised burger from Au Cheval — a larger, less-studied, much-more-raucous bar and restaurant in Chicago that’s also run by Hogsalt. There, as here, the burger is served with a steak knife stuck into the shiny top of its fresh, white bun. There, as here, it comprises two four-ounce patties of prime beef, with a classic — but, by today’s standards, relatively chaste — topping of pickles, onions, and melted Kraft-like American cheese. I’ve enjoyed the fabled Au Cheval burger, along with an avalanche of late-night marrow bones and duck hash, at the excellent Chicago institution, but on this night, at least, the 4 Charles burger is better.
I’ve never been a card-carrying member of the burger-geek community (they all taste good to me), but the weight (“hand feel” in burger-geek parlance) is ideal, and the different elements of the sacred dish (the umami char of the meat; the crunchy tang of pickles and onions; the smooth, creamy mingling of mayo, Dijon, and cheese) create that special burger alchemy, which gets better with every bite. Unlike the “Whisky Burger,” there is no gimmicky topping to smother the flavor. It’s also better textured and less funky than the Beatrice Inn burger. It doesn’t fall apart like the unruly Chumley’s burger, and at $18, it’s a more reasonable deal than any of them. This “American Cheeseburger” is also a better deal than the $89 off-menu dry-aged steak at 4 Charles, which was hoisted to the table after we polished off our burger, as well as the thick “Chicago Cut” prime-rib chop we sawed our way through.
The no-nonsense burger is clearly designed as an homage to the old classics, so I’ll skip the $3.95 bacon supplement, and the $2.50 “farm egg,” next time I order it. But as long as it stays on the menu, I’ll be back.