In 2010, a small gastropub in New York’s East Village was struggling to stay afloat. The chef Jeremy Spector, who opened the Brindle Room with partner Dean Piccolo, was serving polished shareable plates: potted shrimp in tomato-spiked melted fontina, seared cod over fava beans and asparagus, and salt-roasted beets. The food was good enough to draw positive reviews from local critics, but not quite groundbreaking or cheap enough to put asses in seats on a regular basis. In New York City, where the failure rate of restaurants is 60% in the first three years and margins are razor thin, the Brindle Room could have become another dark space. But the restaurant’s fortunes soon changed—a steady stream of new customers started coming each night. The turnaround wasn’t fueled by massive menu overhaul or drastic remodeling. It was a burger. And it wasn’t even the chef’s idea.
“It was my partner, Dean, who started making them,” Spector told me. “I had never cooked burgers professionally. I didn’t want to be a burger spot. We were trying to do something fancier than that and we fell on our face.” A novelty at the time, the burger was made with ultra premium meat, the dry-aged steak trimmings from Piccolo’s New Jersey steakhouse. It was topped with American cheese and caramelized onions that helped the cheese melt and cling to the patty. The bun, a simple, white one, was “meant to be insignificant to just keep your hands clean.”
The burger was first only available on the lunch menu, but it started gaining traction. Josh Ozersky, a noted cranky food writer and author of The Hamburger: A History, proclaimed it “objectively speaking” the best hamburger in New York. Still, Spector held off on putting it on the dinner menu. To get it then, you had to know to order the burger off the menu. It was, in short, a well-known secret.
This is what George Motz, author of Hamburger America, calls the apprehension chefs have for burgers. “The chefs take their menu very seriously,” Motz said. “They have to think about serving a burger. They limit it, they make it secret, they make it special.” Fast-food chains, as Eater has reported on, have long used the so-called secret menu as a marketing ploy, a way to build customer loyalty with the excitement of being in the know. Most famously, In-N-Out’s off-the-menu orders can be easily found on its website under the “Not-So-Secret Menu.” Customers pride themselves on ordering their double double animal-style. There is cultural currency in speaking the language and knowing how to get the good stuff. But at other restaurants, the kinds where a server brings you a menu and the food doesn’t come out on a bright red plastic tray, chefs keep the burger off the menu for a different reason altogether: they don’t want many people to order it. Instead of ratcheting up hype with a secret burger, these chefs are trying to dial it down so that customers will order other dishes.
Once upon a time, the near universal desire for a juicy burger wasn’t a concern for restaurant chefs. Burgers were sold at burger joints, diners, and pubs; restaurants where the chef’s name was printed on the menu didn’t bother with them. This all changed in 2001. Fancy French chef Daniel Boulud, whose flagship restaurant Daniel was one of those atop the city’s fine-dining heap, debuted the game-changing db burger at his new restaurant, DB Bistro Moderne. The New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes identified it by its price point: the “$27” db burger, then a jaw-dropping number for the humble American classic. “It is quite a production. Impressive, absolutely delicious, and for me, a little pointless,” he said in his restaurant review of the sirloin burger, a baroque feat of burger architecture stuffed with short rib, black truffles, and foie gras. Grimes passed over the gimmicky patty on the list of recommended dishes and concluded of the restaurant: “It’s a rollicking, jolly place, and there’s a very good reason why the mood is upbeat. Mr. Boulud, in a casual vein, is turning out some of the most appealing, accessible food in town. Even the Versailles-burger can’t spoil the fun.”
“It is this burger eclipse effect—the potential of a burger to overshadow everything else on a menu—that makes chefs like Jeremy Spector afraid to serve them."
What Grimes missed was how Boulud’s instinct for high-low dining, as exemplified by this fantastical burger, would come to define the post-9/11 dining scene in New York City and the outsized role the burger would now play in it. Eight years later, chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr at Minetta Tavern rolled out their $26 Black Label burger, made with dry-aged meat on a brioche bun from Balthazar Bakery, setting off a craze for custom meat blends from the upscale beef purveyor Pat LaFrieda. “We installed a plancha to do seafood, but now we only use if for the burgers,” Nasr told Nick Solares at Serious Eats. It is this burger eclipse effect—the potential of a burger to overshadow everything else on a menu—that makes chefs like Jeremy Spector afraid to serve them. With a burger, customers know what they’re getting and that it will satisfy a primal urge for fatty, bloody meat.
The burger eclipse effect explains why Michael Anthony, chef of the high-end seasonal classic Gramercy Tavern, “resisted the idea of the burger.” “There are a wide variety of things that are worth ordering,” he said. “But if there’s a burger on the menu, people will order those. Even me.” It was an impending renovation in 2011 that changed his mind. Unsure if they would get re-approved by the city for their wood-burning grill, he felt that it would be a shame if they never cooked the “all-American sandwich” on that grill. They settled on making it an off-the-menu choice because the kitchen couldn’t handle making more than a limited number each night. The buns and pickles were made from scratch. And the meat for the burger—a mix of short rib, brisket, and top round—was in short supply because they buy whole sides of cows and need to use all the various cuts in different dishes.
An on-the-menu burger could destroy the delicate balance of the kitchen’s dedicated workspaces and commitment to using every inch of those cow sides. Even as Anthony found his way to serving an off-the-menu burger that worked for a restaurant, he still had some ambivalence on its larger role in restaurant culture. “It started with the crash of 2008. We were craving accessible, all-American food. We were sick of hearing what county the rutabaga is from,” said Anthony. “I wish you could get that satisfaction in a bowl of carrots.”
Atlanta chef-restaurateur Linton Hopkins faced a similar predicament with the popularity of his off-the-menu burger at gastropub Holeman & Finch. Hopkins also tried to create a restaurant dedicated to whole-animal cookery. Their off-the-menu burger originally debuted as a way to incentivize a late-night crowd to come in after 10pm. Hopkins’ “memory burger” was made with double patty of freshly ground meat, bread baked in house, and his grandma’s pickle recipe. It quickly became so popular that groups of people began collecting at the restaurant to wait for the debut of the late-night burger. “We had to make rules, like every 30 minutes you have to order something,” said Hopkins. “We got tired of saying, sorry, our griddle only does 12 and we’re out after 24.”
“This is what happens when an off-the-menu item takes over your business and the restaurant was never built for it.”
Giving in to the demand and the fact that the burger was anything but a secret, Hopkins put it on the menu at Holeman & Finch (and opened up a complete burger restaurant, H&F Burger, across town in 2015), but that presented a new set of problems. “Then it was only burgers. It really hurt our staff’s morale. Regulars stopped coming,” said Hopkins of Holeman & Finch. “This is what happens when an off-the-menu item takes over your business and the restaurant was never built for it.”
This year, Holeman & Finch once again began limiting their burgers to 24 each night and sending burger-only customers to their sister restaurant H&F Burger across town. The regulars started coming back and spot found its legs again as a non-burger restaurant. “Our chef is remarkable. I love that people now come in for whatever Spencer is cooking. And he’s not being trapped by a secret menu item.”
Not all chefs fear a restaurant takeover by off-the-menu burgers—many have followed in Boulud’s footsteps, creating a marquee burger with carefully engineered ingredients all their own. Angie Mar, chef-owner of the luxe chophouse Beatrice Inn in New York’s West Village, serves burgers both on and off the menu. “I was raised by April Bloomfield, who is the queen of burgers,” said Mar of her old boss, who runs a number of excellent gastropubs, including The Spotted Pig and The Breslin, known for their burgers. “It’s the quintessential American thing. It should be celebrated.” Mar’s regular burger is made with mostly 45-day dry-aged rib eye topped red wine-caramelized onions and double-cream cheese, and sandwiched in a brioche bun. At $38, it’s just as expensive as many other dishes on the menu, which included a flambé duck set ablaze tableside, but a price tag that high no longer sets it apart from other burgers in the city. Her off-the-menu version is topped with a crispy duck egg and shaved black Perigord truffles when they’re in season. “The Beatrice Inn was one of New York’s first speakeasies,” she said. “I wanted to do a fun, cool burger that pays homage to the restaurant’s speakeasy days.” Mar’s approach to the off-the-menu burger is more like that of In-N-Out’s—a way to get customers fired up with special insiders’ knowledge at the restaurant.
While Linton Hopkins managed to funnel the patty-loving crowds to his offshoot burger restaurant and Michael Anthony still limits it as an off-the-menu special, Jeremy Spector has come around to fully embrace the burger. After the Brindle Room was featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, he put it on their regular dinner menu. The small restaurant now serves about 100 each day between lunch, dinner, catering, and delivery. With demand outpacing the supply of steakhouse waste, Spector approximated the old blend with a mix of fresh and dry-aged meat, deckle, short ribs, and neck to get a similar fat ratio. Seven years after opening, the spot has become a neighborhood restaurant and the burger has transcended the chef’s apprehension about it. “It helped us grow into an East Village restaurant,” he said. “It helped us survive. I take as much pride in making it as a chef as any other dish. Ultimately, the burger helped us find our way.”