It must be the worst-kept secret in New York. But still I can’t find it. First one way and then back the other. In on a door on West 56th Street and out through a bar on West 57th.
Finally I ask the concierge. Behind the curtain, she says, in a manner that suggests I am the umpteenth person to have asked.
Behind the curtain there is a queue made up of those umpteen people. It goes through the doorway (was there an actual door behind the curtain? I don’t remember) past the booths and up to a counter, where four or maybe five cooks are a blur or burger flipping, ketchup-dispensing, cash-taking efficiency.
The decor is CBGB chic. Or rather CBGB toilet chic. Think walls griffitied with names and dates of those paying homage. Tatty posters, Seinfeld, Sex and the City and a Ramones number – wanted “vivo o muerto” – make clear that this may be the swanky Parker Meridien hotel but there was once a different Manhattan, before the bankers and wankers sluiced the streets down and washed the fetid scum to the outer boroughs. Or wherever the hell they all are now. Detroit probably.
The umpteen and me are probably here for the same reason. The Burger Joint, as this place is prosaically and calculatingly named, was named one of the top three burger places in NYC by Anthony Bourdain. So we are here to pay tribute to a man who only ever could have lived in this city and whose initials were probably once written beside those CBGB urinals.
Except I don’t think for one minute that Bourdain ever would really have named his three favourite burger places in a video for the Travel Channel. Sure Shake Shack, the best of the chains, where a few extra customers ain’t gonna muck things up. But I have a feeling there’s a go-to late night place where the cooks and the drinkers end up, where there’s a secret code to get in and that isn’t mentioned on the tourist blogs, that he is keeping to himself for ever.
I order the cheeseburger (medium), works, fries, diet Coke (it’s one of those weeks). And pay cash. Because that’s the way it should be although it seems they do take credit cards these days. The transaction takes place in front of a stack of bags of Arnold’s Burger Buns, because showing off your buns is a thing. Apparently.
There are other places where you can read about Bourdain’s extraordinary life and work, written by people who knew him and worked with him. And there are even more places where you can read pieces about him by people who never – or barely knew – him. I offer no insider info. I just liked the man’s shows, and that way the first series of A Cook’s Tour was a bit dodgy, filled with insecurity and amateur-hour moments, but that if you stuck with its two seasons, then moved on to No Reservations where his voice – the one from Kitchen Confidential and the New Yorker – starts to come through you can then watch his writing and understanding blossom in Parts Unknown, which becomes almost entirely and naturally about people, like all the very best shows or books about food or places.
He enjoyed food and drink the right way. He talks about the flavours and the techniques when he is with a chef, learning a technique, filing away the knowledge. But when he sits down to eat he talks about politics, history, science, religion and sex. Can you imagine him halting the flow to mention the cherry blossom popping in a Shiraz? No me neither. He removes the idea that somehow good eating and drinking is the preserve of starched linen and maitre d’s. Sure you can have that if you want it. But his rants on the ludicrous, evangelical craft beer movement sum up his attitude to pretension in general, and to consumption in particular. You know his best drink is the cold one put in front of him in the moment, in the place.
My name is called and I return to the serving window to collect my parcel. The burger is wrapped in paper and the fries come in a bag. I take it to my spot on the bench and squirt ketchup in the bag. A suited wage slave has sat down beside me. In front, another suit is alone reading the Wall Street Journal on his iPad. The tourists sit at the tables, speaking Russian or German.
And the place crystallises some other thoughts on New York. For this is the fakest of fake experiences. I had imagined the Burger Joint might be some sort of rent hold-out, protected by an old-fashioned lease they don’t write any more. That it could not be evicted. That there have not been seven generations of patty purveyors doling out their wares from this spot as the evil hotel was built around them, cutting off their water, turning off their heat and draping them all in a curtain to stop customers finding them.
But this was a concept and a marketing plan before there was even so much as a hint of charred beef in the air. An executive chef from the hotel helped create the burger. The curtain serves the same purpose as the closed door of the bullshit “speakeasies” elsewhere in town. It’s a charade.
There’s no fakery in the burger, however. It is pure Black Angus Nebraska beef, from one of the cheaper cuts. A decent fat to lean ratio. And it is ground once, not turned to mush and packed with other gunk to hold it together. It starts to fall into strands as I bite through the bun and the works – tomato, lettuce, onion, pickles, mayo, mustard and ketchup (I think) – drip on to the papers. It is the best burger I have had in New York by some distance.
And in some ways it is the perfect burger for New York, this least authentic of towns. The food is a confection, served in a non-secret hidden corner that tries to conjure up a lost part of the city. Only less shitty and less scary than this place in the 1970s and 1980s. And with less of a smell of urine.
While huge chunks of modern life seems to be caught up in searches for authenticity, Bourdain’s TV shows seemed to offer an antidote. Or at least clarity. Authenticity is not about sourcing your ingredients from the right place, or using the correct recipe, or grooming your beard in the right direction. If you are spending your time thinking about it, or researching it, or studiously avoiding tourist traps or still venting at the hipster wankers in Brooklyn making their chocolate in the bath, then get over it. Don’t bore on about craft beer. And certainly don’t live in New York.
Authenticity is a hoax. A gimmick at best.
Just do it all. Drink the drinks. And eat it all. Do it with other people, people who won’t talk about the sodding food and drink all night. Argue about religion and politics and sex. The rest takes care of itself.
I lick my fingers. Throw the papers in the bin and walk out through the curtain.