The Early Word: Bill's Bar & (Meh) Burger

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Here it is! The celebrated Bill's Classic, which has risen from total obscurity to the top of the burger heap in a matter of days.

The hamburger at Bill's Bar & Burger is not so much an actual burger, as the idea of a burger.

The patty that shines forth before you, incandescent with grease, is the most admired burger in town. Bloggers have praised it with intemperate prose, and respected critics have lined up to sing it Hosannas.

It's an imperfectly constructed thing, and crumbles when you bite into it, whether from overcooking or lack of tallow, I can't tell. Still, the meat tastes fine, though the bun is so damp, the patty slides back and forth between the halves, as if trying to make a run for it. The tomato is good. The purple onion is good. There really isn't that much to the whole thing that you'd bother to describe it.

In truth, the burger is a pastiche of a burger you ate long ago in a bar, when you were in college, maybe, or had just gotten out of the army in Cincinnati and lived in a rooming house. It's a burger you developed a taste for, flaws and all. A burger that was free to be itself, unencumbered by terms like Wagyu and slider and grass fed. Isn't that refreshing? Not really, unless you're prepared to totally romaticize it, unless every bite conjures a secret nostalgia for a time when food could be simply food..

Shake Shack's is the burger to compare it to. The Shake Shack burger is also a pastiche--of burgers eaten lakeside in the Midwest in the 1960s. Unfortunately, Shake Shack's is better, made with an intriguing collection of cuts that manage to remain moist after cooking, and explode with flavor when eaten. Compared to Shake Shack's, Bill's burger is dry tinder.

At least it's cheap ($5.50), and, as Craig Claiborne might have said, "eminently edible," meaning that you eat it with gusto and pleasure, then promptly forget all about it. And the french fries are good, especially if you order disco fries (a menage a trois of gravy + cheese food product + fries). 22 Ninth Avenue, 212-414-3003

A blue-checked tablecloth, baskets of onion rings, disco fries, and burgers that don't try to outshine the other components of the meal.

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See other Fork in the Road coverage of Bill's Bar & Burger.


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