Fatburger, Joey Tribbiani, and the Village Voice
News that Fatburger - a California chain offering the usual gloppy, salad-topped burgers associated with that state - was planning another assault on New York City reminded me that this wasn't really the first time the fast-food-chain had made an attempt to establish itself in the metropolis.
Around 1990, before there were food blogs to publicize everything, a lonely Fatburger appeared in the Gramercy Park area, around 18th Street and Third Avenue on the east side of the avenue. It was a double storefront, with a flame-driven grill and some counter seating on southern side, and tables in the somewhat wider northern half.
For someone who hadn't yet been to California's In-N-Out, the burgers were something of a revelation, lusher than the generic diner burger which were then standard in New York, and better by a million miles than the franchise product of McDonald's and other national fast food chains that were just beginning to make inroads in the city.
But the most interesting part of the place was not the burgers, or the great fries, either, but the guy who was flipping the burgers over by the grill. Dark, lank, and impossibly handsome, his name was Matt, and he told it to every customer that entered. And then he'd keep up a witty repartee with anyone who sat in his part of the restaurant.
That the repartee mainly consisted of insane boasting was the most appealing part. "I'm going to be in a Levy's ad," he told my companions and me one day. "Just wait, it will be all over the place and I'm going to be famous," he continued, pressing his spatula down on a burger patty that sent up a small cloud of grease and steam with a loud hiss. "Yeah sure," we replied, humoring him.
On another occasion, he boasted of a Hollywood screen test that he'd soon be taking. Over a period of six months, we must have visited the place 10 or so times. In all fairness, it wasn't just him: In an age somewhat before the complete hegemony of the bistro buger, when burgers were just ground beef and not mixtures of brisket, rib meat, and other fatty substances; when they were only beef and not lamb, pork, pastrami, turkey, and various vegetarian mixtures - the place flipped one of the best burgers in town.
Then one day Joey simply disappeared. What had happened to him, we wondered? Soon after, Fatburger gave up the ghost and we no longer had to wonder if walking over there from our Avenue B apartment was worth it without him as entertainment.
Then one day as a city bus went by, wheezing and spewing exhaust (this was way before the eco-friendly but pedestrian unfriendly double bus came to dominate 14th Street), the guy I was with began hopping up and down and pointing to a jeans ad on the side of the vehicle. "Shit! Isn't that Matt?" He exclaimed. And indeed it was, his handsome, tousled-hair self, beaming from the bus's flank as he sprawled on his side.
And from there Matt's fame cascaded. We were soon to see him in music videos for Alanis Morrisette, Bon Jovi, and Tom Petty. Eventually, we spotted him in Friends, where he played Joey Tribbiani from 1994 till 2004, then for an extra couple of years in his own series Joey.
And the amazing thing about Matt LeBlanc was that the character he played in Friends - the strange combo of boasting and shy, louche wit and good looks, were very much like the character he'd created as a burger flipper several years before.
Next: The Village Voice connection