In Praise of Diner Hamburgers

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The burger at Square Diner arrives disassembled--garnish it as you will.


One strange aspect of the Age of Foodism has been the fetishization of the humble hamburger. This has occurred for a variety of reasons: Cash-strapped restaurateurs have increasingly glamorized burgers because they're an asset to cash-flow, since a pound of burger is much cheaper than a pound of steak, and increasingly fewer of us can afford to eat steak in a restaurant. Also, our gourmet approach to feeding ourselves has led us to explore new and novel ways to make a more luxurious patty, so that now a hamburger made with plain supermarket ground beef is becoming a rarity. As is finding one that's been cooked much beyond an almost tartare-like state, oozing bloody juices and requiring several napkins to eat.


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Tribeca's Square Diner is the plainest of places, one of a dwindling number in the city.

This new approach to burgers was heralded by the opulent version at DB Bistro, where the patty famously enfolds slivers of foie gras, then carried forward by Shake Shack, where, despite its rep as imitating a plain lakeside summer kiosk somewhere in the Midwest, the rich burger patty is composed of rib meat and brisket. Indeed, meat maven Pat LaFrieda has made his reputation concocting proprietary meat mixtures for glamour burgers all over town. But in this rush to enrich and innovate the plebeian bunned meal, something has been lost.

Don't you sometimes crave a plain burger from the past? Without all the bells and whistles and myriad of options that leave you wondering exactly which ones you want? Are you tired of reading lists of toppings so long they could double as an epic poem? And patties that run to turkey, salmon, tuna, veggie, lamb, nuts, and strange admixtures of things unrecognizable to the normal diner who lacks special dietary obsessions?

The gastro-landscape used to be paved with plain burgers, but now the best place to find them is in the city's dwindling stock of Greek diners. Yes, the patties have often been frozen, and yes, the fries are sometimes mealy, and yes, the available garnishes are often limited to iceberg, wooden tomato, pickle, and bottled ketchup--but put these elements together and magic happens.

I've been studying the diner burger lately, and there's something so reassuring about the formula of burger, bun, garnishes, fries, and small cup of slaw--if you want to go wild, you can simply dump the slaw on the burger. This is food at its simplest and most elegant, food that doesn't want to slap your face. This is food that is simply good, and defines a sort of normalcy in eating that no longer exists. Nowadays, every meal is a challenge and a problem. Have you eaten well enough? Have you eaten innovatively, locavorically, and seasonally enough? Do you know the name of the chef? Have you visited the latest and most buzzed-about spots?

Take a break and find satisfaction like your forebears did in a plain diner hamburger.

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If you really want to get kinky, put the slaw on the inside!


Read In Defense of Cottage Cheese and In Praise of the Tuna Sandwich



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11 comments
DrewHunkins
DrewHunkins

Hopefully the rumors about Sietsema's demise are greatly exaggerated.  Hopefully it just isn't true.  He was always a real breath of fresh air with his down to earth approach and straight forward style.  He'll be missed. 

joethree
joethree

Robert you are the reason I read this otherwise below average publication, new doors are sure to open, talent always rises to the top.

garsleat
garsleat

Oh trust me, Robert, I'm so tired of these trend-driven dishes.  Sure, cronuts are probably 'uber' delicious, fried kale is 'intoxicating yet healthful', or thrice-fried fries in duck fat is 'decadent', but sometimes, you just want a simple donut from the Donut Pub, a garlicky broccoli rabe from an Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street, or McD fries (and they're not that bad really). Just trying too hard to be in with the news. Simplicity is bliss, I've learned.

garsleat
garsleat

I first got attracted to VV because of Robert's witty reviews of off the beaten path restaurants and 'joints'.  I used to grab the free VV newspaper, dump out all the XXX articles and reserve only the food sections.  And now, in comparison to the diner's burger, Robert has been casted aside sadly due to trend and other frou-frou corporate reasonings, ironically. But rest assure, diner's burgers shall prevail and there will always be followers. Looking forward to hear your new culinary/literally adventures!

toycritic
toycritic

Robert, you have been the primary reason I read the Voice. You are my favorite food writer of all time. I hope you land somewhere good so I may continue reading your delicious prose and follow your adventures in dining. Having attempted a food book of my own, I know how hard it is to write well about food, and you are a master of the craft. My best wishes. -- Mark Fleischmann

JohnnyDeep
JohnnyDeep

Thank you Sietsema for everything all these years. Unbelievable. RIP to the Voice.

legslambert
legslambert

The decline and fall of a once great publication is now complete.

Gary Lambert
Gary Lambert

With the firing of Robert Sietsema, Michael Musto and Michael Feingold, the long, agonizing decline and fall of the Village Voice is now complete.

suchatragedy
suchatragedy

WHAT'S NEXT? I agree with the person below - it was Sietsema that kept me coming here not the VV! 

SIETSEMA NOT DEAD! 

somebs
somebs

This is really off topic, but I just heard that Robert Sietsema got fired.  I am really sad and sorry to hear this.  There is no reason for me to read the VV if you or Musto aren't here.  I have been reading your food critiques since I came to NYC as a sophomore in college in the late 90's.  And I went to several of the Choice Eats that you started.  I will be looking forward to your critiques and food related posts in the new place you go.

JohnnyDeep
JohnnyDeep

Joe Jr.'s in Gramercy might be my favorite of these joints; great plain ol' burger.....

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