Saturday’s post-swimming dinner of burgers and beer at the revered Corner Bistro led me and Nathan to an interesting discussion about what makes a good burger and whether there is such a thing at all, a point on which we have disagreed repeatedly in the last three-and-a-half years.

While chowing down a $6.50 Bistro Burger, Nathan remarked that this was as good as burgers got, and didn’t I agree. Though I was enjoying the burger thoroughly, I replied that, no, I’ve had much better burgers, and that this was fine for bar-eating with beer. We went on to discuss my favorite burgers (such as at Landmarc and especially at Tessaro’s in Pittsburgh, serving the world’s best burger since 1984). What makes them better, or special at all? Well, the bun, for one. And the cheese. And the fresh, perfectly grilled meat.

But Nathan wasn’t convinced. First, he told me that burgers are burgers, and that the setting is more important than the food. A mediocre burger at a fun backyard party is as good as burgers get, he said. He eventually admitted that he finds burgers inappropriate in most restaurant settings, which led us to the conclusion that, in fact, sandwiches and other finger foods are somewhat inappropriate in most restaurants, including Landmarc. This has never stopped me from ordering one, and in fact I order them specifically in nice restaurants, expecting especially good preparations and usually getting them (such as the one I had recently at Balthazar).

In short, Nathan can’t tolerate the elevation of hamburgers, hot dogs, and other party foods. They are meant to be enjoyed at a party or bar or on the street with friends, not stuffed with foie gras and truffles. They should be cheap, never costing more than $8, and that ought to include fries.

I’m inclined to agree with him somewhat. Burgers can and should be elevated in certain ways in certain restaurants. What gets me is when a restaurant has a $15 burger that isn’t special. Don’t waste my time, basically. But a perfect burger, such as a Tessaro’s bacon–blue cheeseburger, perfect from bun to toasted bun, is priceless.

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