The hamburger turned 100 this year. Or 110, or 127, depending on whom—or where—you ask. By most accounts, the burger made its official debut at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, though there are competing claims from places as far-flung as Texas, Connecticut, and Wisconsin. Some 19th-century cooks slapped a meatball on bread or served steak as a sandwich and were later credited with pioneering the form.
Whatever its true origin, the hamburger was a 20th-century phenomenon. It's no coincidence that the rise of the burger paralleled that of the automobile: both satisfied a national craving for fast, easy, and cheap thrills. Indeed, the burger was designed for instant gratification. Every ingredient can be sampled in a bite, and it demands nothing but an appetite—no forks, knives, or table manners required. Americans now consume some 14 billion hamburgers a year, but the vast majority are hardly worth calling burgers, let alone eating.
Take heart. The hamburger has entered a new golden age. Ambitious burger joints are emphasizing fresh produce and high-grade beef. Meanwhile, chefs at upmarket restaurants are embracing the original comfort food and creating wild variations. Craving foie gras?Aged Gruyère?Kobe beef?The burger can accommodate you.
Every American city has a handful of worthy burger joints, but as virtually every burger aficionado can tell you, Los Angeles has long held the title for quality across the board. Unless you're really slumming, it's hard to find a bad burger in L.A. But what about the East Coast?New York has plenty of legendary burger meccas; lately it's been ratcheting up the competition with bold new contenders. I set out to compare New York's emerging stars with their famous counterparts in L.A., to see how each city stacks up on the bun.
An all-out burger war has consumed Manhattan, as contestants vie to create the city's most extravagant version. The first broadside was fired by chef Daniel Boulud at his power-lunchroom DB Bistro Moderne. Boulud tucked a lobe of foie gras inside a sirloin patty and laced it with preserved truffles, then charged $29 for the privilege of eating it. Despite its price tag, the DB Burger was a smash. A counterattack came from the Old Homestead Steak House, which conjured a $41 burger from Kobe-style beef. Forget that grinding Kobe into a burger is like mixing Glenmorangie with Tang, and never mind that the result is a slimy mess: the Kobe burger was also a hit. Now you find sticker-shock burgers all over town. Le Cirque 2000 even brought back the "slider" (remember White Castle?), serving two golf-ball-sized microburgers for $24.
Of the bourgeois burgers, only DB's is outstanding. It arrives sliced in two, like a showroom Lexus with its doors flung open—the better to ogle the interior. The pristine meat is cooked to an admirable minimum, still pink and sticky at the center. Inside lurks the glistening hunk of foie, swaddled by braised short ribs. Atop are a tangy tomato confit, a tingle of horseradish, shaved raw onions, and bitter frisée; it all sits on an onion-brioche-style roll flecked with Parmesan. And the fries... my God, the fries are extraordinary, served in a silver julep cup, and uncannily consistent, with a clean and fresh taste. Look around the room, all muted earth tones and velour banquettes, and watch the anchorman join the socialite and the hotel impresario for lunch. Everyone orders the burger.
Fancy-dress options were just the opening salvo. A down-market alternative came from Blue 9, a mod East Village spot that aims to restore dignity to fast food. The burger is cooked to order (NO HEAT WAVES OR MICROWAVES declares a sign on the wall); the beef is fresh, not frozen; and the toppings are above average. It's an overt homage to California's In-N-Out burger, down to the piquant Thousand Island dressing. Onions are fiery, not the pallid facsimiles you find at the big chains, and the lettuce is icy-crisp. An oozing slice of American cheese bonds the contraption. The result is a near-perfect equilibrium, wherein the thin beef patty is a role player, not the star of the show.
Burgers, some say, are best eaten in cars, or at least in parking lots. This poses a problem in New York, since nobody owns a car, and parking lots charge gazillions an hour. Shake Shack, a sleek new takeout stand in Madison Square Park, gives Manhattan an alternative to the drive-through. Restaurateur Danny Meyer made his name with Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern; here his young staff dishes out Chicago-style hot dogs, knockout crinkle-cut fries, and sublime, meaty burgers on chewy Martin's potato rolls, garnished with romaine and tomato and wrapped in wax paper. Pair it with a frozen-custard shake or a half-bottle of wine, find a patio chair, and pretend it's the hood of a Mustang.
Hidden behind a curtain off the opulent lobby of the Parker Méridien hotel is the cheekily low-profile Burger Joint. The rec-room interior—fake wood paneling, eighties movie posters—lends credibility, if not glamour. Most patrons have nothing to do with the hotel; they're simply after a five-buck charcoal-grilled cheeseburger that tastes of summer: singed by the flame, nicely juicy, and unapologetically sloppy with bubbling cheddar and dripping sauce. It's not pretty, but this is one of the better bargains in Midtown.
Pop Burger, a recent arrival in the red-hot Meatpacking District, may be the first fast-food stand-cum-model hangout. Owner Roy Liebenthal won over the beau monde with Café Tabac and Pop; here he's feeding their ids—and bulking up their negligible waistlines—with supremely addictive microburgers. Five bucks gets you a dainty pair, served on golden brioche rolls and topped with shredded lettuce, Russian dressing, tomato, and American cheese. The meat is somewhat dry but has a beefy kick. Giant fries are extra salty so they absorb more oil, making them blissfully crunchy, though hardly virtuous.