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Burger Survival

Upscale restaurateurs now flipping for patties.

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In 2001, a few years after opening the upscale restaurants Tabla and Eleven Madison Park, Danny Meyer offered to open a food stand with part of the proceeds going to the Madison Square Park Conservancy. “The park was newly beautiful and safe, and it was time to give New Yorkers reasons to use it,” says Meyer. “One idea was to present art and another to serve food.” Ironically, Shake Shack, which opened in 2004, evolved into his greatest asset. Earlier this month, it was announced that Tabla would be closing, and last month Eleven Madison Park, which the Times gave four stars, reduced its number of seats from 114 to 80, but Shake Shack is planning its sixth restaurant.

The recession hasn’t been easy on fine dining in the city, and its purveyors are clinging to their buns to survive. Whether it’s a stand-in-a-queue spot like Shake Shack, a large table-service eatery like Stephen Hanson’s Bill’s Bar & Burger—one opened last fall in the meatpacking district, another just opened in Rockefeller Center—or an intimate dining room like John McDonald’s Burger & Barrel, which opened October 14 on Houston and Mercer, all around the city trendy big-name restaurateurs have set their recessionary sights on a single concept: the burger joint.

“Burger places, unlike any other food concept, can exist on every corner, and they will all do well,’’ says Hanson, whose B.R. Guest firm owns fifteen restaurants in the city, including Blue Water Grill. “This isn’t true of Mexican restaurants or pizza places.’’ Last year, his three-star Fiamma closed, but the 400-seat Bill’s he opened last month is already feeding more than 2,000 people a day.

Meyer explains that the burger craze partly came as an offshoot of the earlier steakhouse boom. “This period succeeds an eight-year stretch where there was a profusion of steakhouses. There had to be an outlet for the cuts of meat from all that cattle that weren’t being used for steak,” he says. But money is tight, and burger spots are less expensive to build, cheaper to operate, and, at least in theory (as McDonald’s showed us), replicable. “We would all rather build a $1.5 million restaurant now than a $5 million one,” says Hanson. “I’ll open at least four more Bill’s on the East Coast in the next eight months.”

“Each of our fine-dining places requires a lot of research, travel, love, and creativity,” says Meyer. But with a burger place, “you don’t need to find a major chef or a pastry chef, maître d’, sommelier, or florist.”

Ultimately, “nobody is inventing anything here,” says Meyer. Which doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth fighting over. Laurent Tourondel opened the high-end BLT restaurant chain with partner Jimmy Haber, but the two split in March. Today they’re in court over the right to sell burgers. “He is suing me for the recipe of my burger!” says the incredulous chef, who once earned three stars with Cello but whose first move post-Haber was to open an old-school diner in Sag Harbor called LT Burger (Haber’s new chain is called Go Burger). Even with the burger, it’s about the chef’s personal brand-polishing.

“Do I care if I ever have a three-star restaurant again?’’ asks Hanson. “No. It’s not the right time for a three-star, so why take on an uphill battle?’’

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