There are those who believe that the worst places serve the best burgers: a sad-sack lunch counter, say, with a single review from 1979 in the window, or a darkened dive whose age-old technique amounts to a grill with a half-century's accumulation of "flavor-enhancing" grease. A proper burger establishment, according to this theory, should fit certain criteria: Is smoking prohibited, except in the case of the cook? Is the floor the original linoleum? Is the waitperson a character? A good part of this humble sandwich's appeal, it would seem, is its even humbler surroundings.
Maybe that's why the last place many of us would think to order a killer burger, charred and juicy and satisfyingly tactile, is in a restaurant where waiters replace your starched linen napkin every time you leave the table. The kind of place where you'd feel ashamed to ask for ketchup, much less eat with your hands. But to overlook three-star stoves or anyplace that doesn't serve a burger on a paper plate or in a plastic mesh basket in the quest for burger greatness would be ill-advised; it's hardest, after all, to do the simplest things well, which might explain why some of New York's best new burgers are turning up on some suspiciously upmarket menus. In spite of the plush surroundings and attentive service of the restaurants listed below, it's possible to order a burger and feel as at ease as you would at your neighborhood coffee shop (well, at least until the check arrives). And there's always the subversive pleasure of chowing down on elevated diner food while everyone around you, regretful of those delicate plates of baby vegetables, looks on in primordial envy.
Michael Jordan's The Steakhouse NYC
Grand Central Terminal (655-2300)
Just because a restaurant is named for an athlete doesn't make it a sports bar. This is the somewhat touchy message the proprietors of Michael Jordan's have been sending out since last summer, when the tastefully understated space opened on the balcony of the lavishly restored Grand Central Terminal. There are no TVs, no Buffalo wings, no draught beer, no wait staff hired away from Hooters. (And, naive fans will be sad to discover, no Michael.) Instead there are cushy club chairs, friendly waiters in train-porter attire, warm lighting, and a simple and elegant design. So it's kind of surprising that you can get a burger -- or, as the menu semi-disguises it, chopped sirloin -- here at all. But chef David Walzog's hamburger ($16.95), as awe-inspiring as the view of the main concourse, rises to the occasion. And rises is the operative word: Walzog starts with sixteen ounces (that's four quarter-pounders, for the kitchen-math-challenged) of prime Nebraskan corn-fed sirloin ground fresh daily to his specifications, simply seasons it with salt and pepper, and sears it in his 1,000-degree three-by-four-foot-deep broiler. The two-inch-thick, hand-shaped patty arrives at your table bulging and straining against its just-sturdy-enough poppy-seed brioche bun like a hulking Gambino soldier wearing a too-tight sport coat to a court appearance. The burger is beautifully charred on the outside, with a rich, beefy flavor. Melted Cheddar, ripe red and yellow tomato slices, red onion, crisp romaine, potently sour pickles, and thick, salty steak fries (for an extra $6.95) complete the act. "No, I can't save the world, by no means," M.J. sadly, half seriously informed us earlier this year at the press conference announcing his retirement, but at least he's making it a better place for burger lovers.
206 East 60th Street (838-0440)
Before chef Larry Kolar started cooking at Bolivar, the trendy new South Americanized cantina that replaced Arizona 206, he ventured to Peru and Argentina to research cooking techniques for seviches and arepas. But when it came to something as sacrosanct as his hamburger ($14), he traveled back in time, to his childhood in Chicago, to steal his own mother's recipe, borrowing some secret ingredients such as chopped onions and that all-time burger best friend, Heinz ketchup. Kolar one-ups the family formula by importing range-fed Argentine sirloin, grinding it daily, and grilling it over virgin sugar-maple wood. Although the burger, served on a semolina bun, has an all-American heritage, Kolar's savory Latino garnishes and condiments (criolla onions in a lime-juice-and-serrano-peppers marinade, parsley-flecked chimichurri sauce, pickled garlic) give it a delectable foreign flair. Even the accompanying potato chips are distinctive, with their spicy seasoning of cinnamon, cayenne pepper, paprika, and caraway.
131 Duane Street (227-7777)
Red-meat types will feel welcome at City Hall -- not the mayor's office but the wonderfully updated Old New York-style steakhouse located in a newly renovated cast-iron building in TriBeCa. Sink into one of the ultra-comfy booths, restrain yourself from finishing the basket of plump onion rolls, and check out the backlit display of Old New York photos, acquired from the Museum of the City of New York, that border the room. The image of the battalion of chunky hotel chefs "exercising" on a rooftop is portentous, especially if you're there for chef-owner Henry Meer's Cheddar burger ($9.50), our favorite, and his heaping portions of hearty steak fries and curried onion rings. (Just remember to wait an hour before engaging in strenuous activity.) Meer's brilliant deviation from an otherwise straightforward burger technique is adding brisket to the freshly-ground-on-premises mix of chuck, filet mignon, and sirloin trimmings. "The brisket adds juice," he says. Actually, it adds a lot of juice. Biting into a City Hall burger is like biting into a ripe peach, albeit one with an enticing, meaty aroma, a nicely caramelized, sea-salted exterior, and a distinctive wood-grilled taste, a sandwich so addictively rich and satisfying the chef restricts it to his lunch menu. "Otherwise," he says, "we'd sell nothing but hamburgers." Children, however, are allowed to order burgers anytime, which makes them the ultimate meal ticket; let them place the order, then tell them the Backstreet Boys are signing autographs over by the bar and dig in.
160 East 46th Street (883-7373)
To those Judgment Day-is-coming critics of our city, there may be no surer sign that New York is a depraved, un-American, evil place on the brink of calamity than the $23 hamburger. So when its perpetrator, new Patroon chef Geoffrey Zakarian, says he thought about taking it off the menu and serving it only to customers who knew enough to ask for it (like Anna Wintour, who started ordering Zakarian's off-the-menu burgers sans bun when he was still feeding publishing's power-lunchers at 44), you might think it's because he's a bit embarrassed by the un-burgerlike price. In fact, he isn't: He claims his hamburger -- a bigger, better version of the one he offered at 44 -- merits its price tag, and we agree, especially if someone else is paying. The flawless bun is baked at Balthazar; the super-fatty beef is carefully ground twice to achieve just the right texture, neither too coarse nor too mushy, and grilled over an oak-hardwood-coal fire; the lettuce is crispy and the tomato juicily ripe, even in mid-winter; and the thick-cut yet crispy fries alone are worth a hefty sum.
Blue Ribbon Bakery
33 Downing Street (337-0404)
With all due respect to the bunless Ms. Wintour, a brilliant burger needs a worthy bun. They're a team, the burger and the bun. An American culinary institution. A burger without a bun is like the Captain without Tenille, Dolce without Gabbana, Puffy without his entourage. How far would Ray Kroc have gotten selling naked beef patties? Thankfully, the brothers Bruce and Eric Bromberg of the Blue Ribbon Bakery -- the even quirkier year-old offshoot of their quirkily eclectic Blue Ribbon restaurant -- understand this. Their burger ($9.50) is a tribute to the virtues of teamwork and the primacy of bread. Bruce apprenticed at Paris's legendary Poilane bakery, which accounts for the high quality of the Blue Ribbon bun -- large, flattened, slightly sweet, and egg-washed, baked in the 130-year-old wood-burning oven hidden in the basement of the former bodega (an amenity that persuaded the brothers to take the space). Lightly toasted with a nice crunch around the edges, the bun's sturdy enough to stand up to the juicy meat yet soft enough to blend in, not so bold as to steal the show. The freshly ground chuck patty -- on the skinny side, the way some aficionados say it should be -- is slightly crisp and charred around the edges (but not crumbly) and juicy inside. Topped with smoky bacon and a wedge of Gruyere, blue, Cheddar, or goat cheese swiped from the restaurant's artisanal cheese course -- or just a familiar slice of American -- the burger and bun make a lovely pair, and with the excellent Mickey D's thin golden fries, a classic triumvirate.