Bill’s, in case you’re not up on the current burger chronicles, is the latest restaurant from serial gastropreneur Stephen Hanson, and if you believe the fervent food-blog reports, it’s the best thing to happen to freshly ground beef since the Kraft Single. Occupying the old Hog Pit space, Bill’s comprises a nondescript front barroom with high tables and a view into the frenzied kitchen, and a back dining area with an exposed-brick and checked-tablecloth décor in the cozy P. J. Clarke’s mold. Service is conspicuously pleasant and mostly attentive, and the mainstream, mellow vibe seems calculated to appeal to gurgling tots, their indulgent parents, and the precinct’s rowdier-as-the-night-progresses bar-hoppers alike.
As he has done with barbecue and classic steakhouse grub, Hanson has focused on the burger trend with laserlike precision. Bill’s might be his humblest, most downscale venture yet, but it might also prove to be his most satisfying and successful. That’s owed in no small part to the featured attraction: a tender, juicy, mouthwatering, remarkably flavorful old-fashioned burger—one that owes, it should be noted, not a little to the Shake Shack paradigm. Like the Shack, Bill’s uses a custom blend of beef from celebrity burgermeister Pat LaFrieda that’s cooked on a flattop griddle. And like the Shack, it’s all about this glorious meat: The house bun is soft, squishy, and unassuming, and the accoutrements are of the basic lettuce-pickle-and-tomato variety. The house cheese is American, the ketchup Heinz, and you have a choice of two mustards: Gulden’s or French’s. As is often the case, simple is best. Of the five burger options (involving things like green chiles, English muffins, and caramelized onions), the standout is Bill’s Classic with American cheese. That’s a function, in part, of ingredient synergy, but also of a somewhat provocative technique. What’s unique about Bill’s is not that the cooks flatten their patties on the grill with a spatula but that they do so with such super-brawny force that you’d expect that all the juice and flavor would be squeezed out of them. Instead, this creates an exceptionally thin patty and a larger surface area, yielding a burger that’s almost as crisp on the outside as a falafel ball and cooked through—but still fairly juicy thanks to its loose and crumbly construction. With the bun, it only measures about an inch and a quarter tall, with significant spillage out the side. It’s a testament to the beef blend—and, presumably, its outrageously high fat content—that the thing stays moist, despite the absence of even a hint of pink. The meat’s most notable characteristic, besides its good, beefy flavor, is its texture: excessively crumbly, almost to the point of disintegration. You don’t wrestle with this thing, you coddle it. And therein lies its stylistic flaw. While decidedly a great burger, and already one of New York’s best, it’s not as juicy and cohesive as its Shake Shack rival, and its construction can err, depending on the night and the cook, on the wrong side of floppy.
It might seem slightly screwy to order something other than a burger here, given the name of the joint. But in fact, a hot dog is a good choice. The all-beef beauties are griddled to a delicious snap and served in a buttery top-split bun, ladled with either a slightly sweet brisket-and-bean chili with cheese, or sauerkraut, mustard, and pickle relish. Both are thoroughly delicious if slightly messy, yet nowhere near the construction catastrophe that is the blackened grouper sandwich, in which the fish loses its battle with a goopy mustard aïoli and cole slaw. The turkey burger is … interesting. Provolone and garlic ground into the mix give it flavor, albeit one evocative of mama’s meatballs.
Of the sides, the unadorned French fries are the best, though the kitchen will happily smother them with gravy and cheese. And to drink, there are some suitably lowbrow beers, not-bad French wine in a box, and a selection of thick, soothing shakes that you can spike with booze, though we found the chocolate shake (doctored only with malt and chocolate syrup) intoxicating enough.