What I love about New York City is it keeps turning up new treasures no matter how long you've lived here. By rights, I should have known about Prime Burger on 51st Street near Fifth years ago. Maybe I've missed it because it's hidden in the shadow of St. Patrick's Cathedral I missed it all these years, and I pretty much avoid the Church. But yesterday, I decided to walk through the Cathedral, and my reward upon exiting on the 51st Street side was to be faced with an awning that read, Gertrude Stein-like, "Burger is a burger is a burger—Ours is Prime." Intrigued, I approached the unassuming little coffee shop. Plenty of articles in the window attested to its longevity and greatness. The site was once that of the first Burger Heaven in NYC, they said; the place became Prime Burger in the 1960s and has been so ever since. So iconic is the joint that it was given a James Beard Award in 2005. A Beard Award for a burger joint. Now, that's some burger joint.
So, I stepped in for an early, unscheduled dinner. The place looked untouched. Classic dull metal, conical lighting fixtures hung from the ceiling. A long counter snaked along the right side of the room. The cash register had an old-style change chute attached. The waiters work white jackets. The Beard medal was sloppily hung from a picture behind the register. (The sight reminded my of those movie stars who say they keep their Oscar in the bathroom.) You had to love the place.
Best of all was the seating. On the left, there were two semi-circles of what looked like elementary-school desks. A wooden plank attached to the arm of a chair pivoted out so you could sit and then pivoted back in to serve as your individual table. Very odd and singular. They reminded me of a similar set-up at Louis' Lunch, the classic burger place in New Haven. (They claim to have invented the hamburger.) The arrangement is referred to as "the track" by the waiters.
I kept it simple: I ordered a cheeseburger and a Diet Coke. As I waited, a newspaper clipping informed me that I had inadvertently sat in the very seat occupied by Sarah Jessica Parker in 2005. Some publicity shoot. Well, well. The burger arrived, four ounces of beef on a simple bun on a paper plate. I was informed of the presence of ketchup and a spicy pepper relish at my elbow. The burger was good. Not special or distinctive in any way. Just good in the way you expect all cheeseburgers to be good. A very reassuring cheeseburger. Cost $4.95.