26 May 2012

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Prime Burger?

I used this week's "Who Goes There?" column on Eater to pay my respects to Prime Burger, which is closing today, Saturday, May 26. Here's an account of my visit:

Who Goes There?
This week, some genius landlord (New York's full of genius landlords these days, you know) decided it was time to boot out the Midtown hamburger haven Prime Burger after three-quarters of a century in business. The end comes Saturday for the diner institution, so during a recent Thursday lunch, the E. 51st Street place was packed with emotional noshers. Every time one of the wacky, grade-school-desk-like, single-seater booths became free, it was quickly reoccupied. The line to pay checks—actually mini-menus on which the waiters scrawl their hieroglyphics—was never less than ten people long. Most paused at the cash register to buy a Prime Burger t-shirt. That would be their last chance.
Everyone was taking pictures. Waiters took pictures of patrons. Patrons hugged waiters as they left. And why not? Most of the regulars have been eating there for decades, and most of the staff has been working there just as long. "How long have you been coming here?" asked the cashier as he gave a sharp-beaked, pear-shaped customer his change. "About 30 years," the man answered. "It was easier when I worked down the block." "I've been here 36 years," said the cashier. "I counted it up the other day. I didn't think it was that long. Time flies."
Signs were posted all over informing diners that Prime Burger had lost its home. The one on the front door betrayed a less-advertised detail of the eatery's history. It said PB was closing after 74 years in business, but if you peeled back the pasted-on "74" you found the number "47." A diner did open here in 1938, but it was Hamburger Heaven. They're the ones that installed the desk-like booths. Prime Burger took over the space in 1965. So saying they're been serving you since 1938 is a bit of a fib. Still, 47 years is plenty old and, bottom line, burgers have been flipped here since LaGuardia was Mayor.
At Prime Burger, the human pageant could be mistaken for one from the 1940s. Neither the eaters nor the servers are beautiful, nor do they seem to feel the need to be so. The crowd looks like they work for a living, and it's no doubt that they do. For Prime Burger is that dying breed of Manhattan restaurant—a lunch joint (it closes early). Wage-slaves come here for a cheap midday repast. There aren't many other sit-down choices in Midtown where you won't go broke. The waiters just look like waiters, not models. They're middle-aged or old. They have high pompadours, Coke-bottle glasses, graying hair, and stooped shoulders. Their formal white jackets are worn and faded. But they lay down a napkin quick and bring your food quicker. If they don't, they apologize. There's a dignity there.
The clientele are mainly from the area, mostly regulars who are employed nearby. Many have been coming for decades. But, given Prime Burger's location right next to St. Patrick's Cathedral, they also get a lot of tourists. The air is filled with a potpourri of languages. While I was there, a group of nine German teenagers came in. They may have been there because they read Prime Burger was closing. But I'm guessing they didn't have a clue. Having just seen the big church, they were hungry. Where there's a line, there must be good food, right? They pointed at the curious booths in wonder and chatted in German, the only English word peppering their speech being "burger."
Menu-wise, most people don't stray far from the burgers and fries. I had two patties myself. I always spoon on some of the homemade red relish found at every table in an odd silver dish, because it's special to the place. Although I'm never sure if it's a good idea. I did so again this final visit. I'm still not positive it was a good idea. But Prime Burger is a good idea. It always was. And that landlord? Well, he's a @#$% genius. That's what he is.
—Brooks of Sheffield 


Kirsten said...

When I was there earlier this week, the waiter told me they were looking for a new spot, and that they'd definitely take the swivel desks and as much of the rest as they could. I've heard that before, of course, (Coliseum Books swore up and down they'd reopen in a new spot...), but I'd like to hold out hope.

The waiter said any news would be on their Facebook page, but I can't seem to find it. Anyone know where it is?

Annie said...

There was a beautiful video about this place made a couple of months ago. It's really sad this piece of Old New York go.

Mitch said...

I have worked for years not far from there, but hadn't gone until recently when a colleague suggested I would like it. I should say I am not much of a burger guy, having pseudo vegetarian tendencies.

I went last Wednesday. after I heard it was closing. I had a tuna melt, quite tasty, but the regular sitting next to me at the counter told me I had to have the burger.

I therefore went back again on Friday and had a cheeseburger. Unusually good (though I am no expert).

However, I would point out that you really can't escape with a low tab. True the cheeseburger was only $6.75, but if you have only that you're going to be leaving quite hungry. If you add on fries and a drink, you're up over $15, with tax and tip.

Now for this sort of fare you'll have to go to the less inspiring Burger Heaven two blocks away. Somewhat more expensive - though at least it is not a national chain - but I think the burgers may be bigger.

At any rate, here hoping that PB will find another home nearby.

Mitch said...

P.S. Wow, turns out that Burger Heaven is family owned and has nearly as long a pedigree as Prime Burger. You'd never know to look at it.


dmarks said...

How much were the burgers?

Mitch said...

Coliseum Books *did* reopen after finding a new spot - it was across from Bryant Park, not far from Grand Central Terminal. It operated there for a few years but wasn't profitable, and closed for good in Jan 2007.

Unfortunately, moving a business is a difficult and risky proposition. You have to get your old customers to move or new ones to come. I hope that PM (and Bill's 90s Cafe, nearby) can pull it off.

Bill said...

I had a bad job and a beat-up bike and a roach-infested apt. in Washington Heights, but I considered myself the luckiest guy on the planet, because I got to live in New York City. Prime Burger was one of those spots I'd go and feel all tingly, like I'd really found the place, I'd found New York. A big city full of old joints. Little did I know, that New York was already dead. It was just waiting around for the landlords to bury it.