I first discovered the perfect burger in late 1995, when my old high school friend John insisted I join him one Friday for dinner at the Corner Bistro. And by “perfect,” I mean exactly that: the Bistro Burger was large, cooked exactly as ordered, astoundingly juicy, and had an absolutely heavenly taste. Set in a boho West Village bar with a terrific jazz-filled jukebox, and costing just $5 for a Bistro Burger (bacon, cheese, lettuce and tomato) with a $2.50 side of fries, “perfect” really wasn’t overstating the issue.
Back then, the Corner Bistro itself was popular but not discovered, and the kitchen was devoted to its craft. In the following years, the city’s foodies took notice, and years of accolades followed. (The Bistro’s own outdated web page of editorial reviews is filled with raves from 1996 and ’97.) I remained loyal, and for years, I continued to frequent it, going at peculiar times (lunchtime on July 4th, three in the morning on a Friday) to avoid the ever-increasing crowds and hour-long waits. My current love of a great cheeseburger owes much to my meals at the Bistro.
And for years, not only did it not disappoint, it was never bested, no small feat in this city. For New York is a burger town. And a host of other excellent burgers exist in this city, each with its own fan base—J.G. Melon, P.J. Clarke’s, McHale’s before it closed (which deserves an essay of its own), even Silver Spurs, which managed to deliver them hot. But that Bistro Burger, man! that was divine.
But a decade of overproduction seems to have taken its toll. The past two meals I’ve eaten at the Corner Bistro have been, well, good. The basics are all there: that great jukebox, those silly booths, the simple menu, the fat burger on a crinkled paper plate. But somewhere along the way the burger lost a bit of its divinity: it’s not as juicy, no longer bursting with flavor. At the Corner Bistro, one expects a damn good burger, not just a good one, and as far as I can tell, it’s not there anymore.
Rumors have swirled for a while that the Corner Bistro’s chefs had shifted locations, and indeed, that Bistro Burger experience can now be had at the Stoned Crow, where a former Corner Bistro chef is cranking out what New York magazine calls the son of Bistro Burger. It’s an old-time Village bar, nestled in a basement on a quiet street off Washington Square Park, its walls and ceilings filled with movie posters and signs, and at least two color reprints of said New York magazine review. The Stoned Crow is full of neighborhood residents, NYU grad-student types, and more than a few people looking for that burger. And it does not disappoint. The thick, juicy patty and paper plates give a sense of deja vu to match the older-than-me wood table and the odd dimensions of the place. Shoestring fries and forget-you’re-here service complete the effect: the Corner Bistro circa 1995 has moved a few blocks to the southeast.
I won’t go so far as to call the Stoned Crow’s burger perfect, nor any other I’ve had lately, for many burgers in this town range from good (Silver Spurs’ still-hot-when-delivered behemoths) to really good (BLT Burger is underrated; $13 gets you above-average beef, fries and a shake) to damn good (hello, Shake Shack!). The Corner Bistro’s moment in time will be hard to beat. But the Stoned Crow is a fine new/old bar and meal, and worth a try.
Several months ago I began but never wrote a top-ten list of my favorite all-time burgers, nationwide, which I now bring forth, edited for recent experience.
1. Corner Bistro, West Village, circa 1996. Atop this tally for old time’s sake, but not the tops in this town anymore. For 2007 I’d place it (gasp!) ninth on this list.
2. Shake Shack, Madison Square. Man, this is a good eat. Get it with a black-and-white on a sunny spring afternoon: near to heaven.
3. Old Town Tavern, Union Square. Simple, easy, high-quality bar burgers. I often go a few months without eating here, then drop in again on a whim, and three bites in find myself thinking, “What took you so long?”
4. In-N-Out, California et al. Double-double and fries, and a T-shirt in XL, please.
5. Island Burgers and Shakes, Hell’s Kitchen. Let your head spin: 48 varieties and no fries. Unique and worth it.
6. Blackie’s, Chicago. Introduced to me last year and worth the peculiar walk to find it. Big, juicy, awfully Chicago, with great fries and service with just the right amount of attitude.
7. Silver Spurs, Greenwich Village. For the ability, noted above, to deliver to your door a 10-ounce cheeseburger piping hot and cooked the right amount, with still-hot fries to match (and near-boiling ketchup packets, too).
8. Stoned Crow, Greenwich Village. Son of Bistro Burger indeed.
9. DB Bistro Moderne, midtown. Not as good lately as when it opened, but come on: braised short rib? Foie gras? In a burger? So worth it.
10. Burger Joint, Manhattan. I find the kitsch factor a bit high for my tastes, but the novelty makes it worth a visit, and the beef is plenty good.
For the record, I like mine medium, with American or cheddar cheese, and I’m always up for finding more.