The unhappy meal! Hamburgers are Brooklyn’s new luxe food

The unhappy meal! Hamburgers are Brooklyn’s new luxe food
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Brooklyn is going broke for burgers.

Whether it’s on a house-made bun or Arnold classic, crafted with grass-fed or Kobe beef, from the wooden counters of Dumont Burger to the booths of Prime Meats, burgers are no longer a simple affair. And you’ll be shelling out for a taste.

Sure, expensive is relative — Brooklyn’s burgers have yet to reach the stratosphere of a Minetta Tavern ($26) or db Bistro Moderne ($32) over in Gaphattan. But, call us cheap, there is a certain outrage over shilling out more than $10 for the grilled grub (and sometimes more if you want fries!).

Pricey burgers are nothing new, the fault of a national trend that’s turned the most basic, and affordable, of diner staples into out-of-reach, luxury items.

“American cuisine has fully come in to its own now. It makes sense that it is being reworked into a luxury food, just like the fancy macaroni and cheese fad,” said Claire Stewart, a lecturer of culinary arts at City Tech in Downtown. “Chefs are taking a so-called ‘lowly’ food and using the finest ingredients and turning it into a high-class, or at least costly, food.”

The cheeseburger at Fatty 'Cue in Williamsburg is $15. Without fries. Discuss.
Community Newspaper Group / Gersh Kuntzman

This trend runs rampant throughout Manhattan, but our fair borough hasn’t been immune to its effects, either, and we, frankly, have a beef with that. Brooklyn — which is supposed to be the anecdote to all things soulless about Manhattan — is inexorably drifting west, and we have the (largely positive) handcrafted, locavore, snout-to-tail movement to blame.

In the past couple of years or so, the borough has been introduced to a diversity of signature burgers that get fancier, and more costly, with every addition. There’s the “hamburger sandwiches” at Brooklyn Heights’ Henry Public ($13), made with grass-fed beef on an Orwasher’s bun and served with juniper-scented pickles and a side of fries; the grass-fed beef burger topped with a fried pineapple, house pickled beets, harissa mayo, and a sunny-side up egg at Five Leaves in Greenpoint ($15 with fries, but add $2 and add truffle — enough already — to those fries); and the massive grain-fed Creekstone Farms Black Angus eight-ounce burger at Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens ($16), served with a side of fries, to name just a few.

And you can’t talk about Brooklyn patties without mentioning the originators of the gourmet burger in the borough — Williamsburg’s 10-year-old Dumont (which has also spawned Dumont Burger and Dressler in the same neighborhood), and its equally established neighbor Diner, which both serve grass-fed burgers with fries for $13 — almost modest in comparison to some of the newer offerings.

The chefs at all these places will tell you there’s a good reason for the beefed-up price — the prep work that goes into grinding the meat in-house, the cost of locally sourced, sustainable beef, the fact that Gruyere cheese, no matter which way you slice it, isn’t cheap.

Over at Fatty ’Cue in Williamsburg, chef Steve Haritopoulos says that his new $15 burger, made with a “sustainably sourced” mix of premium brisket and hanger steak, is worth the asking price.

No doubt about it: the cheeseburger at Cebu Bistro is totally worth $12.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

“Our customers already have an understanding that, yes, it’s a little more expensive, but there’s a valid reason for it,” said Haritopoulos. “We’re not ripping people off. The beef itself is not cheap, and a lot of work goes into it.”

That includes grinding the meat, curing the bacon and smoking the cheese — all from the Williamsburg restaurant. (Though the bun is still good ol’ Arnold’s. “Some things you shouldn’t mess with,” said Haritopoulos.)

All that handcrafted goodness doesn’t make it go down any easier, though. Our tester found the ’Cue burger not worth the asking price (see chart). Did we feel ripped off? No. But did we want to pay $15 for a burger without so much as a potato skin alongside it? No.

As for other beef-busters, we checked out the $15 burger at Melt, which is crafted with grass-fed beef and comes with cheddar cheese, roasted tomato, and a pickle. In the end, it was edible, sure, but worth the price? Almost — the meat-to-bun ration was all wrong, and we were more enthralled by the side of onion rings.

With such weighty asking prices, it can also be difficult to divorce price from experience; we loved the Prime Meats burger, one of the most expensive in Brooklyn this side of Peter Luger, especially thanks to the heaping mound of hand-cut French fries. But after putting out $16 for it (and more for cheese and bacon), we also wanted to love it.

At Melt, this could be yours for a whopping $15.
Photo by Andy Campbell

For some devotees, though, the price is irrelevant.

“I don’t think twice about paying $13,” said Robyn Lee, an editor at the food blog, A Hamburger Today, referring to her favorite Brooklyn burger, Diner’s.

For those who want a good burger without breaking the bank, there is some reprieve in sight. Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, which offers burgers made with all the same buzz words but sold at around “fast food” prices, will open in Downtown this year. Even though it’s a Manhattan-based chain, we’ll welcome it with open arms if that means we can hand over $10 for a tasty burger and fries, and get change back.

But why bother? Around lunchtime, we find ourselves salivating over the prime candidate for less-than-$10 perfection: the seven-ounce burger at Grand Canyon on Montague Street. The Brooklyn Heights diner shows that you don’t have to sacrifice taste for cost (for other contenders, see our sidebar).

Owner Frank Konidaris prides himself on his juicy, filling cheeseburger, made with top-quality beef. And when all is said and done, it will only cost you $8.85. That includes fries and a hearty pickle — everything you need for a satisfying meal that won’t send you to the poorhouse.

At $13, the burger at Diner in Williamsburg is almost modest in comparison to some of the newer borough offerings.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

“If you want to pay any more than that,” said Konidaris, “I don’t know what you want from a burger.”

Diner [85 Broadway at Berry Street in Williamsburg, (718) 486-3077]; Dumont [432 Union Ave. between Keap and Devoe streets in Williamsburg, (718) 486-7717]; Dumont Burger [314 Bedford Ave. between S. First and S. Second streets in Williamsburg, (718) 384-6128]; Dressler [149 Broadway at S. Sixth Street in Williamsburg, (718) 384-6343]; Five Leaves [18 Bedford Ave. at Nassau Avenue in Greenpoint, (718) 383-5345]; Grand Canyon [141 Montague St. between Henry and Clinton streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 797-1402]; Henry Public [329 Henry St. near Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 852-8630]; Melt [440 Bergen St. between Fifth and Flatbush avenues in Park Slope, (718) 230-5925]; Prime Meats [465 Court St. at Luquer Street in Carroll Gardens, (718) 254-0327].