New York Hamburger Guide
This isn’t another “Top 10 hamburgers of New York” list. Those lists are the equivalent of a top 10 red wines post. They ignore the variations in styles and regions. What I am attempting is a hamburger road map with restaurant recommendations along the way.
How else can you compare the $33 Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal St) black label burger and a .72 cent White Castle burger? What’s the point of a list that recommends both Shake Shack (many locations) and Schnippers without noting that they serve the same exact style of burger with meat from the same purveyor?
If you prefer listicles as opposed to context, analysis and history then just skip to the curated menu at the bottom with map.
First: Why a hamburger?
Of all the sandwiches and of the infinite things you could eat in New York, Why a hamburger?
The hamburger may be the best symbol of America. It is both the American Dream and the American Nightmare. Rooted in 19th Century immigration, hamburgers in the 20th century, became, a way for an entire population to regularly eat meat. It’s the perfect food for a country that rid themselves of the titles and rigid class structure of Europe. From the richest to the poorest, everyone’s favorite food became the hamburger. Still, it’s an individualist country, so you could “have it your way.”
Hamburgers are the first food made for the modern era. It’s the first real fast food and spurred the first chain restaurants. In the second half of the 20th century, the American hamburger chains themselves and their fast food ideology eventually came to dominate the globe.
At that point, for many, the American Dream became viewed as the American Nightmare: A country of brainwashed obese people chomping away on the same food. In the 1970s, McDonald’s became a symbol of environmental destruction, unhealthy lifestyles, and cultural imperialism.
But the hamburger survived as America’s favorite food. It has continually adapted to the styles and sensibilities of a diverse conflictive country. Today a hamburger may be a healthy eco-friendly vegetarian patty designed by Silicon Valley scientists on a gluten-free bun or a half-pound bacon cheeseburger that brags about the damage it causes arteries. Whatever you prefer, New York is the best place to have your burger.
Why New York?
The history of the hamburger is debated. Many connect it to German Immigrants in early 19th century in New York. But it’s fuzzy how to define a hamburger and where it first appeared. It’s an American creation for sure but it may or may not be native to New York.
Nonetheless New York is the world’s hamburger capital. Many hamburger styles were pioneered here and you can find every type of burger under the sun within New York’s five boroughs.
Still, New Yorkers eat less burgers and less fast food than most Americans. When the New Yorker restaurant critic, Hannah Goldfield, wrote
a guide of what to eat in one day in Manhattan, not one hamburger made the cut. New Yorkers pride themselves on being experts on the foods of our diverse immigrant communities and keeping up on the latest food trends which in the last years have been healthier options. And it shows. New York’s adult obesity rate (22%) is much lower than the US in general (37%). It is more similar to European countries, between France (21.6%) and Spain (23.8%). So, if like many travel bloggers or tourists you conclude that New Yorkers only eat hamburgers and unhealthy fast food, you don’t know us at all!
But yes, you should eat hamburgers in New York. I suggest eating a “classic hamburger” to get to know the local traditions. And then a “21st century burger”, because New York still is a city of innovation and constant change.
The birth of the Modern hamburger:
While we can’t be sure of the original hamburger, the modern one dates back to Wichita Kansas in 1916. This became White Castle in 1921, the first chain restaurant and the inspiration of all the classic Hamburger chains (including McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s).
You know this style of burger. It’s the regular McDonalds hamburger. Designed to be as cheap as possible and small enough to eat with one
hand while steering your automatic car. While iconic and extremely modern for a century ago, the hamburger world has evolved. There are White Castles in New York which sell cheap burgers by the suitcase but you can do better.
New York has long been a center of wealth and a destination for fine cuts of beef. So, while the rest of the country was eating slim cheap burgers in their cars, New Yorkers began to eat thick juicy prime beef burgers in sit down restaurants.
Broiled and better quality of meat than fast food chains. Diners deserve an entire blog post. They are ubiquitious 24 hour restaurants. They’re casual, serve American cuisine at a decent price. If you haven’t been to a diner, you’ve seen them in a million movies, usually with an older waitress refilling a customers coffee a thousand times at a counter.
Diner burgers are like diner restaurants themselves, simple, well priced, consistent and good. They typically come with a pickle and coleslaw. You can get them deluxe with lettuce, tomato, French fries and sometimes onion rings. If you want cheese, you can normally choose between cheddar, swiss and
American (with the latter as the default).
Nothing is more New York than sitting in a diner booth eating a burger. They also are a great option if someone in your party doesn’t want a burger as their menus have great options of soups, sandwiches, salads, and omelets.
In the 1930s, diners specializing in burgers were born with Hamburg Heaven, which gets a shout out in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Burger Heaven (804 Lexington Ave) is the only one of these hamburger diners to survive. Nonetheless, New York is full of quality diners. Westway
Diner (614 9th Ave), a favorite of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, is two blocks from Times Square. Court Square Diner (45-30
23rd ST, LIC Queens) one subway stop from Manhattan in Queens looks straight out of a movie and has a great menu. Ellen’s Stardust is a tourist favorite, where you wait on lines and pay double to get to see the singing waiters. Jackson Hole (various locations) is a very popular with their thick Diner Burgers cooked with a dome,
In 1950, the 21 Club (21 West 52nd St), a classic Manhattan restaurant with a dress code debuted a hamburger cooked in duck fat. It was priced at $2.75 in a world of 10 cent burgers. This marked the entry of burgers into business lunches and fine dining. The 21 club started the trend of fat juicy hamburgers of high quality meat as opposed to the hockey puck like hamburgers common at the time.
New York has many options of this sort. The 21 Club offers a $36 burger. Steakhouses compete with burgers of the highest quality meat.
Options are the classic Peter Luger (178 Broadway, Williamsburg) in Brooklyn ($16.45) or the much lauded Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal St) in Greenwich Village with its $33 black label burger.
Bar and Pub Burgers:
Still for decades, you could have a whiskey and burger without the sport jackets and expense account. Bar burgers are thick, normally broiled and made of a good quality meat.
Corner Bistro (331 West 4th St. and newer locations) has long been a destination. A dark bar popular with the beat generation with a fat broiled burger topped with bacon, onions and cheese. Fanelli’s (94 Prince St) in Soho is another example.
Classic Bars like JG Mellon (1291 3rd Ave and new locations) and P.J. Clarkes (915 3rd Avenue and newer locations) offer more upscale versions. Nat
King Cole called the latter, the Cadillac of Hamburgers.
After World War II, the US economy grew tremendously and everything from cars to houses to hamburgers became bigger. The West Coasts’
response to New Yorkers’ burgers were larger fast food burgers. Think the Big Mac. Unlike in New York, the burgers were less focused on the beef than the toppings and special sauces. Probably the best example of this type of burger in New York is the Burger Joint (119 West 56th St), New York’s most famous “secret” restaurant and Upland (345 Park Ave South) or Petey’s (Queens locations) in Astoria and Long Island City.
21st Century Burgers:
New York is a city in constant change and innovation. It’s a very different world from when the McDonald’s brother started flipping burgers
in 1940 or when Nat King Cole ate at P.J. Clarkes. There a whole set of burgers for this new world.
Shake Shack (many locations) deserves its own category. It’s a culinary and cultural force. By the early 2000s, many New
Yorkers over the age of 16 shunned American fast food chains. The trend was to eat healthier, eat fresh and eat local. Still deep inside of every “coastal
elitist,” there was an American kid who grew up on Happy Meals. Shake Shack was the answer.
Created by Danny Meyer, a Michelin starred Chef who helped pioneer the Farm to Table movement. It is like a McDonalds burger but with
dignity, made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients for just a little more. It’s grown from a single shack in 2004 in Madison Square Park to 275 restaurants around the world and is publicly traded on Wall Street. You can see it’s influence on fast food and commercial design in the US
and abroad. But how’s the burger? It’s good! It’s a smashed burger. Most New York burgers are thick and juicy. Smashed burgers, flatten the burger on the grill, charring the patty crust. Other burgers of this style are Five Guys and Schnippers (four locations) but when in Rome, do as the Romans. Go to Shake Shack.
New Gourmet/Restaurant Burgers
Celebrity Chef Daniel Boloud, owner of the two starred Michelin Restaurant, Daniel, modernized the gourmet
burger in 2001 with his DB burger at DB Bistro (55 West 44th St), currently priced at $35, this was the first
burger to include foie gras and truffle oil. Ever since, chefs have competed adding haute cuisine burger creations to their menus.
Stand outs include Lure Fishbar (142 Mercer St) and Balthazar (80 Spring St).
The original gourmet burgers focused mainly on the quality of the meat. The new gourmet may use a higher quality meat but also an exotic
flourish or gimmick. An Italian reastuarant may offer a burger on focaccia with fontina cheese for instance. The restaurants are not
always high end, but are more expensive and have more ambience than a regular burger restaurant. The prices range from $14 to $30. High-end examples include Michelin starred restaurants. For instance, the British restaurant, Clocktower offers a $28 dry aged burger burger with something called “Churchhill sauce.”
My recommendation is to usually not get the burger at a restaurant. Mostly the burgers act as a safer more affordable option for diners
hesitant to order the more adventurous dishes. Sometimes though the burgers become the star dish like at Au Cheval (33 Cortlandt Alley), new American with a focus on eggs, a supporting act like at Emily’s (919 Fulton St and newer locations) or they take center stage like at Five Napkin Burger (various locations) a spin off of the French restaurant Nice Matin). Other examples are Umami Burger (Asian Flavored burgers), and Black Iron Burger (burgers with Spanish toppings).
20th Century burgers were all variations of the same template, beef patty, bun and toppings. In the 21st century, new health and environmental concerns, a more international palette and the need for instagramable food has changed the burger as we know it.
Many of the gourmet burgers at least in part were designed for Instagram. Mostly the results are photogenic but forgettable. In other instances,
they take things too far (ie donut burgers). The ramen burger hits the nail on the head. A bun made out of ramen. It adds a distinct flavor and texture to a classic burger. To try the original you must go to Shmorgasburg (changing locations) in Brooklyn.
Don’t confuse these new veggie burgers with the soy or mushroom burgers that have been around since the 1970s. These are creations made by top chefs and scientific geniuses. Here are the best New York options:
By Chloe (various locations) opened in 2015 in the West Village. These updated vegan restaurants from new age hippies to millennial hip. Long lines for its all vegan menu formed instantaneously and it has since become the fastest growing New York chain.
The future of the hamburger world though is being decided in California. Two plant based companies funded by venture capitalists and led by
scientists are battling it out for supremacy.
Beyond Meats (served at different restaurants) offers vegetarian substitutes for a variety of meat products: chicken, sausages and of course hamburgers. Its appeal is that it is all-natural and of high quality. Distribution in supermarkets and restaurants is growing and reached Europe in 2020. Both Five Napkin Burger (various locations) and Burger Joint (119 West 56th St), recommended for their beef burgers offer beyond burger options.
The Impossible Burger (served at different restaurants) is the sci-fi veggie burger. Developed in silicon valley, it is grows the protein
hem in labs making a hamburger that bleeds. In blind taste tests, most people can’t tell that it is not actual beef and most consumers of the
impossible burger are not vegetarians. It’s not yet available outside the U.S. but it can be found on the menus of many hamburger restaurants. Good choices are Burger King with its Impossible Whooper or Bare Burger (various locations) an “organic” New York hamburger chain that has both The Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger.
- You can eat a century of hamburgers in New York!
- Have only-in New York burger experiences.
- Find burgers that match your budget and your
- Other than Shake Shack, if you can, go to the
- Try a classic New York burger.
- Try a 21st-century burger.
- New York has much more than hamburgers to offer!
NEW YORK HAMBURGER MENU
Prices are based on a basic Cheeseburger.
ff=french fries included; gf=gluten free options; v = vegan options and vg = vegetarian options.
- Burger Heaven (804 Lexington Ave) $10.95 (6oz) – gf
- Westway Diner (614 9th Ave) $7.45 (6oz)
- Court Square Diner (45-30 23rd ST, LIC Queens) $7.49 (8oz)
- Jackson Hole (various locations) $12.50 (7oz)
- 21 Club (21 West 52nd St) $36 (8oz) – ff
- Peter Luger (178 Broadway, Williamsburg) $16.45 (8oz) (lunch only)
- Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal St) $33 (8oz) – ff
- Corner Bistro (331 West 4th St. and newer locations) $10.75 (8oz) – v
- Fanelli’s (94 Prince St) $14.50 (8oz) – v
- JG Mellon (1291 3rd Ave and new locations) $12.50 (6oz)
- P.J. Clarkes (915 3rd Avenue and newer locations) $17.95 (6oz) – ff
- Peter McManus (152 7th Ave) $13.75 (8oz) – ff
- Donovan’s (57-24 Roosevelt Ave) $10.95 (6oz) – ff
- Nobody Told Me (951 Amsterdam Ave) $16 – ff
- Burger Joint (119 West 56th St) $9.87(5oz) – v
- Upland (345 Park Ave South) $24 (Small) – ff
- Petey’s (Queens locations) $5.25(4oz)
- Shake Shack (many locations) $6.09 (4oz) – gf v vg
- Schnippers (four locations) $8.25 (5oz) – gf v vg
New Gourmet/Restaurant Burgers
- DB Bistro (55 West 44th St) $35 (X-Large) – ff
- Lure Fishbar (142 Mercer St) $23 (8oz)
- Balthazar (80 Spring St) $24 (Large) – ff
- Au Cheval (33 Cortlandt Alley) $17.50 (8oz) – gf
- Emily’s (919 Fulton St and newer locations) $27 (7oz)
- Five Napkin Burger (various locations) $17.50 (10oz) – gf v vg
- Bare Burger (various locations) $13.94 (8oz) – gf v vg
- Superiority Burger (430 East 9th Street) $7 (Small) – gf v vg
- By Chloe (various locations) $9.95 (Small) – gf v vg
- Beyond Meats (served at different restaurants) options include Five Napkin Burger (various locations) and Burger Joint (119 West 56th St)
- Impossible Burger (served at different restaurants) options include Bare Burger (various locations) and Burger Kings amongst others.
New York Hamburger Map
The map contains the restaurants recommended in this article with information about the type of burger, burger size, and price of a standard cheeseburger. It shows if the restaurant offers gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian options.
Toggle the map to see only vegan and vegetarian recommendations.