Bill's Bar & Burger | 22 Ninth Ave. (West 13th St), New York, NY 10014 | 212.414.3003www.brguestrestaurants.com/restaurants/bills-bar-burger/
NO ONE IS the same person they were 30 years ago (if one can go back that far). I certainly am not the same person I was when I was 13 years old. Or 23 years old. Or even 33. And neither is this city, although it has always been wonderful, just in ever-changing ways.
The old Times Squares and Hell's Kitchen were well known as "danger zones", neighborhoods with seedy elements, odd hours, and no redeemable qualities, which were good things if you lived or hung out in those neighborhoods. It kept the "outsiders" out, and no one's judgment or opinions of you mattered except your mom's.
However, the last 25 years+ have seen the "gentrification" of Manhattan section after Manhattan section; areas people "wouldn't want to be caught dead in" (or could easily be found dead in) became, via corporate cash infusions and a couple years of union labor, places where the "new life" was. Blocks that cabs would never even drive to started to be lined up with them. Valuables meant to be hidden became Bling meant to be shown off. Young folks went from drinking PBR to paying $1000 for a bottle of vodka and a banquette. And people starting shelling out upwards up $50 for a burger.
But that was all back when life was easy and food was complicated. Now, with a recession, people's passion has turned back to simple pleasures—emphasis on both words—and comfort food is enjoying a major renaissance. Most popular and prolifically, the hamburger.
And most fervently as well. There were by far more lists, debates, rankings, etc. dedicated to the hamburger in the last 18 months or so than any food, and, welcomely, jumping into the arena is Bill's Bar & Burger, nestled unobtrusively in Manhattan's likewise "gentrified" Meatpacking Disctrict.
Lucky that there weren't that many reviews yet (the place has been open only a few weeks as of this post) on their , and they were generally positive. (I am learning to trust pedestrian reviews less as there will always be naysayers who thrive on going against the flow.)
Skipping breakfast, I jumped on the 6 train at 86th and headed downtown to 14th.
Since I work from home, it is now a rare occurrence for me to take mass transit (which I've been taking since I was 12 years old; but it is welcome when I get to enjoy some uniquely New York flourishes, like the subway performers I experienced having transferred to the L train platform. And I wasn't the only one enjoying the show.
The wait for the actual train was long, worrying since I was making an effort to arrive at Bill's before 1 p.m. to avoid any possible lunch rush. The trip itself was quite quick—two stops—and one block west and south later, I came across the innocuous, gritty, old Meatpacking District-style storefront.
Once inside, the place appeared less "scrappy"; it was pleasantly clean, very homey and welcoming.
I was greeted sweetly by the hostess who let me have a two top by the front window, next to the bar. I needed to sit close enough to a window to later take some decent "natural light" pictures of the food. The bar was to me left and was probably where most "party of one" customers sat to enjoy their food, as some were already there doing so, close enough to the kitchen to catch all the action.
A courteous waiter come over to drop off a menu, although it was also written large in a huge chalkboard near the back of what is only the front room (as evidenced in the above photos), a design trend I happen to enjoy very much, actually.
Compared to everything else "happening" in the MPD, this was a very refreshing start. The menu was concise and clear and didn't list any ingredients a 10-year old or my grandmother wouldn't recognize, which is a good thing. That means the chef(s) and cooks trust the quality of the primary products to satisfy their customers. Even the logo could have come from 1978.
The menu only listed—and needed—6 burgers, including the highly-regarded Bill's Classic with Cheese, Wings, Chili, Hot Dogs, Fries, Onion Rings, and Shakes. Neat! What else would I need? I usually wish I had more out-of-work friends to join me so I could order a variety of dishes, but this menu was so pleasingly simple I could tell that I would be able to find out everything I needed to know on my own, choosing to order, then, a Chocolate Malted, the Bill's Classic with Cheese, a New York Hot Dog, and an order of Onion Rings (remember, I skipped breakfast).
The malted came first, an old diner-style parfait glass full of rich, heady, creamy-but-not-too-thick goodness, with the addition of crushed malted balls on top of the whipped cream. Well, just take a look for yourself.
I thought it was cute that they serve it with an extra wide straw, which made it go down lots easier without the risk of passing out from lack of oxygen.
I sent an Facebook update from my cell phone commenting on how I had forgotten how beautiful the people were in this neighborhood, which prompted some of my friends to remind me what the neighborhood used to look like, all while taking in, from my window seat, this artsy mural across the street which kind of seemed to be of the old and new generational creative.
I was then just as easily distracted by my plates of food that came very quickly and exactly as I ordered them. (It seems that nowadays that might be so rare occurrence that I have to mention it.)
I started with the burger, which was, yes, bigger than the bun (yes, I enjoyed the irony of enjoying a "meat-packed" burger!), and, although "smashed" (as Shake Shack does, and comparisons will be made between the two for months to come), was still beefy, juicy, loose, crumbly, and a little pink. The lettuce was crisp, and the bread held enough to not just hold up to the clear-running, hot burger juice, but my non-"fancified" condiments as well.
It just goes to show you, the right meat, fresh produce, the right bread—theirs come sesame seeded, always a big burger plus to me (I wish restaurants toasted the seed side of the bun!)—does do a great burger make. I've been to block parties when I was a kid where the burgers were made from ground beef that sat in a freezer for months, the bread had started to go stale, the lettuce was limp and sandy, and I was still okay to eat it realizing there was no other choice.
There are burgers that you like, there are burgers that you enjoy, and there are burgers that you actually miss. It's only been hours, and considering I have to go to a Blues Traveler concert in a few hours and possibly celebrate the NY Yankees winning the World Series, I could use another Bill's Classic.
The comparisons will be made, and much like a favorite movie, album, or parent, I don't ever pretend to have one. But this one is way up there. So up there, in fact, that when I read that someone—some critic!—remarked that these burgers were overrated, I found that it said more about the critic than it does the food.
I know for a fact I will soon brave the temperamental throngs of mass transit and the character-building cold a New York winter to come back here, dragging friends into, giddy with the gift I will be about to surprise them with.
There's more! The New York Hot Dog didn't so much remind me of the street vendor dogs (which tourists put high on their "to-do" list as things to enjoy when they arrive here) as it does the old New York deli dogs. This was, first of all, much bigger than any "hot water" dog, and had a nice seasoning to it, bringing it back much closer to its sausage roots. A good snap to the casing, some bright, piquant relish and texturally balanced sauerkraut, made this easy to eat in big, jaw-pleasing bites.
I barely had room left for the onion rings (I'm an onion rings over fries kind of guy), and they were enjoyable as well. I usually like mine cut thicker (I like a higher onion-to-batter ratio, so I can really taste the onion), but they did got the crunch right, as the onions were still firm without any partial rawness.
So I'd been sat, served, sated, and satisfied in less than half hour's time; what the welcome "cherry" on this "cake" was the bill.
Two mains, a side, and a shake for around 20 bucks; what's not to love there?! (Ironically enough, a block away is located a Papaya Kind and a McDonald's and for only 3 dollars less I could get the same food but just one-tenth as good!)
The staff were kind throughout, even letting me grab a few more pictures of the rest of the space before I left.
Yes, I welcome the return of doing simple as right as one possibly can. I can easily become fond of a burger that doesn't contain short ribs or come with truffle oil-drizzled "frites". How I've missed you, burger! And now I know where to find you....
I welcome the High Line Park, a simple if yet expensive addition to the architecture of the high-rising glass bubbles of the Meatpacking District. This neighborhood used be filled with graffiti and trannie pros hooking for drugs. And I smile as I go over to the wall I had been studying while starting my milkshake and see a glimpse of the old in something relatively new. This irony was not lost on me either.
I take some photos; that's what I do....
Bun Apple Tea!
Bill's Bar & Burger | 22 Ninth Ave. (W.13th St), New York, NY 10014 | 212.414.3003 www.brguestrestaurants.com/restaurants/bills-bar-burger/