Bill's Bar and Burger
22 Ninth Ave, 212-414-3003
Price Range: $8-$15 Rating: 3 out of 5 L's
The first time I ate at Bill's Bar and Burger, I sat just a foot away from Malcolm Gladwell, who was at the next table eating a hamburger with fries while thumbing through the New York Times. A few days earlier, a flurry of reviews had come out either declaring Bill's the new king of New York burgerdom or decrying critics for their premature fawning.
If it seems strange for a burger joint to so suddenly attract a celebrity clientele and generate media obsession, then you haven't been paying attention to the burgermania that has gripped New York for the past decade. Add in the PR power of its parent restaurant group, B.R. Guest (Dos Caminos, Blue Water Grill, etc.), and you've got a perfect storm of hype.
The verdict? It is, quite simply, a pretty good hamburger, a no-frills alternative to the plethora of frou-frou burger options on the market. The beef is provided by celebrated meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda, the man who also supplies burger blends to Shake Shack and Minetta Tavern, among others. The hamburger patty is loosely constructed, all crumbly and squished down so that it peeks out the sides of its toasted sesame seed bun. It is also, surprisingly, cooked all the way through, and garnished only with lettuce, tomato and pickles. This is a solid, classic American hamburger, a seared and salty mouthful that's also a relative bargain (for the Meatpacking District, anyway) at $5.50.
A few burger variations are on the menu, including the oily yet satisfying Fat Cat (two patties topped with caramelized onions tucked between English muffins) and the pleasantly spicy Bobcat (topped with New Mexico chilies and Jack cheese). Ultimately the Bill's Classic or Bill's Classic with American cheese is the best way to go, although the chili cheese dog, a split and griddled Hatfield hog dog topped with sweet and savory chili on a buttery bun, comes in a close second.
An unpretentious burger demands unpretentious surroundings. Yes, the neighborhood's slick, Armani-clad clubgoers are present, but then so are frumpy tourists and a casual after-work crowd, wolfing down burgers on checkered tablecloths as flat-screens flash sports highlights silently in the background. Tables are stocked with condiments familiar to anyone who has ever held a backyard barbecue: squeeze bottles of French's, Gulden's and Heinz.
Is Bill's worth the massive hype? Probably not, if only because its ambitions don't seem to go far beyond providing a good hamburger at a reasonable price: a noble goal but one that hardly warrants foodie worship. Still, the Meatpacking District, and New York City in general, would be better off if there were more restaurants like it.