Monday, January 02, 2006

The Burger Joint Club

On West 56th Street, just steps east of Carnegie Hall, stands the Le Parker Meridien Hotel. Walk into the lobby, past the reception desk, and turn left, you will find an obscure neon light sign in the shape of a steaming double cheese burger. For many hours around lunch time, everyday of the week, you will also find a long line of people waiting underneath the neon sign. They are waiting to have a taste of the highly acclaimed burgers from the legendary Burger Joint, a tiny burger restaurant hiding in a corner of a grandiose hotel, hiding, that is, aside from the neon sign and the queue that advertise its existence. Tiny, as it boasts no more than six tables and a short bar, and can sit no more than thirty people at a time. One cashier takes orders and money from the customers, and two cooks prepare the burgers and the milk shakes. The joint may serve greasy burgers, but it certainly has a lean staff.

I have eaten in Burger Joint twice. The first time my co-workers took me; the second time I took my wife. The burgers were juicy and flavorful, but they were also awfully small. At over five dollars a burger, Burger Joint was a rip-off. After all, burgers are but beef in a bun; there are bad burgers and good burgers, but I doubt there are spectacular burgers that deserve premium prices and far-reaching reputation. The Burger Joint burgers are good burgers, but just one of the many equally good burgers that I have tasted in my peregrination of America. Why has it become a Manhattan culinary attraction, one that one-time tourists and returning customers alike are willing to wait for thirty minutes to eat over-priced burgers in a vociferous crowd? What makes Burger Joint tick?

The Chinese proverb says that an inn with good wines should not worry about hiding in a deep alley. What it does not say is that the inn can actually benefit from hiding in a deep alley. Secrecy, once its existence is known, becomes an irresistible draw. Everyone wants to discover its what-about. Eating in a hard-to-find restaurant heightens the joy of discovery, discovery not only of the tongue but also of the feet. This possession of exclusive knowledge gives the delight of being among the privileged few who are “in-the-know”.