Saturday, June 16, 2012

New York: Prime Burger gone, McDonald's still here

Text and photos by George Molé

Prime Burger, the classic New York hamburger joint just across 51st street from St. Patrick's Cathedral, closed on Saturday, May 26, after 74 years at the same location (though it had two different names during that time, having opened in 1938 as Hamburg Heaven).

"A burger is a burger is a burger...Ours is Prime."

Like Patsy's, the great Italian restaurant in Midtown favored by Sinatra, or Wo Hop, the all-night Chinese eatery in the basement of a Chinatown tenement (and a short dagger-throw from the heart of the enfabled Five Points), it was a place where one could step through a door and be instantly transported into old, old New York.  And, as in those other two establishments, the food lived up to the history.

I saw the announcement of the closing less than a week before it was to happen, and agonized over whether to visit one last time.  On the one hand, why subject myself to a heartbreaking experience analogous to a final kiss before a breakup--or, more accurately, a final goodbye before a death?

On the other hand, the burgers were really good.

I was there on the afternoon of the last day.

Prime Burger was known for its unique one-person booths...

If only airplane seats were this comfortable.

...most reminiscent of a baby's high chair.  I sat at one of these, fastened the tray across my lap, and ordered the Prime Burger Deluxe (with cheese), which actually comes (came...sniff) with two burgers...

Two burgers at a time.  What would Bloomy say?

...comparable to Shake Shack's in quality, and some damn good fries.  Prime Burger's signature relish, in its traditional silver bowl, was at hand...

An experience to relish.

...and all was right with the world.

Your correspondent.

Well, not quite--the end was approaching, and would arrive in a few short hours.  I looked around at the warm, anachronistic interior.  Each square of six one-person booths, a waiter told me, was called a "bay"...

One of the four "bays" that made up the "track."

...and the entire row of four bays was the "track."  There was also an area of regular, though vintage-looking, diner tables in the back (for parties of more than one), and some little touches that would once have seemed commonplace, but are on the rare side now--like a pay-phone alcove with, if you can believe it, phone books.

Number, please.

I spoke to some of the white-coated waiters...

"In a million years I didn't think it's going to close," one waiter said.

...many of whom had worked there for years, or decades.  There was Hany...

Hany: "Enjoy your last meal..."

...who told me, as he put down my plate, "Enjoy your last meal at Prime Burger."  (He had to remind me?  But, of course, he was sadder to say it than I was to hear it.)

There was Earnest Harrison...

Singer Earnest Harrison strikes his Coasters pose.

...who told me he sings with the Coasters when he's not serving up the best burgers in town.

And there were others...

Prime Burger staff treated their work as a profession, and it showed.

...whose names I didn't get.

Well-known people were known to frequent Prime Burger.  "I used to serve Pearl Bailey on the track all the time," Harrison told me.  "She liked to sit there."  More recently, Sarah Jessica Parker...

This photo of actress Sarah Jessica Parker, on the track at Prime Burger during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, hung in the restaurant.

...a Prime Burger regular, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show sitting on the track.  Jerry Seinfeld was a customer, too, I was told, along with many other boldface names.

Prime Burger was bought in 1976 by Anthony DiMiceli, and was run in recent years by his sons John and Michael.  Accounts of the closing were somewhat confusing.  It had been reported that the DiMiceli family was being forced to vacate, much to their disappointment, by the new owner of the building that housed the restaurant--and this sign, posted in the restaurant...

...gave the same impression.  But it was also reported that the DiMicelis had been the previous owners of the building.

"Our family [owned the building previously], yes," John told me.  "We had an agreement [with the new owner] that we could stay--maybe month-to-month, maybe up to a year, maybe longer.  And then they reneged at the last minute."

I asked the name of the new owner, suggesting that maybe some public pressure would help, but John demurred.  "We want to take the high road," he explained.

So, it seemed, the DiMicelis had sold the building with the understanding that they would have to relocate the restaurant, but had hoped to stay open temporarily at the old location while they searched for a new one.  Now they were being forced to close hurriedly rather than transition smoothly to new digs.   "Yes, that's it," Michael said.  "It was all a matter of timing."

Perhaps it would have been better to have the agreement to stay in writing, I observed.  "Well, we didn't have it in writing," Michael said shortly.  "And that's why we're in the situation we're in now."

I couldn't help but think that it might have been better yet--at least for those of us who mourn Prime Burger's closing--not to have sold the building at all.  Or, if it had to be sold, to insist on a long-term lease for the restaurant from the new owner as a condition of sale.  Why they sold, and why they sold to someone who wasn't going to let them stay permanently, I don't know, and wasn't feeling Mike Wallace-ish enough to ask.  The moment was too unhappy for that.

In any case, John and Michael told me they will be looking for another location.  But much of what made Prime Burger special won't be going with them, including the track.  "I was told it can't be taken apart," John said.  "There's not a nail in it.  It was all custom-made."

This city was custom-made, too, one sweet, quirky piece at a time.  But, sadly, as we're learning, it can be taken apart.  One piece at a time.

Sadness beyond words.

Check, please.

The coffee was good too.


Well, you can't buy a Prime Burger Deluxe anymore, but you can still buy a copy of Secrets, Tips, and Tricks of a Powerful Memory: The Memory Shock Oh-So-Easy How-to-Remember User's Guide for Your Brain by Barry Reitman--foreword by yours truly.  It's now available on Amazon, in print and Kindle editions--click here to take a look.  And if you want to read my foreword--which will definitely make you want to buy the book-- click here.

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At June 22, 2012 at 5:48 PM , Anonymous Barry Reitman said...

Another gem, George (even if you weren't feeling Mike Wallace-ish). I feel like I was there now.

At June 25, 2012 at 5:16 PM , Anonymous Donna Fitzgerald said...

Great article and pic's! The booths would make me nervous that someone is going to try to draw my blood while I was eating. I get lightheaded just thinking about that. LOL

At June 26, 2012 at 8:20 AM , Anonymous Michael Steinke said...

Yeah, but you can still get halal meat out of the back of a trailer. So I'd call it all even.

At June 27, 2012 at 6:56 AM , Anonymous Diosa said...

You certainly outdid yourself with the description of "Prime Burger"--a piece de resistance if there ever was one in the world of restaurant reviews. Only you can combine two of your passions--New York history and good food--in an article heralding one of the timeless treasures of New York City.

At July 8, 2012 at 12:07 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a quaint place. The one person booths remind me of grade school desks and judging by the picture of you sitting in one, it looks to be about the same size. It's ashame they had to close, but after reading your story, I feel as if I've been there.. Thanks

At April 28, 2013 at 12:14 PM , Anonymous Geri Munnick said...

Thank you for sharing images of a place that brought joy to so many people. Reading up about 'Prime Burger' made me feel happy inside and I wished I'd had the opportunity to have experienced it. The burger and fries made me hungry and looked yummy. I love the booths and you look like a big kid having fun. The 'Big Apple' should be proud to have someone like you to highlight timeless memories.


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