I’m a diner burger romantic. The best burger I ever ate cost just $3.75 at a 24-hour Dallas greasy spoon, a block from Baylor hospital near a deserted downtown. It was 4am on a Wednesday morning. I’d recently decided I was going to write for a living even though I’d never written professionally, studied writing, written for pleasure or written out of a compulsion to write. Awareness that you’re flushing your life down the toilet can make sleep difficult, so laying in bed I’d decided to embrace my nitwit career choice and start doing writer things, right away. As I sat alone surveying the sparsely populated alt universe of shift workers and down-and-outs, one thought dominated my mind: “Oh my god, this burger is so *$@*&#! good. Being a writer really is the best.”
These days appreciation for the diner burger is on the wane thanks to the rise of the It Burger, and the decade-long explosion of quality dining options that aren’t diners. Here’s why that needs to change:
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The diner burger is the best value in food
For very few dollars, you’re guaranteed both a satisfying meal and the opportunity to eat THE GREAT UNIFYING FORCE THAT HOLDS AMERICA TOGETHER. The diner burger is a beautiful constant no matter whether your state is red, blue, purple or goldenrod. The same thin, grilled patties are served by heartland grandmothers and immigrants from Greece and Ukraine. It’s enjoyed by stockbrokers, ER nurses, people who sell grain silos, and that disheveled, neurotic guy over there working on a screenplay about a stockbroker who marries an ER nurse whose dad sells grain silos and does not approve of slick, big-city stockbrokers. If that terrible concept sells, 20 years from now that screenwriter will still be talking about how much he misses the days when he subsisted on diner burgers.
The diner burger is what it says it is
If you ordered a whisky and the bartender said, “Try this one, it’s made with cognac,” you wouldn’t be wrong to respond “But... that’s not a whisky.” In the same vein, doesn’t a showy infusion of pork belly or foie gras call into question a sandwich’s status as a burger? Prime rib is at least beef, but raiding a hotel ballroom buffet for burger meat still feels like overkill. At the end of the day, all you need is ground beef of sufficient quality that you won’t be sent to the hospital. Honesty is an extraordinary condiment; it’ll take care of the rest.
The standard cheeses are the perfect cheeses
Cheddar. Swiss. American. They cling to the diner patty like a fitted sheet, complementing but never overwhelming. You can’t say the same for fancy burger cheeses like Roquefort, Gorgonzola, aged Muenster, Comté or Emmi Gruyère. All can be delicious in other contexts, but melted on a burger they taste like a covert comeuppance for the profligate class, an ingredient the chef bought off Tyler Durden.
You can find happiness in the diner burger’s personal philosophy
If I don’t have it, I don’t need it.* That’s how a diner burger looks at life. It doesn’t envy a fancy burger’s Camembert, or even its black caviar, because it knows those things would enhance its already perfect existence no more than a shiny $300 shirt would enhance your already perfect existence. Frankly, it doesn’t even need lettuce, tomato, or onions. Those “deluxe” options are the equivalent of an old, ill-fitting suit obstinate men throw on when they’re told they have to dress up for an event they’d just as soon not attend.
*This mantra definitely wasn’t stolen from the Sinead O’Connor album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. That phrase means something totally different.
Who cares if it’s “too greasy”
It’s like Louis CK’s joke about people who complain about airline travel hassles. “You're sitting in a chair in the sky. You're like a Greek myth right now.” Even if you don’t subscribe to the notion that grease, for lack of a better word, is good, you’re still missing the big picture: you’re about to take a bite out of a 1,200lb animal, and there’s almost zero chance that, as you do so, a different 1,200lb animal’s going to take a bite out of you. In the grand scheme of things, that is a miracle. Sorry if your miracle is dripping a bit.
And anyway, greasy > juicy
Grease for the most part seeps from the surface into the bun for a more enjoyable, partially saturated experience. Juice, which thicker, fancy jobs tend to be full of, spurts out of the middle of the burger and onto your fingers and lap. Which is fine, actually -- anyone who hangs out in diners obviously isn’t particularly OCD about their eating habits -- but if you’re going to spill on my lap, you’d better not ask me for $17 afterwards.
The diner burger complements a meaningful life
The diner burger is what you order at 4am, after a surreal night out with friends, when you want to recap the evening’s events just to make sure everything you think happened actually happened. The fancy burger is what you order at 8:45pm, when you’re out with acquaintances and you want to talk about the burger you’re eating, and how it compares to other, similarly priced burgers you’ve eaten. And as good as that It Burger might be, that just isn’t what it’s all about.
Main image shot at Kellogg's Diner, Williamsburg