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What's With Those Strict Burger Policies at Good Restaurants?

Data lead Ryan Sutton explores the price incentives for ordering burgers at ambitious culinary establishments.

The oft-ordered burger at NYC's the Breslin.
The oft-ordered burger at NYC's the Breslin.

Not too long ago, while dining at the Breslin, April Bloomfield's Michelin-starred gastropub in Midtown Manhattan, I witnessed something so patently outrageous I'm still somewhat shocked the kitchen permitted it to pass. A table of four ignored the diverse, protein-heavy menu of main courses, and instead ordered four of the same thing: lamb burgers. It's not that they individually ordered poorly; the juicy, gamey, medium rare patty, topped with feta and served with thrice-cooked fries, is known as one of the city's best burgers. It's that they collectively defaulted to the safest item on the menu.

It's hard to blame them, financially at least. The $22 burger is the least expensive of the Breslin's five entrees by $9. Multiply that times four, add on tax and tip, and that comes to a savings of $46. And alas, this is partially why, whenever I'm at the Breslin, I typically ignore the $31 mackerel or the $32 braised pork. Instead, I get the burger. Because it's cheaper. A lot cheaper.

But does the price of any restaurant burger, or even the mere presence of one on the menu, really have an impact on the way we order as a dining public? Or could the inverse be argued? Do burgers act as such a powerful draw that they create spillover ordering from other parts of the menu? Tough to say, as independent restaurants don't typically release sales data on individual items, or any items, for that matter (and here it's worth noting that representatives the Breslin, through a spokesperson, declined to be interviewed for this column). That said, an Eater analysis of ambitious restaurants serving burgers — many of them in New York — show that they play a complicated and important role in the culinary and pricing dynamic of the dining room.

The restaurant burger holds the contradictory title of the least-expensive main course and often, for diners, the most-desirable one.

The funny thing, or perhaps the democratic thing, about the American burger is that at many good restaurants, it holds the contradictory title of the least-expensive main course and yet, for reasons of nostalgia, tradition, and overall deliciousness, the most desirable one (expensive outliers like the $35 foie gras and short rib burger at DB Bistro Moderne notwithstanding). This stands in stark contrast to the appetizer section, where the mixed salad often holds the more logical position of cheapest starter and, depending on your worldview, least desirable. Let's also not forget that a burger, often served with stomach-filling fries, frequently ends up being a one-plate meal, obviating the need for an appetizer, bringing down the customer's bill even further.

Chefs and restaurateurs are not unaware of the financial incentives burgers provide to diners. Perhaps this is why, even in our budget gourmet era — where high-end fare is easily attainable in stripped-down settings at affordable prices — the burger is somewhat of a black sheep at certain restaurants. It can sometimes feel like burgers are regulated almost as heavily as alcohol consumption: They're relegated to the lunch menu at Upland, Roberta's, Ai Fiori, and Perry Street in New York. At Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak in Washington DC, or at Spruce in San Francisco, the burger, while available, isn't listed on the dinner menu. And at Le Pigeon in Portland, the kitchen used to set a five-burger-per-night limit throughout the dining room. "It was kind of a selfish thing," Andrew Fortgang, the restaurant's general manager says. "No one wanted to work at Le Pigeon to be a burger chef. It was so the chefs would stay passionate about what they were doing."

At Michael White's Ai Fiori in Midtown Manhattan, executive chef P.J. Calapa serves a Pat LaFrieda "White Label" burger part of a $45 two-course lunch. "There are days where we'll sell 12 for lunch and days where we won't sell any," Calapa says. As mentioned above, the burger isn't available at dinner. "Ai Fiori has a Michelin star. It's a fancy dining room. We're always pushing the envelope," Calapa says. "The burger kind of minimizes what you've been doing with everything else."

Ai Fiori, of course, is an ambitious, expensive restaurant. The dinner menu is recommended as a four-course prix-fixe at $97; those who opt to go a la carte will find mains priced anywhere from $37-$50, much higher than the $19 charged for the same burger at sister spot Costata, where it's served throughout the day in the restaurant's casual tavern. "You toy with the idea of making it more expensive," Calapa says, "but at the end of the day, you didn't want to get anyone for more money because they were choosing things that we didn't want them to eat."

Burgers at Ai Fiori and Le Pigeon. Photo: Ai Fiori/Facebook

But what's the role of a burger at a more casually ambitious restaurant? Wylie Dufresne says they helps bring people into Alder, his avant-garde ode to American pub fare in New York's East Village. The chef charges $13 for a small, but nourishing four-ounce patty of brisket, chuck, and dry-aged fat (with a bit of shio kombu folded in for umami). "It's a price that works in both directions; it works for us economically, and it works for the diner. If we were charging $18, it would have to be more than a burger and some pickles." And indeed, for $21, patrons can order the burger with a modest side of french onion soup rings and a beer, an entire (light) meal for just a $1 more than the price of one of his larger dishes, which run $20, without beer.

"It's a price that works in both directions." — Wylie Dufresne, on Alder's $13 burger

Dufresne says the deal doesn't hurt sales of other dishes. "We don't feel like it's displacing other items per se. It's drawing people to the bar." Since putting his burger on the menu, he says he hasn't seen a drop in orders on $20 rye pasta, one of his two most popular items. That said, the chef maintains a certain amount of restrictions on the burger; it's only available at the bar, and he only makes about 15-25 every night.

And what would happen if a tasting menu restaurant served a burger? Imagine sitting down at, say, David Kinch's Manresa in Los Gatos, California, and the waiter says, "in addition to our $198 chef's menu, we also offer a $12 burger if you'd like to kill your hunger in a single course." As tempting and as thought-provoking as the vegetable-heavy fare is, logic would dictate that many would opt for the latter option.

That's more or less the state of affairs at the acclaimed Le Pigeon in Portland, where in addition to tasting menus priced at $75-$95; chef Gabriel Rucker offers a $14 burger. That burger, incidentally, is the second-cheapest item on the entire a la carte menu next to the $10 salad. And yet the restaurant only sells about three or four of them every service, a fraction of the 25 or so nightly tasting menus that guests order. Fortgang, the general manager, says the restaurant's more recent focus on the tasting menu-heavy restaurant is what ended up dampening burger sales. "Most people are not coming to Pigeon for a burger anymore. So it stopped being an issue." As such, Le Pigeon abandoned its five-burger-per-night policy, which he admits was "not hospitable." In Fortgang's words, "a restaurant is about not saying no to people. It's about saying yes to people." He goes on. "We love that we're still a place where you can get a beer and burger... or a tasting menu and grand cru Burgundy."

See below for a graph highlighting the price of burgers at certain notable restaurants, as well as the nearest priced main course counterparts at those same establishments. And while it's not clear whether these discrepancies have an impact on sales, they do affirm, for the most part, the comparative value of a burger.

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