At the end of Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel “Bright Lights, Big City,” the protagonist finds himself at dawn, on some downtown Manhattan side street, after yet another long and outrageous night of booze, cocaine, and wild partying, New York style. We know — and he knows — that he’s at the end of his rope. He’s only in his 20s yet he’s already burned out. He just wants his girl back and to get off the roller coaster ride. Nearby there’s a truck unloading fresh bread into a restaurant, and he gets a loaf. He stands there in the grey light, in his crumpled suit, tie askew, alone with an old fashioned loaf of bread in a paper bag. He rips a piece off and eats it and we know at that moment he’s realizing how much he has missed the purity of simple wholesome things. Sensing redemption, he says to himself “You will have to learn everything all over again.”
My life isn’t anything like that. It was going in that general direction for a while, but I was only on the service road, not the freeway. For the past few years, however, I’ve been actively seeking simplicity in my life — not boredom, just simplicity. There are some things I feel I have to learn all over again.
Loyal readers know that my food preferences go along these lines. Starting over with freshness and simplicity as the cornerstones of my simplified approach to cooking and eating. If you look back at the dishes I’ve prepared over the past year or so, most are not complicated. They use fresh uncomplicated ingredients in a pretty straightforward manner. Even the coveted paella is really just country cooking, Spanish style.
For a few years now I’ve been thinking a lot about that most basic of American meals, the hamburger. Not the smushy and insipid factory burgers one finds at the various Mcfranchises, but good, simple, old fashioned hamburgers.
They’re hard to find. Most non-franchise restaurants that serve hamburgers make a number of critical mistakes. First, they try to make them too fancy. Kaiser buns, exotic cheeses, and specialty condiments are all tasty things and make for interesting sandwiches, but they don’t belong on an old fashioned hamburger. In many cases by the time I’m half way through these yuppieburgers all I have in my hand is a gooey brown dripping mess.
The second common mistake is that most burgers these days are too big. A half-pound burger is just wrong. If you want that much meat, get two quarter-pound burgers..
I recently heard that Mr. Steer on rue Ste. Catherine (two locations) makes a good old fashioned burger, so I went to check it out on Friday, at lunch time.
Old fashioned is the key with Mr. Steer, in every respect. I walked into this classic downtown eatery (founded 1958) at five minutes to noon — just before the lunchtime rush. The room is quite large, consisting of several dozen booths for two and four, and a long counter with stools. The restaurant was almost empty, yet a small green salad was set at every seat in the joint — booths for four diners had four salads already set, and booths for two had two. As well, a long row of salads ran the length of the counter.
The interior is classic 1950/60s urban Canadian diner (not to be confused with the classic American diner which is all chrome and Formica). Not much chrome here, but plenty of polished wood and naugahyde. There was a cash register at the front with a short 50-ish woman (probably named Mabel or Ginette), and mirrors running along the wall from front to back. Ashtrays were everywhere.
I felt like I had gone through a time warp. I expected to see a young William Weintraub at one end of the counter in a fedora and wooly greatcoat, hunched over The Gazette, cursing Harry J. Larkin. Or maybe a wise-cracking gumshoe lounging his big belly in a booth, sucking on a toothpick. Or at least Kristian Gravenor looking around imagining the same things.
I was alone, so it was “suggested” that I sit at the counter. I did. From the counter you can see the vast grill, where dozens of steaks and burgers were already being cooked in anticipation of the rush. In front of me was a rack of condiments — one choice of Kraft-style salad dressing, square glass bottles of oil and regular white vinegar, ketchup, mustard, paprika, green pickle relish, and sliced dill pickle.
I ordered a standard cheeseburger (medium-well — it was nice that I had a choice) and fries, and then tucked into my salad which I had dressed with oil and vinegar. It was a dull start, just iceberg lettuce and grated carrot, but it brought me back to the 1960s — when that’s all that salad was — as well as every Portuguese restaurant I patronized in Lisbon (and all those on the Main) except that the Portuguese always manage to add a bit of tomato.
Then my burger arrived. It was not much to look at — just a ball of meat draped with a square of melted yellow cheese on a soft supermarket-style bun. It was open-faced with no condiments, on a plate filled with curly “Suzy-Q” fries.
I like dressing my own burger. I kept it simple with just a big slap of mustard and what some would consider too many pickles. Then I bit into it.
It was fabulous. The bun was soft — as a burger bun should be — and the burger itself a thick quarter-pound of excellent quality ground beef, tender and juicy on the inside with crisp brown bits on the outside. It tasted like beef — like a burger!
In classic 50s/60s downtown diner style, the meal was over and done with quickly. I was in an out of there in 25 minutes (I could have lingered, but by then the place was crowded, and a busy lunch counter isn’t exactly good lingering territory). I paid and left, and despite the generous portion of Suzy-Q fries I did not feel bloated afterwards — a good sign of a good meal.
Although the decor, menu, and attitude are very dated (but authentic 50s/60s, unlike the fake 50s of places like “Nickels”) there is at least one concession to modern times — a “veggie burger” is listed on the menu. Other variations are less up-to-the-minute, such as the “diet burger” (standard burger, but served with cottage cheese and melba toast instead of fries). You can also substitute baked beans for the fries.
The one other concession to modern times is the price. While not particularly expensive, my burger and fries (no drink — just a glass of water) came to $10 after tax and tip. That won’t exactly break the bank, but it’s at the high end of what I want to pay for a quick downtown lunch. (I usually get a big bowl of Tonkinoise soup for about $6.)
Regardless, it was a simple and very satisfying old fashioned hamburger — exactly what I was looking for. Next time I will bring a Gazette and will sit there cursing Peter Stockland.