Burger scholar George Motz is teaming up with the founders of Schnipper’s burger chain to open a new yet traditional burger joint, Hamburger America, on 51 MacDougal Street in Soho this summer.
Motz has spent the better part of his career documenting the history of American hamburgers and the old school diner joints that have sold them, authorizing a book of the same namesake as the restaurant, as well as producing a documentary picked up by the likes of PBS. His newest venture vows to preserve that hundred-year-old history, with the Schnipper brother’s helping out behind the scenes with business matters. Its limited menu will feature just three burgers, fries, a few milk drinks, freshly-squeezed lemonade and one beer. It will also have retro, twentieth century diner decor.
“We’re gonna make sure we’re doing it the right way,” Motz tells What Now New York.
The three burgers include his favorite Oklahoma fried onion burger, a regular smashburger with diced onion, pickles, and mustard on a toasted bun, and a monthly regional burger cooked by local chefs flown in from all over the country that he calls his “hamburger heroes.” He mentions Santa Fe’s green chile burger as an example.
“I think if we don’t, people forget,” he says of preserving America’s regional burger history. “People like to refer to those wonderful states [including] in the Midwest as ‘flyover states,’ which makes me crazy because that’s actually where hamburger culture not only began but has also been preserved in a way.”
Its milk-based drinks range from New York City-style egg creams to Rhode Island-style coffee milk. Milkshakes, often associated with the diner experience, will not be on the menu.
“I wanted to be a little less obvious,” he says about nixing milkshakes, also noting the pressure people often feel to choose between a burger or a milkshake because of their heaviness.
He decided to only sell one beer to avoid creating a bar scene. To further that goal, he says there will be no music except for the ambient sounds of servers calling orders, dishes and silverware loading into bus trays, and burgers sizzling on the griddle.
“There’s a sense in New York that you have to have music,” he says. “We’re not doing that. We’re trying to serve food. We’re not trying to have a party.”
The past will be preserved not only through its menu offerings, but also through its decor and culture.
He fought tooth and nail to get a front-facing flat top grill, so that chef’s can interact with customers. He will also encourage people to wait for the 12 bar stools in a traditional manner, standing behind diner’s as they eat dessert to secure a spot at the counter. The decor will be inspired by joint’s like the 1940s diner, Apple Pan, in Los Angeles, where he recalls eating his first-ever authentic American burger at 22-years-old.
“I had no real sense of hamburger culture until I went to L.A. and sat at the counter of the Apple Pan at midnight when I was 22-years-old,” he recalls. “I didn’t expect to come across this weird 40s-50s time warp. But they were making real burgers, and they were fantastic. So that was the point that I realized burgers in America have a place. And then you fast forward 10 years later when I started working on the documentary, and the rest is history.”