Monday, November 17, 2008

Prime Burger

For a perfect day, spend the pre-crowd morning at the Whitney's big William Eggleston show, soaking up images from the 1960s and early 1970s. Somehow, a shot of a ketchup bottle on a countertop is evocative in his lens. I often wonder, when looking at old photographs, why the objects and the people of the present time fail to evoke much of anything, and if they will eventually come to life decades from now.


Photo: William Eggleston, Eggleston Artistic Trust

After the show, head downtown and walk into a living Eggleston photograph at Prime Burger on 51st near Madison. Here, as if by magic, the present moment gains poignancy, snapshots turn into something resembling art. It's the place, with its woodgrain paneling and conical ceiling lamps, its long diner counter, and (most enchanting) its comfortably infantilizing seats with highchair-style swinging trays.



Customers at the counter look momentarily alienated and tired, bathed in Eggleston hues of rust, ochre, and brown. The waiters, in their white valet jackets, have come from another age to serve you burgers, fries, and root-beer floats that overflow in a bubbling eruption of foam.



The plain maroon awning outside will tell you nothing about what's on the inside. This hidden gem used to be Hamburg Heaven, founded in 1938, frequented by stars like Rita Hayworth and Henry Fonda (more recently SJP), mentioned in Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Apartment (“So I figure, a man in his position, he's going to take me to 21 and El Morocco--instead, he takes me to Hamburg Heaven and some schnook's apartment.”)

The 51st Street location turned into Prime Burger in 1965. It has not been renovated since.



Stopped in time, locked into your chair, you feel like a child. You order more than you can eat, consider a slice of coconut cake. The other diners in your cubicle do the same, going wide-eyed when the delicacies are delivered. At lunchtime, on a Saturday anyway, they are mostly tourists. They are excited to be here, discovering the true wonders of New York City. And so are you.

13 comments:

Carol Gardens said...

This place is the BEST! So amazing that it still exists, right near Rockefeller Center.

EV Grieve said...

Lovely post, Jeremiah.

And I have to second what Carol Gardens said: It is amazing that this still exists in that area, at least exist looking like a time capsule from 1965. Glad no one had the wise idea to "modernize."

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks. i'm pretty excited i got to use the word "schnook" in a post.

Melanie said...

I love the Primeburger--Primeburger and I go back a long time to the 60's when I was at Rhodes Prep on W.54th Street--a great place for lunch--I still frequent this place--burgers and buns are good!!!

joy said...

Great post.

I love Prime Burger - when you go in, it's a total time warp to the past.

I *still* haven't been seated in the individual seats with the fold-over tables, though.

Anonymous said...

J, thank you for this Valentine. I lunched here many times. Do they still have their relish trays? Holly Golightly commented on Sally Tomato's lawyer's love for their relish.

And those "baby chairs" -- where did they come up with them?

This place should be landmarked!

hntrnyc said...

wow, I forgot about this place as I have only been there once. I was having breakfast with a client from LA when he asked, "do you ever see celebrities in New York?" I replied, "yeah they're around, but nobody pays attention to them." Then almost on cue, we heard a loud guffaw a few tables away and when we looked, there sat Nicholas Cage and Rob Zombie. Odd pairing indeed, they looked like they had been out all night. I looked at my now wide-eyed client and said "they're around".

Billy said...

I absolutely adore this place. Was so bummed to see it was closed on Sundays after a trip to the MoMA. Great place.

Gabe said...

I *MUST* go to this place, ASAP -- possibly tomorrow. Another place where I used to work was at 47th and Madison and I never knew the place existed. This is simply stupendous!!! I will halfway except to see Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon arguing over Felix's sinus attacks!

BTW, it is eligible as an interior landmark, isn't it? After all, how many 1960s era restaurants remain? 2, maybe? Please tell me they own the building...

Gabe said...

Is it "too cold" at PrimeBurgers in the Summer?:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb2pTjQyzWk

Jeremiah Moss said...

i'd like to sit in a primeburger cubicle with lemmon, matthau, cage, and zombie--that leaves room for one more...anyone?

Anonymous said...

In addition to the great burgers, try the tomato soup, the tomato filled with tuna salad, and a slice of apricot pie.

J, you must chat with the people who work there. They're wonderful and have a sense of history.

hntrnyc said...

the hypothetical 5th would be Joe Franklin, to moderate of course.