William Durney is the owner of Red Hook Tavern, the popular Brooklyn homage to New York tavern culture. And Bun Cheam is the executive chef. But, when it comes down to it, the real boss of the restaurant is the Red Hook Tavern burger.
“The burger leads the engine here,” Cheam says. “The burger runs this whole restaurant. Everything follows the burger. We are a burger restaurant.”
Cheam said the famous burger amounts to 70 to 80% of the restaurant’s food sales. On a slow night, they will sell 80 to 100 of them. On a busy night, 120 to 150. On a day where they serve both lunch and dinner, the number can exceed 300. Typically, every table will order at least one.
“It’s weird when a table doesn’t,” Cheam says.
In just three years — with much of that time being during the pandemic — the burger at Red Hook Tavern has come to rank with the most iconic patties in New York City, including those at Donovan’s in Woodside, Queens; Corner Bistro in Greenwich Village; P.J. Clarke’s in Midtown; J.G. Melon on the Upper West Side; and Peter Luger in Brooklyn. That was not Durney’s intention; he just wanted to make sure his joint had a good burger.
But if it ranks with Luger’s? That’s fine with him. Because Luger was his inspiration.
“The full intention of everything I do is an homage to something,” Durney says. “The burger was no different. Peter Luger has been my favorite since I was a boy. That was a revolutionary moment when I was a boy, having that burger for the first time.”
Durney spent eight months working on the meat blend, looking for something that tasted similar to Luger’s, eventually settling on a Pat LaFrieda mix of dried-aged strip and chuck meat. He employs a slice of white onion, just like Luger, though it sits under the eight-ounce, one-inch-thick patty, not over. As a result, the onion is cooked a bit by the hot beef, while protecting the bottom bun from being crushed by the meat. He even convinced the old steakhouse to reveal the identity of the baker they used for their bun — on the condition that he never share the information.
Each detail mattered to Durney. “Every single part of that burger is not great without the other parts.”
Though he never intended the burger to emerge as the virtual identity of the restaurant, Durney knew, as he and the staff were testing the recipe prior to opening, that “we were on to something.”
And there hasn’t been a review of the place that didn’t mention the burger. Many made it the centerpiece of their notices. The New York Times called it “absolutely mandatory.” Three years later, Durney does not mind at all.
“I don’t care if they say it’s the best,” he says. “But it does tickle you that you created something from out of the air that was already perfect”— meaning the Luger burger — “but was mine. It never gets old.
“The kitchen staff, you’d think they’d be sick of making the burger,” he continues. “They are not. I think we understand that people are initially coming there for that. We’re not fools. We know people are coming for that burger. And we take that burger seriously.”
In the kitchen, all the food dishes are timed around the burger, included the potato wedges, which hit the hot oil three minutes before each patty is done.
Cheam doesn’t like to put more than 12 patties on the grill at any given time, as it makes it tricky for the person supervising the grill to monitor the progress of each. However, 20 burgers can fit. The house-preferred cooking temperature is medium-rare, but guests are allowed to order it as they prefer. The task is most challenging when every degree of doneness is represented on the grill.
“We call it the spectrum,” Cheam says. “When it’s the spectrum, you have to pay attention a little more.”
Cheam leaves it up to the individual staffers how to separate the medium-rares from the mediums from the medium wells. (Well-done burgers are rare orders and usually come during brunch, owing to the number of kids dining.) In the name of quality control, he eats part of a burger each shift to make sure the sandwich is consistent day to day.
And if there remain a few nonbelievers in the city who are skeptical about the value of a $28 burger, Red Hook Tavern knows how to handle them. One day, some tipsy revelers across the street began to heckle the patio diners about their high-priced hamburgers. In answer, Cheam cooked up six burgers and walked them across the street. “I said, ‘You want to taste our burger? Let me tell you about our burger and why it costs so much.”
We’re not fools. We know people are coming for that burger. And we take that burger seriously.
Hard as it may be to believe, the Tavern’s burger, that perfect thing, has undergone some changes over time. A year ago, Durney changed the LaFrieda blend to a combination of dried-aged strip and hanger steak. “I love hanger steak,” he says. “So rich and meaty and creamy.” The bun is no longer made by Luger’s top-secret baker but a French bakery in Queens, a roll Durney thinks is superior to the original. And the two slices of American cheese that blanket the meat like a thin yellow sleeping bag are not the Land O’Lakes they once were. When food prices soared recently, Durney made a change to another American cheese that melts just as well.
And Durney has created a couple one-off variations on his famous signature dish. For Resy’s upcoming Drive Thru event, he’s devised a miniature version of the burger. And in 2020, he created a smashburger version (also for a Resy promotion). The staff still make the smashburgers for themselves on occasion, but it has not returned.
But the real demonstration of Durney’s flexibility, as concerns his famous culinary creation, is that the chef, who previously made his name in meat with Hometown BBQ, has begun to think about a meatless Impossible version of the burger.
“My diet has changed pretty drastically,” he says. “Personally, I eat a lot of veggie burgers when I go out. If I can create the same quality in a veggie burger, I would put that on the menu. I would love for the non-meat-eaters to have an experience like the meat-eaters do. But it would almost have to be identical in flavor to the burger we have.”
Robert Simonson writes about cocktails, spirits and bars for The New York Times. He is the author of four books on cocktails, most recently “Mezcal and Tequila Cocktails” and “The Martini Cocktail,” which won a Spirited Award in 2020 and was nominated for awards from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). Follow him on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.