An old time neon at the corner of Macdougal Street and Minetta Lane calls you into the old time Minetta Tavern. It's a septegenarian Parisian-Manhattan mashup that was a gastropub before the term was coined and a draw before the buzz about the Pat LaFrieda Black Label burger blend—made with aged prime cuts—started drawing in a different clientele altogether.
With black and white tile floors, ancient walls and caricatures of some of its most famous patrons, Minetta looks like it's still in the 1930s. I'd provide more detail on this front, but the bar and front desk staff don't take too kindly to overweight ruffians in hoodies and cargo shorts wandering and photographing the premises. It's like these guys are in charge here.
The tables along the walls are close together—so close you can't cut a steak without bumping your neighbor—but before you do a U-turn for fear that you'll clear your about-to-be-neighbor's table setting with your derriere on the way in, take solace in knowing that the host will pull the table out to allow unobstructed access (and departure later on).
Joined by a veteran burger aficionado who had dined at Minetta several times previously, I made my maiden voyage a Friday lunch. We ordered the Minetta Burger (cheddar, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, $19) and the famed Black Label Burger (prime dry-aged beef cuts, caramelized onions, $27), both medium rare, and shared both.
Much like The Brindle Room about a mile east, Minetta Tavern doesn't jump on the brioche craze or mess around with similar fancy buns. The simple bun supplied with both burgers looks like your basic seseame seed model straight out of the supermarket or fast food burger haven. But it's a little lighter, airier and still (barely) holds in the juices (and there are a lot of them). It's buttered and lightly grilled to elevate the burger that much further.
The buns may be the same, but the beef? Some things, very similar; other things, very different. Using the same logic that's dictated hot sauce, beer and wine tasting order (start with the mildest and work your way up), I dug into the more straightforward burger first.
Two things became immediately clear when bisecting the Minetta Burger: 1) This was one extremely juicy patty, erupting beef nectar without the usually-required squeeze, and 2) if this was medium rare, it would certainly be mooing at rare.
It was early enough in the lunch rush that they didn't have to rush the burger cooking, but sheesh. That said, the feel of the beef was very cooked and very gentle, as if this patty was carefully assembled and handled through every step of the process. Beef flavor dazzled too, deserving at least some of the hype its more famous sister gets. Sure, they missed the mark on the temperature, and if I had another quibble it would be that the inner/outer contrast could have been sharper, but that flavor, juiciness and mouthfeel were more than enough to compensate.
Black Label Burger
While the beef attributes in the more pedestrian Minetta Burger exceeded expectation, those in the Black Label Burger—while still impressive—fell a little short. First off, the temperature: again much closer to rare than medium rare. For $27 they should nail the requested temperature. And again, the outer-inner contrast, minimal. Seasoning, minimal.
But the hallmark of this burger is the aged component, known among us technical folk as "the funk factor." Having had LaFrieda's original Black Label blend a few years earlier at now-closed City Burger, and having been lifted off my stool by the ferociousness of the funk, I feared I might not be able to handle the current incarnation. That turned out to be a piece of cake. Sure, there's that added edge, almost blue cheesy even though there's no cheese, but that aspect wasn't much of a step up from the Minetta Burger. Who knows, maybe it's been dumbed down and made milder to appeal to a wider crowd. Still, the all-around beefiness, juiciness and texture were almost a match for the Minetta Burger, so no issues there.
So with lettuce, tomato, cheese and caramelized onions all onboard, you might wonder if all that extra cargo could sink the Minetta Burger's beef experience. Surprisingly, not in the least. Everything held together nicely, the cheese merely added another dimension to the beef and the onions didn't overpower it. The beef was way out in front, uplifted instead of overshadowed by the supporting cast.
Black Label Burger
The Black Label Burger, which purposely doesn't have cheese for fear that it might do some overshadowing, did just that with the overbearing sweetness of the onions. Oddly, the onions were just another layer building the complexity of the Minetta Burger but obtrusive with the Black Label. It's as if they were two different condiments.
The Fries (and Such)
Fries: The good news is they give you a mountainful, so you can't say your $20+ burger will leave you hungry. The bad news is they're ordinary and either frozen or a very close approximation, albeit crisp and well seasoned.
Remember: you're far luckier to be eating at Minetta Tavern than they are to have your business.
The Bottom Line
Minetta Tavern is a must-visit for anyone serious about burgers. Although the heralded yet flawed Black Label Burger didn't live up to the hype, it was still a very good burger, and the often overlooked Minetta Burger was one of the best I've had. Was it worth enduring the space and attitude issues, along with the burger temperature misfires? I'd have to say yes but barely, and maybe only once.
Other Opinion/ Info
Yelp reviews of Minetta Tavern
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