Nylon Nights

The Enduring, Exclusive Mystery Of The Raoul’s Burger

In 2024, it’s still a rare commodity.

by Tim Latterner

Of all the restaurants in New York, only a handful of the venerable ones have enough magic left in them to withstand trends. Balthazar and The Odeon are always buzzing with crowds. Keens remains the best steak in the city, and there’s always a queue for Katz’s. But perhaps the best example of this is Raoul’s, which you can always tell is getting close to opening by the line of people waiting outside for one item: the burger.

For those who stopped reading to check the menu: Yes, I know it’s not there. That’s because, famously, chef David Honeysett orders just enough Pat LaFrieda beef, peppercorns, onions, and buns to construct 12 perfect burgers a night. Those dozen are only available at the bar, and once they’re gone, they’re gone — so anyone sitting down to consult a menu has already missed their chance at getting one.

My first attempt was an immediate failure. I cruised in at 7 p.m. and asked the manager Eddy if they were still serving the burger. Before he could answer, I heard a regular release a laugh at my naivete that cut me to my core. I went home, burger-less, and planned a new course of action. I told work I had a late-afternoon dentist appointment, postponed a drinks meeting, skipped my sad desk lunch, and got off the subway at 4:30 for the restaurant’s 5 p.m. opening. There was already a line of people waiting patiently outside. For a restaurant that’s existed since 1975, this thing still has followers.

Tim Latterner

A young couple who had also been playing hooky were first in line. She works in advertising, he’s in finance; both said their dog was sick. An older couple, Art and Lynn, told me they split their time between Texas and their apartment a few blocks away on West Broadway, which they’ve had for 17 years. There was Marie, a TV sitcom actor who played alongside comedian Billy Connelly in his 1992 show. And then me. Maybe 40 seconds after I planted myself in the sixth spot, seven more people seemed to teleport behind me. A woman arrived with her husband, who had been a line cook at Raoul’s in the ‘90s, followed by two girls who’d ditched a class at NYU, and a few others who seemed to know the drill. As others sauntered up, they did some quick math and slung their heads low as they walked away.

Eddy emerged, dressed in a pressed white shirt and a bomber jacket, to take down everyone’s information. At 5 p.m. we were led inside, where 12 white-tablecloth place settings were made up along the bar, which is laid out so it’s hard to tell if it’s 5 p.m. or 1 a.m. The few, proud burger-seekers each took one of the throne-like stools, while others from the line who were hoping someone would drop out were left standing around or settling for a table serving the normal (but still great!) menu. Our bartender, conveniently named Angus, welcomed us with an announcement that the kitchen wouldn’t get going until 5:15 p.m., “so let’s start everyone off with a drink!”

Once we all had beverages, mostly martinis, in hand, Angus doubled back with a notepad. “Burgers,” he said to the young couple, already knowing the answer. He’d also ask people how they wanted it cooked, but was already writing “medium rare” on his pad while the question passed his lips. Twenty minutes later, 12 burgers were placed in front of us. “These are perfection,” Marie said.

Tim Latterner

The burger is simple. There’s a small dish of fries next to it, and a ramekin of cognac-based au poivre sauce. It’s neat and sharp, like a martini. Its brisket-blend patty has a smooth, caramelized texture. And instead of a melted-down square of American cheese, there’s a triple-creme St. Andre sauce. But the thing that really gives it edge is the cracked pepper, which is absolutely the defining characteristic. It’s like if a waiter came around with a pepper mill and you asked for more to the point where it must be a mistake — and then kept going until, miraculously, it became wonderful again. If the pepper doesn’t wake you up, the sheer nuance of a different kind of burger will.

Until now, everyone’s been eating in relative silence; consuming a burger and fries at 5:15 p.m. likely means skipping lunch, so combine hunger with the wait and the hype, and you enter a trance-like state. But as everyone finishes up, it’s smiles all around. It’s then that we realize it’s still only about 6 p.m. on a Wednesday. We’ve all been facing Angus and talking with one another, but the rest of the restaurant is still waiting for the dinner rush in about two hours from now. The sun is still shining when we step back out onto Prince Street, where commuters are just starting to make their way home. I turn to Lynn and Marie, and we half-heartedly agree to meet back at Raoul’s later tonight for a martini — mostly to brag to the other patrons how we scored one of the 12 burgers.

Lynn confirms it’s incredible as ever — and Art drops the knowledge that a four-pack of burgers is available on Goldbelly to ship anywhere in the domestic U.S. for $114.95. “It’s just not the same, though,” he says. “You really need to have it here.” And, as Lynn reminds him, there’s a waitlist for those, too.