I can only image how long the management at B.R. Guest Restaurants, the New York-based restaurant group behind Blue Water Grill, Dos Caminos, Wildwood Barbecue and others, has been quietly organizing, meticulously planning, for just this moment. It has got to be years in the making.
Well, I hope someone is popping the bubbly because the debut of Bill’s Bar and Burger just couldn’t have gone any better. The surprisingly unpretentious new spot opened on a quiet corner in the Meatpacking District last week to virtually instant and unanimous praise from (what I refer to as) Tier One food blogs, including The Feedbag, A Hamburger Today and others. These accolades sparked a fierce debate elsewhere in the blogsphere, on Twitter and even among the friends I was dining with on Wednesday: Is it possible that Bill’s is better than Shake Shack?
And there’s the rub: The pressure is on and the scrutiny is intense because this latest B.R. Guest Restaurants project is more than just a passive challenge to Shake Shake’s burger fiefdom, the casual burger concept restaurant of (friendly) rival Union Square Hospitality Group that, by a majority of New Yorkers, can do no wrong. It’s an outright slap of a glove, albeit in a cheeky, Monty Python style.
Both restaurants cook the burgers in the same griddle/smash method that results in a wide, uniformly flat patty, crusted and seared. Both use a beef blend from Brooklyn purveyors Pat LaFrieda. Both offer a basic burger with classic burger garnishes — iceberg lettuce, red tomato slice(s), white onion and crinkled pickle chips — as well as an “In-N-Out“-style burger* with a creamy, Thousand Island-esque secret sauce. The burgers at both restaurants are priced sensibly in the $6-$8 range.
And, that’s about where the similarities end.
Shake Shack is a counter-service restaurant with a fairly basic menu of tried-and-true burgers, hot dogs, sides and shakes.
Bill’s is half-bar, half-dining room, and the menu reflects the easy access to a full bar and full kitchen, with expanded offerings including a delicious fish sandwich, with a kick (maybe Old Bay seasoning?) and topped with a sweet coleslaw and pickles, souped-up sides like disco fries and tempura-battered “veggie fries” and the option to add on a “paired” shot ($4) to your milkshake — the Oreo shake our table shared was paired with a shot of amaretto (above).
The best original item on Bill’s menu is the Fat Cat burger: Two patties, oozing cheese and a heap of caramelized onions stacked between a toasted English muffin (great photos here).
This burger rendered our otherwise raucous table speechless, literally. We all went dead silent for a good 10 seconds at the first bite — and promptly ordered two more. The second time around, we added bacon at the waiter’s prompting, but — a true testament to the Fat Cat’s perfection — bacon does not improve it.
Shake Shack may be the proverbial burger Goliath, but in my humble opinion, this city’s got an appetite that’s big enough for both. Welcome.
Bill’s Bar and Burger, 22 9th Avenue, at 13th Street, 212.414.3003
*In-N-Out is often cited as a point of reference for discussing the Shake Shack burger. The comparison works in the broadest sense, but up close it falls apart.