The Discreet Charm of the Old-School Preppy Bar
Burgers, mugs of beer, random stuff on the walls: what more could you want?
I’ve walked through a frozen wasteland to get an Au Cheval and journeyed across the country to go Animal Style. I’ve had a Juicy Lucy in the Twin Cities and made the trek to New Haven to try Louis’ Lunch. These proclivities meant my first stop in Japan was a Wendy’s, and a pilgrimage to a kosher McDonald’s in Israel was a must.
I’ve taken advice from sages (read: “best burger” lists on the Internet) and tried everything high and low. I’ve had burgers on the beach (Rippers, baby!), at the top of a mountain, and once ate Shake Shack in a graveyard (long story). I have driven to New Jersey to try the two White Manna locations in one day to decide for myself which is better. I have had many burgers, and at the end of the day, most of them have been fine. None of them have brought me to tears, and a few downright sucked. The burger as a transcendent experience is a quest I’ve been hammering away at for the better part of two decades, and I’ve come up short of enlightenment every single time. At this point, I’m pretty sick of it.
The burger is something we’ve put too much thought into, and frankly, it’s taken the enjoyment out of eating them. I once sat at Minetta Tavern in Manhattan and listened as a “burger club” sat next to me pitted the house version topped with cheddar and caramelized onions ($25) against the Black Label that is made out of dry-aged cuts and costs a few dollars more1, breaking down every little flavor they “detected” like they were savoring the perfumed air of the Roseraie de L’Haÿ. The way they discussed the taste had the insufferable tone of record-store heads talking about why one Miles Davis album from the early-1970s is better than another.2 I’ve said this about a million things, from whiskey to politics: nothing makes me learn to dislike something more than obsessive fans. And that eavesdrop at Minetta was the moment it all went downhill for me and burgers.
There was one exception, though. While I stopped going out of my way to find some old-school gem or try every regional variation when I traveled, I still made it a point that if I had to be on the Upper East Side for whatever reason that I’d stop at J.G. Melon for a Martini and a burger.
J.G. Melon doesn’t really need another appreciation post. It’s one of those places that has gained institution status in Manhattan. Michael Bloomberg loves it, as does Gigi Hadid (although, not as much as she used to). On any night, you might catch a member of the Yankees, finance guys in Patagonia vests, Columbia students, tourists, Broadway stars on their way home and everyone in between. In The Andy Cohen Diaries, the TV mogul notes that “Jerry [Seinfeld, natch] and I are perennially searching for the best burger in town and we keep coming back to J.G. Melon.” The tableau on any night you spend there looks like a modern retelling of a Damon Runyon story, which is to say that it is very, indelibly New York City.
For years, the Upper East Side spot has been hallowed ground for burger lovers. Just about any “Best of” list includes Melon, from Bon Appetit to Town & Country. Its status has just been agreed upon as fact. When somebody went to write a list of places to eat a patty with some cheese on it in Manhattan, J.G. Melon was already written at the top, as if by magic. Until earlier this month, at least, when Ryan Sutton at Eater tore down the iconic bar with a scathing review, saying that the “squishy white bun” was the best part of the meal.
I’m usually a big fan of the slaughtering of sacred cows and then tossing the meat on the grill. I let a little Ric Flair “Woooooo” when Pete Wells of the New York Times, the exemplar of the form, revisited Thomas Keller’s Per Se five years after the paper first awarded it four stars, handing it a lowly two. More recently, he went knives out at famed Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger and carved that place up like a rib eye. The reaction I saw after Sutton dropped his piece was mostly eye rolls and people suggesting that he was trying to “pull a Wells” by going after such a well-known and beloved place like J.G. Melon. As a longtime fan of the place, I got plenty of texts and DMs to the tone of “Can you believe this guy?” To which I answered, Well, yeah, actually. I can.
The truth is that whenever I go to J.G. Melon, I know that I’m going to a place that some carnivores consider holy ground. But I could conceivably go there and not get a burger and enjoy it just as much. I go simply because I like the place: it fits nicely under an umbrella of what I like to call old-school preppy bars. It’s an idea, but it helps explain why, even before the Eater takedown, I’ve always used grandparent-like adjectives like “nice” and “wonderful” to describe the burger. I didn’t start going there because I was craving meat. My interest stemmed from its connection to the Whit Stillman film Metropolitan. All I ever wanted to do is hang out in places where you could see the Sally Fowler Rat Pack killing time after another tired debutante ball in 1990. So I started going to Melon and looking for other places like it. That’s how I began putting together this idea of what a preppy bar is.
First, J.G. Melon is the reason I decided to start using the term “preppy bar.” Forty years ago, when The Official Preppy Handbook came out, it featured a guide called “Where the Preppies Go,” which mapped out all the places that boat-shoed WASPs favored in cities like Ann Arbor, Dallas and, of course, Manhattan. I’ve checked, and almost every single place on the list is gone, J.G. Melon pulling off that rare NYC miracle of standing the test of time. Even today, Zagat’s, that old arbiter of “good” places to “eat,” notes that it is still a “preppy haven,” even though the term “preppy” pretty much just signifies a certain way of dressing, these days.
While the full Preppy Spot Class of 1980 might not be around, J.G. Melon is hardly alone. There are places like it dotted across the country. You know them: they’re at least 40 years old. There’s a strange smell that’s hard to pinpoint but is actually comforting. There’s maybe a checkered tablecloth on the table. The beer menu has been tweaked a little to include some IPAs and sours, but mostly everything comes from a tap and is served in mugs. There’s a lot of stuff on the walls; it feels cluttered because it is. A college is probably nearby. There’s a chance the health department goes easy on the place … and you’re OK with that. You might get a splinter if you rest your hand on the bar, and the bartender most certainly does not give one fuck about you. The music is always good (maybe a mix of Sam Cooke, Charlie Parker and some Stones) and the great gastronomical unifier is there is always a burger on the menu. Sometimes it’s good, other times it’s downright iconic and in some instances, you are too polite to share your honest opinion. Yet no matter what, you always get the burger.
New York has a few of these places. My personal favorite is Old Town Bar near Union Square. The original P. J. Clarke’s on 3rd also fits the bill. I’ve also been going to Corner Bistro for years, and I do think the burger has suffered a little from all the hype it has received, but it still does the trick if you and your crew roll in there at 1:00 in the morning.
There are preppy bars across the country that I’ve found. Every Hoya spent at least a night or 100 drinking at The Tombs when they should have been studying. When I’m in D.C., it’s one of my favorite afternoon standbys. In the summertime, when the town is a swamp and all of the students have gone away, there is nothing quite as refreshing as going into a basement restaurant and drinking a pitcher of beer while watching a baseball game you don’t care about.
Charlottesville has The Virginian, while Princeton locals will tell you to go to the Yankee Tap Room in the Nassau Inn on “Monster Mug Monday.” Not surprisingly, Massachusetts is lousy with preppy bars, notably Mr. Bartley’s in Cambridge and Widow Bingham’s Tavern at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge (although I always get the turkey sandwich, not the burger). The one I have the deepest and longest connection with is The Lantern in Lake Forest, IL. Usually filled up with Lake Forest College students and commuters saying, “I can take the next Metra home,” it has retained pretty much the same vibe it had when I was a kid stopping in there after hockey practice.
The Preppy Bar isn’t “good” or “bad.” It rests in that area that just is, a place where people still go to talk and have a good time. Some are lured by the idea that the food will change their life, others just want something low-key that doesn’t look like some weird minimalist hellscape with all-white everything and uncomfortable seating. It isn’t a type of cuisine or concept; instead, the preppy bar is an idea, a theory. It’s not about one thing, be it the burgers or the Bloody Marys3; it’s about the whole experience, about going to a place that has somehow stuck around for decades, that might always be “meh” but somehow always offers up a good time, despite the beer tasting like water and the burger not living up to the hype.
But I digress. The fact of the matter is that I still always get the burger when I go to these kinds of places, but I do it out of habit, not hype. I need the whole experience. I’ve never once gone to J.G. Melon or The Lantern because I want to get my mind blown. I don’t want to be that person. I just want a few beers, a burger and the knowledge that I’ll be able to do it again the next time I come back, whenever that is.
Really, what more do you need from life than that?
1 I’ve had both and I’ll say it’s worth spending the $33 on the Black Label
2 The answer is On the Corner.
3 Another thing is that Preppy Bars should serve lunch all week and there should be a Bloody Mary on the menu