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Another One Bites the Dust: RIP Prime Burger

Photo: Molly Woodward

And now, a personal message of discontent from bicoastal Kempt contributor C. Brian Smith.

First, a caveat: I’m hardly the first person to bemoan the fact that things today are different than they were in the past (Andy Rooney cornered the market on this way of thinking years ago). But I’m mad as hell, so I’m going to do it anyway. I’m sick of seeing so many iconic New York City bars and restaurants close—institutions with decades upon decades of history cast aside in order to make way for another bank branch or pharmacy. It’s been bothering me for a while.

But when the Prime Burger on 51st Street closed last week, it got personal.

We each mourn the closing of landmarks differently, since we each experience New York City differently. Some avoid the Bowery altogether for fear of mistakenly walking by CBGB and seeing carefully distressed suede pants in the window. For others, the kick in the gut was Chumley’s crumbling to the ground in 2007. (It will reopen this year. Sort of.) Then there was Elaine’s, and Totonno’s, and the Fulton Fish Market and Bill’s Gay Nineties—sadly, the RIP list goes on and on, each new entry stinging a little bit more than the one before. And with every closing I can’t help but feel we’ve let down the past, and for the very worst reasons. Like we’re forgetting a little more, each time, about what makes a place a place.

Here’s what made the Prime Burger a place for 74 years...

The Prime Burger was just a burger joint on 51st Street in Midtown Manhattan, but for me and my extended family, it was a part of us—the way that seventh grade was a part of us, or Yankee Stadium, or subway tokens. My Uncle Andrew, a comedy writer and (nearly) lifelong bachelor, took up residence in a one-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor above the Prime Burger in 1966. In the 46 years that followed, dozens of us lived in that apartment—and dozens of us lived at the Prime Burger. (We also borrowed their mop on more than one occasion.)

Directly across 51st Street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Prime Burger provided comfort food to mourning Catholics after funerals, celebrating Catholics after weddings, repentant Catholics after confessions and inebriated Catholics after the St. Paddy’s Day parade.

“When I moved to 51st Street in ’66,” Uncle Andy recalls, “the word about St. Pat’s was that the cardinal ran the block and no store could go in there without his approval. But to tell you the truth, I saw very few priests in the Prime Burger. The lay workers came in, but not the priests.”

The restaurant opened in 1938 as “Hamburg Heaven” and served regulars like Rita Hayworth, Henry Fonda and Sammy Davis Jr. It was featured in countless books and films, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (“So I figure, a man in his position, he’s going to take me to 21 and El Morocco, instead, he takes me to the Hamburg Heaven and some schnook’s apartment.”) Hamburg Heaven changed ownership in 1965 and became the Prime Burger. That was also the last year the restaurant was renovated.

The burgers were made fresh each morning from meat delivered from the Bronx, and expertly cooked to order throughout the day on an industrial broiler, like the one at Corner Bistro in the Village.

The place to sit at the Prime Burger was on “the track”—an alcove of blond-wood, tray-fitted sectionals for one. Picture Archie Bunker’s favorite chair with a swiveling airplane tray locked into place once seated. “The track” was kind of like that, and kind of like an old-timey schoolboy’s desk, and kind of like a roller-coaster seat.

But the reason we went, the reason we and millions of people kept coming back, sometimes three or four times in a day—and the reason you’re reading this right now—was the Prime Burger’s staff. Headwaiter Artie Ward worked at Hamburg Heaven and the Prime Burger for a combined 61 years. Chester, 30 years. Earnest, 42 years. Neil, 21. And so on, and so on.

They wore ties and white valet coats with the restaurant’s logo stitched over their heart, and they were proud to do so. As a child, I wondered why so many friendly doctors worked at the Prime Burger, and was disappointed when I didn’t see Artie and the gang at my annual physical.

They were the type of guys you wanted to see all the time—and could, and did, night after night, decade after decade. Until now.

Here’s to keeping places places. Or at least enjoying them while they’re still here.

Flop two, mystery in the alley, whiskey down.


Images via This Must Be The Place and Andrew Smith; Quotes via Kempt interviews, This Must Be The Place, Eater, and The New York Times.