The Chain That’s Betting Burgers and Lobsters Will Never Go Out of Style
A tank of live lobsters should get you psyched for dinner, but seeing the really big ones behind glass always gets me down. Take the 19-pounder that can be yours at the Russian-owned, London-based chain Burger & Lobster for exactly $380. This mother will feed 14 people, but it's probably older than my friends and me combined. I imagine it has lived well, brawled and mated and grown fat on scallops and sea urchin and whatever the current sent its way. Now it awaits death with its powerful claws tied shut under a sign that reads, Let’s take a selfie!
The “big boys,” as all lobsters over three pounds are referred to in-house, are cooked to order by request—about five or six times a night, according to Vladimir Borodin, the partner who heads up Burger & Lobster's U.S. division. Last year, the chain bought over a million lobsters. This year, Borodin anticipates, it will purchase closer to 1.8 million.
Most of the diners aren’t in the Flatiron dining room for the big boys. They're looking at the more affordable, three-item menu: a hamburger, a lobster roll, and a whole one-and-half-pound lobster that each cost exactly $20. This tightly focused menu is part of the chain’s unimaginative but extraordinarily successful formula.
Burger & Lobster imports all its lobsters from Nova Scotia, where last year's commercial catch was the largest since the 1800s. Still, there’s something remarkable about a $20 fixed price on lobsters when the market price can fluctuate greatly each season.
In London, where the chain has several locations and is expanding rapidly, the company has constructed tanks in Heathrow Airport to hold up to 35 tons of live lobsters. It has also built large-scale storage facilities in Halifax and Maine to hold live crustaceans. This is in addition to the tank you can see downstairs in New York, which holds a relatively small group of 4,000 at a time in cold, salted water.
All those lobsters will end up steamed, grilled, or chopped up and chilled with Japanese mayonnaise and then stuffed into generously buttered, toasted brioche from Breads, the fantastic Israeli bakery down the street. The lobster rolls are big: from four to five ounces of claw and tail meat, with no other ingredients besides the mayonnaise. They have, as you’d expect, the beachy, clean flavor of fresh lobster meat.
The whole lobsters are, besides being a good deal, also fairly delicious dipped in melted butter. They arrive with all the required tools to crack the claws and pick out the meat. (The grilled lobsters are often overcooked, so their flesh becomes elastic, with an unpleasant, rubbery chew.)
If no one seems to mind the odd mistake (as seems the case), it might be because Burger & Lobster runs with the same kind of efficient, distinctly American-style service of larger fast-casual chains such as TGI Fridays. Servers are friendly, relentlessly upbeat, and above all, fast. Drinks arrive immediately and food arrives quickly, often within just 10 or 12 minutes. The restaurant offers diners an almost mindless level of ease. Cocktails are divided into two sections: those that go with burgers and those that go with lobsters.
That burger is a beast but good, cooked consistently to the temperature you request. If not specified, the monstrously large 10-ounce patty comes with tomato, bacon, melted cheese, and pickles. The meat comes from corn-fed Hereford cattle in Nebraska. The only real problem with the burger is that the bun, baked twice daily at Breads Bakery, becomes soggy almost immediately. This may be because it isn’t sufficiently toasted or because the other ingredients are too wet when the thing is constructed. It’s not clear. Eat your hamburger immediately and quickly, and this won’t matter much. Like the lobsters, it comes with two sides: a little caddy of thin, crisp, evenly salted fries and a tiny salad covered with powdered cheese and a zigzag of syrupy balsamic dressing.
Burger & Lobster is essentially luxe fast food, the opposite of the small-scale, vegetable-forward, often locally sourced ethos that chefs have been pushing toward in New York. The same group runs Beast, a steak and king crab restaurant that offers more generalist dishes as well, along with an upscale steakhouse chain called Goodman, which dry-ages beef on site. The hamburger-lobster model is built to scale quickly—and internationally—at least to a certain point. (Despite the huge, recent catches in Maine and Nova Scotia, wild lobsters are not an unlimited resource.)
The site turns away vegetarians who might be considering a visit by saying "nope" to inquiries about a vegetarian option. The restaurant’s website is a poorly designed mass of illustration and copy that includes profoundly unhelpful answers to questions such as: Do lobsters mate for life? Answer: "Yes. Well, until they have a mid-life crisis and meet a leggier, younger and blonder model." (In addition to being a bad joke, this is not true: Lobsters are much kinkier than you’d think, moving efficiently from partner to partner and communicating by squirting urine into each other’s faces.)
In what is, at least for now, New York's only Burger & Lobster location—Borodin hasn’t signed any new leases, but he says he's looking—the dining room is a bi-level 13,000-square-foot maze of shiny, glazed tables, with a long bar that's packed at happy hour. It is consistently full at dinnertime, with grown men and women in plastic bibs, cracking open claws and dipping the meat in garlic butter, then taking selfies with the carcasses. It should feel more like a canteen, considering the concept, but it’s bacchanalian by the end of the night and rowdy at the bar. Strangers flirt by the big boy tanks. Maybe when you don’t have to think too much about what you’re eating, you can focus on more important things.
Burger & Lobster is at 39 West 19th Street (Flatiron); +1 (646) 833-7532 or burgerandlobster.com
Rating: One Star (Good)
Who’s Next to You: Women with Zara and Madewell bags, drinking cocktails at lunchtime; Large groups of work friends clinking beers; A mix of tourists and locals
What to Order: Either the burger, the lobster roll, or the steamed lobster (they do tend to overcook them if you order the lobster grilled).
What to Drink: There's a concise list of wines by the glass, beer on draft and by the bottle, along with some unexciting but passable house cocktails.
Soundtrack: Fat Joe and Ashanti; The Black Eyed Peas