A light rain pelts New Yorkers making their way to Ace Hotel in Midtown Manhattan on a soggy Tuesday night.
It’s time for happy hour.
Inside is an eclectic crowd: dozens chatting, some feverishly typing on their laptops, others staring forlornly at their beverage, expecting some kind of response or direction. Anything. It’s the typical early-evening summertime crowd.
But this club made of 16 hungry guys, all of whom are in finance, have something else in mind.
After they walk into the Ace Hotel, they enter The Breslin, a dimly lit restaurant housed inside the hotel and adorned with paintings of the same animals—primarily cows and pigs—that will eventually end up on dinner plates. There are also representations of other four-legged furry creatures: deer and reindeer. One golden statue perched above the bar resembles Bambi. A painting of Snow White hangs on the wall. The decor, however, doesn’t suggest a Disney fetish. But the restaurant’s meat fixation is clear.
The first member of the club to arrive, a 29-year-old banker from Merrick, approaches the hostess. His collar is loose and his suit—recently dry cleaned—screams business. He had chicken salad for lunch. He’s starving.
“I’m with the Burger Club,” he tells her, explaining that 15 of his buddies will be joining him for a 5:30 p.m. reservation.
He’s referring to the Gotham Burger Social Club, an exclusive group made up of like-minded bros with a love for money and burgers. Beer, bourbon and scotch are okay, too.
This coterie of carnivores meets the second Tuesday of every month at eateries across Manhattan. Usually 15 to 18 members make each burger session. The Gotham Burger Social Club has only been feeding together since last October but they have already amassed an impressive following on Instagram—which they use to pen reviews about recently devoured burgers, or to share photos of other juicy patties that sit inside equally mind-blowing buns that members have personally discovered and dutifully devoured.
A lot of research goes into picking each spot. But the club has become so popular that the restaurants are sometimes contacting them.
The club’s Instagram profile already has more than 5,000 followers (the club is also on Twitter). Their mouth-watering photos have generated hundreds of “likes” and dozens of comments. They’ve even gotten inquiries from people overseas wondering where the worthy burger spots are when they make that long-awaited trip to New York City.
Recently, 42-year-old Mike Puma, the club’s organizer/leader/creator, spoke with one man from the Netherlands and another from Brazil. They wanted advice, and he was more than happy to give it to them.
Two of the most-discussed burger spots are Minetta Tavern, specifically, the Black Label Burger, and Cherche Midi on Bowery. But as the burger club has learned, great burger spots are bountiful.
Their Instagram has turned into a sort-of Yelp for burger aficionados. It’s easy to scroll through their 300-plus burger pics and become instantly intoxicated by the savory juices gushing out of each cooked-to-perfection burger—all cooked rare, of course—flavorful toppings, such as bacon, egg, caramelized onions, and golden french fries, always the cherry on top.
The club was born out of “a love for food and sharing a good time with friends, basically,” Puma explains. “Time is a lot more valuable and sparse.”
A majority of the men are married and have kids, so having a scheduled burger “meeting” each month makes getting together easy and stress-free.
John Callea of Smithtown, who has known Puma for a decade, is an original member of the club. He drives in from Long Island for every meeting.
“It’s your best buddies having a great burger,” he says, adding that the guys have “a lot of similar interests.”
“It’s nice to have your man time,” he says, between bites.
Puma and a couple of other good friends created the club after reading a newspaper article about the best burgers in New York City. It inspired them to have an ambitious goal: try all the burgers.
“Burgers range from little diner burgers, to tavern burgers, to well-crafted restaurant burgers,” he says. “Even high-end restaurants are trying to highlight a good custom burger to show off some of their skills.”
At the first meeting, there were only about six guys in the club. The burger was delicious, but it was so small that they all rushed over to an Italian restaurant nearby afterward and enjoyed roasted eggplant and pizza.
The club only grew from there. Now there’s about 20 guys, made up of friends, co-workers and acquaintances.
Then there’s 46-year-old John Farrell of Manhasset. A self-proclaimed burger and bourbon lover, Farrell met Puma through Instagram. Farrell had posted a photo of a bourbon he happily consumed, and Puma commented on the photo. Then he suggested that Farrell join them. It didn’t take much convincing on his part.
“What’s more American than a burger or bourbon?” Farrell says with a smile, raising his glass of Eagle Rare.
On this night, the club has a date at The Breslin with a lamb burger. It’s their first communal lamb feast.
Drinks in hand, they follow the hostess up to the second floor.
Sixteen men, including this reporter, take a seat at a long, rectangular table. Opposite me is a cow sculpture bolted into the wall.
The club is already deep into conversation. They talk business, golf, and family. There’s some good-natured jokes and banter.
The waitress takes drink orders and soon learns to her surprise that everyone will be having the same entree.
Some members order appetizers, but the main event, of course, is the char-grilled lamb burger, topped with feta cheese and onion, and accompanied by a side of french fries, plus a cumin-mayo-dipping sauce. It’s $21.
The guys toast to the burger club and enjoy their beverages while they wait for the lamb. Nothing is out of the ordinary, until one of the members whips out an iPhone with an image of Old Glory. Everyone stands and puts their right hand over their hearts. They begin to recite the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Inside the restaurant. At the dinner table.
Soon, busboys and waitresses emerge with each burger, sitting atop its own block of wood. A large knife is also provided. Some members decided to slice their meal in half, apparently in order to snap a photo of the center of the lamb.
Then it’s judgment time.
Their mouths full, the club begins assessing the burger in rapid-fire succession.
“The onion and feta just makes it,” one says.
“If my stomach could smile, it’d be fucking smiling right now!” offers another.
“Good roll!” yells a member from the other side of the table.
“If you didn’t tell me it was lamb,” explains one of the jubilant burger eaters, “you wouldn’t know.”
“Yes, you would,” responds another member, mid-bite.
“These are the best fries, hands down!” he says, gazing at his fellow burger lovers.
The fries also seem to have won over Joe, one of the members who usually isn’t a fan. Tonight, he says, he’d give it a “screaming 10.”
The burger is, indeed, delicious. The lamb is succulent, and its unique taste isn’t overwhelming. Each bite brings out a different flavor. The onion adds a necessary crunch, and the slice of feta (!!) is delightful. And, verily, the french fries are out of this world.
There’s more to the club than just hanging out, drinking beer and devouring burgers. They do a little work, sort of. At the end of the night, Puma hands out cards that each member uses to rate the meal on a scale from 1 to 10. They judge the burger (the meat), the bun, the toppings, and the french fries. On this occasion, the lamb earned an 8.6, the bun a 9, toppings an 8, and the fries an astounding 9.7.
The overall rating: 8.82.
After one day, the photo of the lamb burger at The Breslin had garnered more than 300 comments.
Although the club is delighted with its soaring popularity online, there’s one problem: Some followers ask whether they can join and Puma has to explain that the Gotham Burger Social Club can’t take in any new members. It’s impossible to invite more people into the group because restaurants won’t be able to accommodate such a large party. The club is pretty much at full capacity.
“The biggest problem we have is finding a place that suits our needs,” Puma says. “I enjoy bringing on new guests when we have room. I would love to have it grow. But it can’t. There really is no in.”
Hey, there’s always Instagram. For that virtual feast.