Some friends of mine “in fashion” introduced me to Raoul’s a few years ago, although this landmark SoHo dining room has been around for over 40 years. It’s a real slice of old, bohemian New York – steak frites, dark wood booths, martinis and a psychic with a set of tarot cards sitting atop the spiral staircase en route to the restrooms. The big secret at Raoul’s is the burger – a 7oz brisket blend patty using meat from Pat LaFrieda in New Jersey, rolled in black peppercorns and sea salt, served on a toasted challah bun coated with au poivre mayonnaise, with a side of rich au poivre sauce and a cone of duck-fat fries. I won’t be the first to hail this burger as the best in the city.
I don’t subscribe to notions of “gourmet burgers”, and I don’t queue or arrange my dining times to suit a restaurant. But for the au poivre burger ($23) at Raoul’s, I make an exception. The chefs started making it in 2014 but decided not to add it to the official printed menu. Instead, it’s only available at the bar, which seats nine, and they only make 12 each night. The exception is at weekend brunch, when you can order it in the main dining room, including the booths at the back (among my favourite tables in Manhattan, up there with the banquettes at the Minetta Tavern). For weekend brunch, they make around 30 – and when they’re gone, they’re gone.
The Raoul’s burger is no gimmick, and the staff take the rules around its availability seriously. I turned up once at 6pm, an hour after opening, and all the stools at the bar were taken (they are available only to walk-ins). I was offered a table close by, but was told by one of the ever-charming waiters (the service is as old school as the interior) that they absolutely couldn’t take an order for the burger until a stool became available. I waited patiently but anxiously, with a large glass of something red from the Rhône. When I was moved 15 minutes later, the barman set up a knife and fork and bid me a good evening: “How are you? Something tells me you’re going to order the burger…” Indeed.