The Big Cheese
Since its invention in 1885, the hamburger has gone through many incarnations and identities. It's been baked, broiled, flame-broiled, grilled and barbecued. It's been topped with all different kinds of cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomatoes. It's hard to imagine that there is such a thing as the perfect burger, but Stage Left Restaurant in New Brunswick comes pretty close.
Nestled on Livingston Avenue next to the State Theatre and George Street Playhouse, the cozy restaurant seems an unlikely place to find, as the menu states, "The Best Cheeseburger in the World." It was more than enticing to find out if such a bold statement was valid.
"I sometimes view that as the throwing down of the gauntlet," says owner Francis Schott. "If you think it's crazy, come give it a try. We have received a lot of positive responses."
Originally from Orange, Mr. Schott and partners Mark Pascal and Lou Riveiro opened Stage Left in 1992. It began as a more casual place to grab a bite but soon evolved into something more.
"We didn't have marble walls and custom chandeliers when we opened," says Mr. Schott. "We always had one foot in casual and one foot in fine dining. Before we knew it, places like SoHo, North Star and Clyde's were up and running, satisfying the middle market. We decided to go more upscale. We've grown and changed our reputation in the neighborhood."
Throughout the restaurant's development, the burger was always a part of the menu. Mr. Schott and Mr. Pascal collaborated with their head chef on its creation. With careful consideration, they settled on the right ingredients and cooking method, creating the final version in 1993, with minor adjustment thereafter.
"We use an expensive aged cheddar cheese," says Mr. Schott. "We make sure the meat is seasoned properly. The uniqueness comes in the ground meat: its size, fat content and the wood we use to cook it. We use a combination of soft and hard woods. If the wood is too soft, you basically get a smoke-burger."
|Stage Left owner Francis Schott shows what a $15.95 cheeseburger looks like.
There was also the matter of price. At the time, Mr. Schott had read that another restaurant in the neighborhood had considered putting a $10 burger on the menu but reneged. Inspired by the idea, but not intimidated about the reactions he might get, Mr. Schott and his partners decided to go ahead with the $10 price. Over the years, it has risen a dollar here and there, and now costs $15.95. That is not a misprint.
"What's funny is that nobody has ever balked when the see the price," says Mr. Schott. "I worked behind my own bar, and I never heard someone say, '$15.95! That's Outrageous.' The price has gone up as a reflection of the ingredients becoming more expensive.
"It comes to a point where you think, 'Well, I could compromise and use less beef or a different cut or a different bun. Or I could cheap out on the french fries.' But I realized I really didn't want to do that. We're a four-star restaurant, we're going to make it the best we can, and if people don't want to pay $15.95 for it, then they won't. Most customers are surprised to find a burger on the menu at all. If they're horrified by the price, I guess they just don't order it, because I've never really had complaints."
So, the $15.95 question is: Is it worth it? To put it simply, absolutely. Available only on the bar menu, except for Friday and Saturday afternoons, my companion and I planted ourselves on a couple of bar stools and announced our intentions to take on the lauded sandwich. On the suggestion of our pleasant and attentive server, Jack, we opted for a medium rare meat, but didn't go with the Amish bacon. The beef came out juicy and flavorful, nicely accentuated by the aged Vermont cheddar cheese. A crisp bun held everything together Yet not one ingredient overpowered another. The real jewel in the crown came as a dish of chipotle mayonnaise. The spicy sauce added an enjoyable kick to the entire meal, including the side of french fries.
"Ernesto, who is from Mexico and makes the sauce, always gets a little smile on his face when I tell him I like the sauce hot enough to hurt a little," says Mr. Schott. "He asks me if I want it Mexican hot or Irish hot. The spice is nothing compared to where he is from."
The quality and reputation of the burger has built a strong following for New Jersey eaters. Residents have brought visiting relatives to Stage Left, almost daring them to try the dish. Equipped with this knowledge, Mr. Schott had no second thoughts about claiming that the burger is the best in the world. In 2000, he managed to receive some concrete credibility.
Citysearch.com, a popular Web site for finding things to do in cities throughout the country, had started a search for the best burger in New York City. One of the food critics had convinced the editors that Stage Left, located about 30 miles south of the Big Apple, had to be included in the poll. While they made a respectable showing in the readers' poll, Stage Left won the approval of the writers, winning the editorial competition. Unfortunately, it was a victory Mr. Schott wasn't quite ready to shout about from the rooftops.
"At the time," he says, "the bar and dining area was one big room. We only had nine bar stools, and since we only served the burger at the bar, that's how many people could order it. I didn't want a crowd of people looking for the best burger in New York and not serve them."
After some renovations, the owners succeeded in separating the areas, allowing for more seating around the bar. Now that he can accommodate more patrons, Mr. Schott is eager to let the secret out.
Stage Left Restaurant is located at 5 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick. Hours: Mon. 5:30-9 p.m., Tues.-Thurs. 5:30-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-1 p.m. (lunch) and 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m. (dinner), Sun. 4:30-9 p.m. For information, call (732) 828-4444. On the web: www.stageleft.com