PRIMEBURGER: Something happened to me and I hope it will happen to you. An adventure I had more than ten years ago—a rediscovery I found a few days ago.
But of course, every bistro has its own flare, every bar & grill has reliable customers, every so often visitors become lifetime patrons at Primeburger. The restaurant is located at 5 East 51st Street (between Madison and Fifth Avenue), New York, NY 10022. In addition, the coffee shop sits across the street from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
The long trail began with Arthur Ward in 1952. He worked as a waiter for two years before he enlisted in the United States Army. After his service, he returned to Primeburger and worked off and on throughout the late fifties and early sixties. However, by 1965 he was a permanent fixture behind the old-fashioned counter.
“Here, I have had regular clients for fifty years,” Arthur said. “Gordon Parks was one. He ordered a medium rare burger with onions and a strawberry shake. After the Korean War, I came home, and had a job. Back then a lot of restaurants opened and closed. I’ve always been employed.”
“What’s your favorite meal here to eat?” I said.
“All these years, it’s still the burger. We hold our own here, we use choice cut meat—ours is prime meat. When Chevy Chase came in, he ordered a cheeseburger, French fries and a diet coke. I love our burgers.”
Earnest Harrison has worked at Primeburger for forty years. He started in 1971; his main station is the dining room. “I’m the maître ď,” he remarked. “I’ve been a singer with The Coasters for around the same amount of years. I’ve traveled the world, but my main day job is Primeburger.”
“In your travels, have you found a tastier cuisine,” I inquired.
“No,” he said. “My favorite meal is Chicken-In-A-Basket [Golden-Crust Chuck of Half Plump, Tender Chicken, Toasted Bun, and Heaps of Fries for $12.95]. Nobody is better than our chef, Randy. Pearl Bailey would come in— take her shoes off and order Sweet Potato Pie.”
“Oh, she did. I love that story.”
“Yea, Little Eddie Adams made the desserts. He retired in 2008 after sixty plus years. Our customers still remember his Lemon Meringue Pie, Pecan Pie, Coconut Layered Cake, Chocolate Layer Cake, Pumpkin Pie, Sweet Potato Pie, Cherry Pie, Apple Pie, and the Corn Muffins. Eddie would come in at 4:00 a.m., go to the basement, and create whatever the restaurant needed for the day. A lot of customers ordered cakes and pies for the holidays.”
“Primeburger is my way of life, he continued. “I’m grateful—and for the guys who work here. My Dad told me working keeps you out of trouble; it’s good to have something to fall back on.”
“Earnest, how is Eddie doing,” I asked while thinking of Cherry Pie.
“Eddie is great; he’s getting close to ninety. You know, his nephew Randy is our main chef. I’ll bring him over to say hello.”
Minutes later, Randy said, “Hello, Wanda.”
“Hi, Randy,” I said.
“What are you eating,” he asked.
“I can’t decide if I want breakfast or lunch. Randy, how long have you been at Primeburger?”
“Twenty-seven years,” he folded his arms and beamed across the dining area.
“I won’t ask the chef about his preferred eatables. I’m curious about the customers’ requests, though.”
Instantly, he said, “Breakfast and lunch customers favor omelets—any kind—all the time. I’m the egg man. Whatever is on our menu, our guys prepare it, except the burgers. Burgers are grilled at the front of the restaurant.”
“Oh…now I know what I’m hungry for: I’ll have scrambled eggs, cheeseburger, and a Coca-Cola.”
Randy laughed— left and told Earnest about my order. Meanwhile, I saw another familiar person. “Hi, Abraham.” He grabbed a seat.
“I didn’t want to interrupt your conversation,” Abraham said. “Everyone is happy to see you.”
“Thanks, Abraham. I’m here to share my joy about Primeburger for the Thanksgiving Holidays. When did you start working at Primeburger?”
“I forget how long. I started as a delivery boy,” he noted. “Along the way, the manager kept pushing me to work as a waiter. I worked behind the counter and twenty plus years later, I am the night manager.”
“I see Chester behind the counter,” I replied. “I remember when he was in the kitchen.”
“Exactly,” said Abraham. “Chester has been working here since 1980.”
All at once, our conversation paused for a moment. My lunch arrived. Then I asked, “What’s the difference between the counter service and being the manager?”
“I take care of the customers, the staff and operations at night. I love both: talking with our old-time customers, new customers who perhaps just started working in the area, and plenty of tourists. When customers bring their kids, many order the Kids Menu [they have a choice of the Prime Burger, Hot Dog, Grilled Cheese, Chicken Fingers, and Mozzarella Sticks. All served with fries and a small soda for $5.95]. Parents on the other hand, often order the Prime Burger Deluxe [two Juicy Primeburgers, Golden Brown French Fries, and Assorted Relishes for $10.95].
“Everyone says: don’t change anything, the décor, the music, the waiters in their white jackets and black ties. We get fresh meat every morning—never frozen. Primeburger is an old-styled burger house. We are open every day except Sundays.”
While he spoke, I had already completed eating my cheeseburger. I started helping myself to the relish. Suddenly, I heard, “Wanda, do you want another burger?” It was the co-owner, Michael DiMicelli. Abraham laughed, and so did I.
“Uh…I better not,” I said. Abraham stood up and gave Mike his seat.
“Some people come in for the relish and not the burger,” he delightfully said.
“I can understand that,” I echoed. “I love the relish—my second best treat here. What is your secret? My intriguing mind wants to know.”
“It’s a secret. But I will tell you our red pepper relish is great on everything. Some people have it with their eggs.”
“Oh,” I pretended to be surprised. “Say, Michael, how long has your family owned Primeburger?”
“The original name was Hamburg Heaven in 1938. The name changed to Primeburger in 1965, and my Dad, Anthony DiMicelli, took over the business in 1976.
“And when did you start working for the business?” I said.
“Always—I worked with my Dad when I was in high school. I watched him. Even while in college, I worked part-time. When I graduated from college it was easy to work side-by side with my Dad.
“Anthony DiMicelli was a successful entrepreneur before the world knew the name,” I commented.
Michael grinned and continued, “He showed me the ropes. My brother John and I both manage the business together. Michael’s eyes turned to a frequent customer. “Hey Mike,” he said. “His name is Mike too. Mike’s father brought him in Primeburger when he was a small boy. Now he comes in the afternoon and orders milk and chocolate cake.”
Mike continued, “A year ago, an older gentleman walked in and ordered coffee. He didn’t touch his coffee. He sat for some time at the counter. Later, I walked up to him and said hello. He said. ‘I met my wife here. She just passed away. I came back to remember.’”
“That’s a lovely story, and sad,” I said. “And yet, there is a sense of home. The DiMicelli family has created a lifestyle at Primeburger for everyone to enjoy.”
“Thanks Wanda,” Mike gazed around the dining room. “We get new customers every day. Some like to sit at the counter, some like to sit in the dining room. If you are like Sarah Jessica Parker, you like the ‘Little Booths.’ The booths are very popular with everyone.”
“I always liked sitting at the counter,” I announced. “I liked watching Dave grill the burgers. I would contemplate about having two burgers—then give up, and order a slice of Cherry Pie.”
“I discovered something new about Primeburger,” I said.
“What’s that,” he asked.
“Primeburger is not only a New York tradition—it’s a gift to the world.”
“My Dad will be happy to hear those words,” Mike said. “Thank you.”
I say catch it if you can at www.primeburger.com.