If you’re a fan of Prime Burger at 5 East 51st Street — and that would put you in the company of approximately half of New York, to judge from Friday’s lunchtime crowd — you should come Saturday for a burger and curly fries in your booth for one. You may never again have the chance.
How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.
Prime Burger, the 74-year-old coffee shop and restaurant, run for 36 years by the DiMiceli family, is closing. And though Michael DiMiceli spoke hopefully on Friday of finding a new space in which to reinstall Prime Burger’s futuristic “Jetsons”-era décor, the family has scarcely had time yet to look or to strike a deal. The small building in which Prime Burger is a tenant was sold recently, and the new owners sent the restaurant packing.
Though the family plans to salvage as many fixtures as it can, Mr. DiMiceli said he despaired of being able to rescue and reconstruct the built-in, one-person booths. In this highly unusual — if not downright eccentric — serving arrangement, customers sit in small U-shaped bays behind individual table tops that pivot shut to enclose them, almost as if they were buckled into an old amusement park ride. (The thrill lies in the calorie count.)
The problem is that these booths may have been too well installed to allow removal. “We’d like to take the seats,” Mr. DiMiceli said, “but the guys I talked to said that taking them apart would probably destroy them.”
There is also a long traditional lunch counter in the front, and tables and chairs in the back. Waiters still wear white jackets. Some count their service in the decades. Mr. DiMiceli, 57, runs the business with his 53-year-old brother, John. Their father, Anthony, now 84, bought Prime Burger in 1976, when Michael was graduating from college. “I had a little talk with my father and jumped right in,” he recalled.
All that experience was on display Friday as Mr. DiMiceli worked the check-out counter. From his left came a steady stream of diners to pay their bills, drop off business cards and buy souvenir T-shirts. On his right, longtime customers dropped by to confirm with him that the sad news was true. In between stood this reporter, lobbing questions that Mr. DiMiceli answered as kindly as if he’d never been asked before.
Founded in 1938 as Hamburg Heaven, Prime Burger earned praise in 2003 for its “superlative beef patty” from Ed Levine of The New York Times. It was named an “American Classic” by the James Beard Foundation in 2004. More recently, it was the subject of a seven-minute video, “This Must Be the Place,” by Lost and Found Films.
Prime Burger crossed generations in its appeal. Molly Woodward has been coming since she and her sister, Tessa, were infants. Their father, Douglas, introduced them to the restaurant, to which he was first brought by his father, Charles. “I’ve enjoyed their hand-painted signs, camouflaged faux bois clock, nice people, and bacon-related foods since 1986,” Ms. Woodward wrote on her blog, Vernacular Typography. She was having a Cheddar cheeseburger on Friday with her family.
The importance of the décor is more than nostalgic, said Theodore Grunewald, a preservationist whose interest lies in mid-century Modernism. “It’s the Four Seasons of the everyman,” he said, “and we have few examples of that intact.”
Brenda Mauro, who used to patronize Prime Burger regularly when she worked in mid-Manhattan, stopped by for her last lunch on Friday, pausing to say farewell to Mr. DiMiceli. As she settled her bill, she paid him what may be the ultimate New York compliment: “I came all the way from downtown.”