This is a hamburger you will never have. I know that’s a bit unfair, since I believe we’re all supposed to be writing about taste sensations you can go out and try but the fact remains. This is a hamburger you will never have. If it’s any consolation it was a hamburger I rarely had.
This is also a city you will never have, at least not again. At least not from what I hear. This was a New York when the idea of a resort on Rivington Street was ridiculous. Rivington Street was a last resort, for junkies, that is. Wylie Dusfrene would have had a hard time walking down Clinton Street much less opening restaurants there. Avenue A was sketchy, B-D were downright frightening. There were still poor people in Manhattan. It was still possible for young, un and underemployed people to live in New York There was new music going on everywhere, artists were breaking out of the pop mold and helping fuel the energy going on on stages at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. New York City in 1977 was alive in a completely exuberant way that matched my own youthful enthusiasm perfectly.
At 13, when I quit school and moved out of the house to pursue rock stardom my two main concerns were where to sleep and what to eat. And although New York was still affordable, it wasn’t quite so affordable that a 13 year old could rent an apartment, even in the company of his 14 and 15 year old best friends. I thought about this a lot during my 5 years of managing apartments in SF’s Tenderloin. We’d show up to a place, Village Voice in hand, piping, “We’re here to see the apartment.” Punk rock had not yet become the mainstream movement it did in the 90’s, or even the very cute thing it appears to be now as evidenced by the “punky Chips Ahoy” commercial I saw the other night. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” hadn’t been released yet, much less would it be considered appropriate for an ad for Royal Caribbean Cruises for many a year and so the sight of 3 midgets in their black leather jackets, festooned with badges, safety pins and surely dirt, must have been at best amusing for the various supers we annoyed.
So, a lot of my time was spent thinking about sleeping and eating and even though at the time I didn’t care much for Talking Heads, their album title “More Songs About Buildings and Food” could have defined my adolescence. The sleeping was taken care of by kindly friends, temporary girlfriends, hallways and seats in Penn Station, the back room of the Blimpie’s on6th Avenue and a few times I fell asleep in the middle of sets by bands I really wanted to see.
Food was sometimes provided by the same kindly friends and temporary girlfriends but the appetite of a teenager is pretty boundless. I started to refine cooking skills learned earlier, at home. I learned how to pull things out of strange refrigerators and make something at least edible, if not always entirely palate pleasing. Fortunately the New York City of my misspent youth had any number of cheap eateries to keep me going. A Greek diner on every corner, countless Chinese/Cuban places (for me the original “fusion” restaurants), hot dog and pretzel vendors, this nameless, renegade soul food restaurant in an apartment where it was rumored Paloma Picasso ate frequently, Leshko’s on Avenue A, serving Ukranian delights, B&H Dairy on 2nd Avenue, Stromboli Pizza on 1st Avenue, a meal or two at Luchow’s on 14th. Hell, Max’s Kansas City had a restaurant and during the day it was a regular bar with a happy hour and free food. Our friends, The Fast, were managed by Tommy Dean, the owner, and we’d often drop by on the pretext of watching them rehearse and load up on free chicken wings. But I digress.
Phebe's is on the corner of Bowery and 4th Street. It is, amazingly, still there. It appears to be much more of sports bar now and while I can’t say whether the menu 30 years ago was the same as it is today, I don’t think so. The real attraction for me was its proximity to CBGB’s and that it stayed open until 4am. If it hadn’t been so expensive (for a 13 year old on a budget) I’d have been there nearly every evening.
So tell me about this damned hamburger you’re thinking. Ok, I’ll try. The first thing that stands out is the bun. They served the burger on English muffins, which I still think is the perfect burger bun. It’s somewhere between chewy and soft, with plenty of holes to absorb the ketchup and mayo mingled juices from the meat. At the time I wondered about the genius who thought of serving the burgers on muffins but now I’ll bet they also served brunch and needed another outlet for those muffins after all the Eggs Benedict had been served. The meat seemed perfect. A thick patty, loosely held together. Pure meat luxury. Strangely I can’t remember any cheese.
But what really mattered was that if I were having a burger at Phebe’s all was right with my world. I wasn’t worried about where I was sleeping that night because by 2 or 3 am if I was at Phebe’s I had already figured that out. I wasn’t worried about money because if I was at Phebe’s I obviously had an excess of cash, enough to blow on a pricy, succulent burger. If I had such a windfall it usually meant we had just finished a gig and had split the dough which meant that I was sitting down to a feast with friends, flush with the glow of performing, and being a teenager in the best city on earth at the best possible time for me to be there.