Perfect For: Strange conversations with regulars at the bar, inhaling burgers after imbibing
On the Speakers: Incubus - "Make Yourself"
Wallet Stress: Low ($2.75 to $8)
Corner Bistro's original West Village location is a New York institution. Tipsy hoards have been lured in by the bar's vintage red neon sign (which they're in the process of trademarking) since it opened in 1961. Even on a Monday night during an off hour, it's consistently crowded with a mix of students, tourists who have read about it in guidebooks, and regulars.
It makes perfect sense that the bar, and its venerated burger, would expand. But why now, and why Long Island CIty? Don McKnight, co-owner of the new location, claims it was the difficulty of finding a key element of the bistro's formula—a corner.
The LIC offshoot is situated just a handful of blocks off the 7 line. On the night I visited the red sign was instantly visible, despite the snow.
There were only a handful of people at the bar, and exactly zero tables occupied. I settled in at the bar, in a seat given to me by an old man with a young face wearing a newsboy cap.
This bar looks like it's been here for years. It was gut-renovated to appear that way, just one of the many pains taken to duplicate the laid-back charm of the original. McKnight told me they put dings in the hardwood floors. The clientele, composed the yuppie ex-Manhattanites who took to the luxury towers lining the waterfront when rent got too high, and scruffy locals with good stories to tell, add to that vibe.
They want to hear your stories, too. A handful of probably regulars began to whisper after I started scribbling notes "What's she writing about?" they asked aloud, not caring that I could hear. A ruddy-faced man two stools away asked me directly. I answered: "You." "No good material here," he said, and turned the focus on me. What was I about?
The speakers churned out songs I hadn't heard since middle school; Semisonic's "Closing Time" played well ahead of the appropriate hour. Reaching even further back in time, the overturned shot glasses lining the bar? They're for buy backs.
McKnight mentioned that during Hurricane Sandy, the restaurant suffered few casualties aside from a freezer and a computer. Stranded employees were picked up so they could come in for their shifts. Generous gestures are the norm here. The older man beside me worried about not making it home in the snow. McKnight offered to lend him the bicycle they use for deliveries. He laughs, but below the chuckle his tone is earnest, and you can bet that he'd walk the customer home himself if it was necessary.
It's all very kind, but what about that burger? You'll be happy to learn that it's completely unchanged. There are, however, additions to the menu: sweet potato fries, a chunky chicken salad, chicken wings, and a chicken club wrap. No head-scratchers there. There is one change though, that signals a shift in attitude: brunch. In attempts to adapt to their gentrified surroundings, the LIC bar-cum-bistro is offering a brunch menu with a "let's use what we have" mentality. That means topping all of your favorites, including their chili, grilled cheese, and of course, their bistro burger, with eggs.
Bistro Burger: This is the reason you're here, right? More bacon than burger, the salamander-broiled burger is stacked with corkscrews of bacon that abides by the golden crispy-to-chewy ratio. McKnight says, “This will probably be the juiciest hamburger you’ve ever had,” and he's right. My only qualm: The bun doesn't hold up to the moisture, and the bottom becomes soggy before finished.
Chili: A straightforward mix of bistro burger meat, red beans, American cheese, and white onion. It doesn't want to change the world, only to make you full and warm for very little cash.
Grilled Chicken Sandwich: Juicy grilled chicken with melted American cheese, tomato, and white onions on a soft bun. Simple, and satisfying for that reason.
Wings: The crispy medium-spice wings have a slight kick and plenty of meat. You won't need to gnaw the bone scavenging for scraps to fill your belly. But you will anyway.
McSorley's Ale: They don't serve it in two mugs overflowing with foam, but it's on tap and just as delicious. McSorley's dark is also available.
House Pinot Grigio: What? It was happy hour, and each glass was four bucks. It was inoffensive, which is saying a lot for a wine served at a beer bar.
THE FINAL WORD
This is the kind of food you don't need to scrutinize. At the start of the meal, McKnight said, "Corner Bistro is known for its food more than the bar itself," and I understand why. It's uncomplicated food, served in a setting that doesn't try to be trendy. In other words, it feels like home. If your home was full of friendly strangers. Which would be weird if they weren't there for the same reason as you: comfort.
*Note: This meal was provided courtesy of Corner Bistro, and thus has not been given a star rating.