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News / Life / Food

Story behind New York’s hottest restaurant, Hamburger America

By Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune
Published: April 5, 2024, 6:14am

CHICAGO — Like many of you, like many of the people in Chicago and in this country, I like hamburgers. But no one I have ever met likes (and knows more about) hamburgers than George Motz. I first met him two decades ago when he walked down the stairs of that subterranean hamburger oasis known as the Billy Goat and said, “There is no other food that says ‘America’ like the burger.”

And so has he recently put his money where his mouth has long been, opening in New York City a restaurant called “Hamburger America” that has people lined up down the block and me remembering that day decades ago and Motz standing in the Billy Goat saying, “All roads lead here. I had never heard of the place, but most people in the burger world kept saying, ‘The Goat has got to be in there.’ [People I knew] vouched for the place. I had a hard time even finding it. I was lost for a while, just wandering the bowels of Chicago. But that first cheeseburger …”

That was in 2003 and Motz was 35 years old, one of six children, a native of Long Island and a successful commercial cameraman easing into the making of documentaries. He had fallen in love with and married a lovely Chicago girl named Casey and one night in their Manhattan apartment they were, he remembers, “watching TV and saw a show about hot dogs, and I thought, ‘Gee, I’ve never seen a really good documentary about hamburgers.’”

He decided to make one, and came up with the criteria that each place featured would have to meet: The meat had to be fresh, nothing frozen; the place had to be family-owned and be more than 40 years old; it had to have had the same burger on the menu for all those years; the burgers had to be distinctive; and the places had to have a good story to tell.

He crisscrossed the country, spending almost three years eating burgers and filming/interviewing the people who made them. That was what he was doing when I met him, as he bit into his first Billy Goat burger and said, “It’s incredible. It was everything I had heard it was. The taste was distinctive, just a great burger.”

And so did the Billy Goat become the last of the eight burger joint stars of Motz’s 2004 documentary, “Hamburger America,” which had its premiere here at the Museum of Contemporary Art, followed by a Billy Goat party.

“What I discovered was that hamburgers would be a perfect way to get people talking about the real America, about real family values,” Motz told me. “These places are bastions of an America that most people don’t see, that many have forgotten even exists.”

That film would give birth to his 2018 book, “Hamburger America: A State-by-State Guide to 200 Great Burger Joints,” featuring the Goat, of course, but also the estimable Top Notch Beefburgers, at 2116 W. 95th St. in the Beverly neighborhood.

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Motz was drawn deeper into the food and burger world. He created and produced the Food Film Festival (an annual event for many years here for a while and still in New York). He hosted the Travel Channel’s 2011 series “Made in America,” focusing on factories that make such iconic American products as Jack Daniels whiskey and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

He went on to teach a course about hamburgers at New York University. He and Casey, now divorced, have two children, son Mac now in high school and daughter Ruby in college. He wrote another book, 2016’s “Great American Burger Book: How to Make Authentic Regional Hamburgers at Home.”

He also did a lot of traveling. “I was in many countries —Japan, France, Sweden, Argentina — talking and giving burger-making instruction,” he says. “I know that some of the people from those classes have been inspired to open their own restaurants, spreading the word, so to speak.”

During the pandemic, he created Burgerslide, “a socially distant burger delivery system,” (and Instagram account) that he ran out of his Brooklyn apartment and at various pop-up locations.

He had, understandably, been approached over the decades to open a restaurant but that did not happen until he paired with old friends and successful restaurant owners Jonathan and Andrew Schnipper and opened the new place. It is on the ground floor of a red brick building at the corner of MacDougal and Houston Streets.

On opening day, former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg dropped in. Chris Rock stopped by. And critics were full of praise.

New York magazine’s Underground Gourmet columnist, Tammie Teclemariam, wrote that “Aside from Danny Meyer and Ronald McDonald, George Motz is the biggest name in burgers’” and called his restaurant “a big-city ode to the small-town roadside griddles that Motz has evangelized throughout his career.”

The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner called the classic smash burger “fantastic, strong and correct. You don’t need to know the history of burgers to be taken with its honest flavors, its modest size, its firm handshake of pickle and onion and good ol’ American ground beef.”

They and many other writers talked of the place resembling “an old-fashioned luncheonette,” with a dozen or so stools along a Formica counter surrounding a flat top grill, a few booths and walls filled with old menus, newspaper ads and some of Motz’s photographs.

Mentioned too are more of its retro design touches and other menu items. In addition to the two burger choices, smash burger and an onion smash burger, one can order egg and tuna salad, peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese and warm ham sandwiches; fries and pies; coffee, lemonade and some milk drinks. One beer is available, Miller High Life.

The place is open seven days a week and Motz can often be found there making burgers and talking with customers. He is a naturally gregarious and charming guy, ever eager to share his stories, opinions and dreams.

“It was really a fluke that we were able to find and get this place. We never thought we could afford to open in Manhattan,” he says. “But here we are.”

He plans to invite guest hamburger makers from around the country to work the grill.