At the far eastern end of Bourbon St. in the French Quarter of New Orleans, away from the strip clubs and the bars and the noise, I saw an old Coca-Cola sign, faded and streaked with years of Big Easy grime, hanging above the entrance to a diner called Clover Grill. I have since learned Clover Grill is a local institution, but I did not know that at the time. I was hungry so I went in.
Inside there was a checkered tile floor and rose colored walls, and along the front windows was a handful of tables. A TV droned on the wall above the cash register, but otherwise it was quiet. I took a seat at the counter, which had stools covered with red naugahyde. That night I had my pick of them since I was the only customer. A fry-cook eyed me from behind the counter, looking just like you would expect a fry-cook to look: white t-shirt, red apron, paper hat, and all of them stained to some degree by a shift’s worth of grease. I ordered a hamburger, not just because the sign in the window promised the “World’s Best”, but also because if the boast turned out to be more brag than fact it still seemed like a safe choice, because when you get right down to it there’s not much that can go wrong with a hamburger. At least I thought so until the cook tossed a frozen meat patty onto the griddle, and without even waiting until it stopped wobbling like a manhole cover that had been blown out onto the street, he dropped a hubcap from a 1962 Chevrolet down over it and walked away. He left it to cook for what seemed like an eternity, never once lifting the hubcap to check on it. The longer this went on the more I became convinced my hamburger was being charred beyond identification, something I cannot abide when it comes to my food, and I was beginning to dread the inevitable conversation the two of us were going to have about it. It took every ounce of restraint I had to keep from asking the man if he was sure he knew what he was doing.
Not surprisingly, it turned out that he did. He served it up with french fries, and I savored every last crumb. And though I can’t say for certain it was, in fact, the world’s best hamburger, on that warm night in an old diner in one of the world’s great cities, it was pretty close.