When my $13.50 hot dog arrives at my table, I am stunned. I'm in the glittering new 5 Napkin Burger (990 Piedmont Ave., 404-685-0777) in Midtown. The restaurant is located at the intersection of Piedmont Avenue and 10th Street — the heart of gay Midtown — in the building last occupied by Nickiemoto's.
5 Napkin is part of a small trendy chain out of New York. I expected somewhat high prices, but not the same prices the restaurant charges in New York City. The menu, directed at the recession-proof, derives its name from its specialty of burgers allegedly so gloriously huge and messy they require five napkins to prevent you from looking like you've been rummaging through a dumpster.
I already paid $14.95 for the restaurant's signature burger the night before, marveling at the menu's inclusion of this all-beef $13.50 weinie sitting before me, measuring a half pound and god knows how long. I seldom like hot dogs but the food anthropologist in me required that I order it. The server, after all, tells me it is delicious because "it just is." Hey, you can't get more elegantly existential than paraphrasing Sartre. He recommends the topping of onions and peppers, but I know that would explode in my gut, so I order it with sauerkraut.
I look around the room, the walls are white tile. I'm dining alone and I feel somewhat embarrassed amid the packed crowd of mainly gay men to lift the hot dog to my mouth. But I am fearless (and paranoid). I taste. I'm shocked. It tastes like ... a hot dog. Ugh. Perhaps people who really like hot dogs will find it different enough from an ordinary dog to merit its price. I can say it has a nice snap when I bite into it. The bread is not notable. Nor is the kraut. I paint it with Grey Poupon and that helps a little.
I can't. I just can't eat the whole thing.
Online menus from the New York locations say the hot dog there is made with Kobe beef. And the Miami and Boston ones source fancy Pearl beef. No sourcing is on the online Atlanta menu and nobody could cite the meat's origins. Whatever, it tastes like a hot dog.
My "Tuscan fries," which I chose as my free side, are strange. They are no different from the plain fries I had the night before, except that they're topped with a bit of very dry Parmesan and some rosemary. Despite the seasoning, which is too dry to cling to the fries, they are excellent — crisp and greaseless. But the hot dog has spoiled my appetite. I leave most of the fries.
I know, I know. "If you don't like it, don't order it," you'll say. "Why order a hot dog in a burger restaurant? If it costs too much, don't go there." Don't worry, I'm not going back. At least not for a hot dog.
My burger the night before likewise offended me with its price. I can't think of a burger around town that comes close to the $14.95 cost of the Original (and most others). The Original consists of 10 ounces of ground chuck topped with Gruyère, caramelized onions and rosemary aïoli. I liked it. A lot. I especially liked that the thick patty was actually cooked medium-rare, as I ordered. Its taste was not hidden by the toppings. I just hate the price.
I had a third meal here — the $19.50 trio of lobster sliders. These weren't as good as the burger but beat the hell out of the hot dog. Lobster is at the lowest cost it's ever been these days, so this too is over-the-top price-wise. You can go to the Shed at Glenwood many Wednesday nights and get nearly the same thing for $9. Price aside, the lobster was sweet, pink and tasted recently cooked. I liked that the restaurant uses a small amount of mayo with cukes and scallions, so the lobster's taste isn't overwhelmed. The sliders came with a heap of house-made bread-and-butter pickles that turned out to be a perfect accompaniment.
5 Napkin offers ahi tuna, turkey and veggie burgers in addition to beef. Starters are all in the $9 range. You can go super healthy and order a sushi maki roll for about $13. There's a menu of salads, all with some meat or seafood, that average $15. Service is mainly flawless, at the door and at the table.
I stare wearily at my leftover hot dog. I ask the server for my check and tell him no, I don't want to take home the remaining fries and sizable hunk of hot dog. "Really?" he asks. "Really," I assure him. "I love the burgers, though."
I realize that this restaurant is appealing to a prosperous class of people in Midtown who occupy high-rise condos and expensive homes in the area. It also has a built-in clientele of gay people who gathered regularly at Nickiemoto's and appear to have already embraced this new spot.
Historically, I haven't written much about cost at restaurants. But it is stunning to see that the burger craze, in part a reaction to the economy's downward spiral, is also evolving upward in price. These prices outdistance even most of those at Richard Blais' Flip Burger Boutique, though, granted, adding $3.50 for a side of fries at Flip nearly evens things up. And I admit that I thought my burger at 5 Napkin was better than the usual I've lately ordered at Flip. It remains to be seen if Blais will be vending foot-long hot dogs for nearly $14 at his new Haute Doggery.