I used to have a separate to-do list just for burgers. I gave up on maintaining it, because there were so many burgers, and so little time. It just wasn’t going to happen. Naturally, J. G. Melon was on the list. It regularly appears in compilations of the city’s “best burgers” (here, here, here, here—and many more).
Just a bit of history: the place opened in 1972, but looks a good twenty years older than that. Much like Katz’s Delicatessen, it seems to be frozen in time. It won’t change, because it doesn’t have to. The founders were named “Jack” and “George” (hence J. G.), and the “Melon” is for the watermelon art that passes for décor.
It’s notoriously difficult to get in at sociable dining hours. A few months ago, we walked in at about 6:00pm on a Saturday evening. We were quoted a 20 to 30-minute wait by a host who barely looked us in the eye. It hardly seemed like we could rely on that, and there was nowhere to wait, so we gave it a pass.
Recently, we dropped by slightly earlier, in the middle of a blizzard, and it was still pretty crowded, but we were seated immediately at the bar. It didn’t take long before the place was packed once again. The bartender was more attentive than the host; she made a pretty good martini.
J. G. Melon serves a typical pub menu, but I’ve never heard of anyone ordering anything but the burger. If you peer into the half-open kitchen, burgers seem to be the only thing they make: possibly hundreds per hour at busy times, as it appears they have at least a few dozen on the grill at any given time.
I was surprised by how small it was. A super-model on a diet could make peace with it. Mind you, in this era of $20 burgers, they do not overcharge: it’s $10.25. Still, in a city where great burgers are so plentiful, I was surprised it has made so many top-10 lists. By all means, if you’re in the neighborhood and it’s not prime time, stop in and have one. But it’s not the burger of your dreams; it’s just solid and reliable.
Mediocre cottage fries (easily sharable) will set you back another $4.95, and credit cards aren’t accepted.
J. G. Melon (1291 Third Avenue at 74th Street, Upper East Side)
Food: Burgers and not much else
Ambiance: A 40-year-old pub that looks 60
Rating: Neighborhood Spot