This past Christmas Eve, as per our custom, we hit the fine, fine bar of the Oak Room for a drink. Tucked inside the Plaza Hotel just off Central Park, the 1907 bar is right out of central casting in terms of holiday ambiance. (Pronounced am-BEE-ance, naturally.) Through the window there are horses and sleighs and tree-tops and the ice-skating rink; inside everyone’s on their best behavior… Though my father likes to recall a business lunch a few decades back where the wood-paneled place was populated only by businessmen and hookers.( Speaking of women, they weren’t allowed in at first; they had to wait till the bar reopened post-Prohibiton in 1934.)
Hookers or no, the Oak Room has got that kind of lush. warm glow — courtesy the turn of the last century lighting, vaulted ceilings, an emerald-toned mural of German feudal castles and yards of burnished oak — that make you order in hushed tones and wish you hadn’t left your long-stemmed cigarette holder back at home. But instead of caviar and Champagne, we ordered Scotch and the dry-aged $20 Prime burger, off a lovely fancy American hotel menu (tomato and fennel soup, a salad of stellar greens with lightly pickled tomatoes and Bucheron cheese; thin sheets of tomato-flavored crackers hit with zataar and cumin seed) recently redesigned by chef Eric Hara.
It’s always been our belief that in a city of incredible patties, the best probably lies undiscovered and unblogged: It’s likely some rarely ordered lunch entree at some random spot you’d never think to order it, like Del Posto or the John Dory. So we often take a gamble on a burger in a bar like the Oak Room, where the men who like their meat and are able to pay top price for it stop for lunch.
We’re glad we did: Well-seasoned and cooked perfectly medium rare, this massive slab of seared ground dry-aged beef was indeed juicy, tender and flavorful, and came slathered with salty-tart blue cheese on an excellently chewy seeded pretzel bun that was soft but sturdy enough to hold up to the plentiful juices of the burger and nicely garnished martini-style with a green olive and a cornichon. (Plus we always dig the hotel-style tray of condiments, meaning our own little jars of mustard, ketchup and mayo plus a housemade remoulade.)
It looked so good, in fact, that the table of Japanese tourists next door had to order their own after staring at our first bites in envy. And it may not be a honey-baked ham or roast goose, but at the Oak Room, a burger and fresh-cut salty fries with a glass of fine Scotch is, to us, a fine way to celebrate the holidays.