Everyone’s A Regular At Paul’s

IMG_0325Meredith Hoffman Paul’s Da Burger Joint, 131 Second Avenue.

Here’s a test: You come back to your office with your lunch, peel the silver-foil rim off the cardboard lid, and behold a very large hamburger slathered in a layer of sauteed mushrooms and onions so vast that it carpets the container; the combination of grease and a plasma of melted American cheese has rendered the bottom bun so soggy that the whole mass can be held only with great care, and the assistance of many napkins. The test: Do you think “Gross!” Or do you think “Yes!”?

If you fall in the first camp, there is no good reason to go to Paul’s Da Burger Joint at 131 Second Avenue, between Saint Marks Place and Seventh Street. You probably should stop reading this article right here. Only the hard-core carnivores still with me? Okay, let’s proceed.

In days of yore, the East Village was full of joints — pizza joints, burger joints, beer joints. Today the neighborhood is given over to the Danish open-faced sandwich and the Japanese pork butt — which I, for one, am happy to celebrate. But a place without neighborhood joints is hardly a neighborhood at all. Paul’s, founded in the remote era of 1989 and bearing the accumulated grit of years of honest service, is the kind of place Jane Jacobs would have celebrated in “The Death and Life of Great Cities.”

The visitor will be instantly struck by Paul’s décor, with its twin themes of sports and cheerful smut — itself an archaic combination. A bumper sticker over the front door announces “N.Y. Mets Drive.” A sign to one side admonishes, “Smile — it’s the second best thing you can do with your lips.” The riot of posters and signs inside includes a Marilyn Monroe series and a Betty Page-style World War II pinup with the caption, “Hiya boys, hope you’re hungry.” A big Day-Glo painting high up on a wall is titled “Paul’s Palace,” and features the eponymous owner, Paul Koval, his wife, sisters and former staff members. The sisters still wait tables, though Paul himself has retired to Florida.

Paul’s cousin, Matt Ward, a genial 40-year-old with hair parted anachronistically in the middle, now mans the takeout line and presides over the counter. As I was admiring the décor, Matt said, “It’s not easy to maintain this look. You can’t just go out on the street and find this stuff.”

“Oh, where do you find it?”

“On the street.” Ba-dum.

DSC_1418Meredith Hoffman At Paul’s there are many variations on the master theme of the burger, including burgers with chili con carne, with ham, and with “pizza sauce.”

Paul’s menu works many variations on the master theme of the burger, including the Saint Marks Burger, described above, and burgers with chili con carne, with ham, with “pizza sauce” and so on. You can, if you wish, order a healthy burger, made either from turkey or even vegetables. After bantering with a customer, Matt lowered his voice and said to me, “The guy I just talked to? He’s a vegan. He comes for the veggie burger.” I wouldn’t have known to look at him. Paul’s does not make a virtue of innovation. They sell beer, but not wine. “Wine wouldn’t pay to carry,” as Matt explains. Dessert? “We have a very rich chocolate cake,” says Matt, pointing to a dark object under a plastic cover.

Matt picked up the phone. “Is this who I think it is?” It was. He took an order. A customer dropped some coins in the tip jar, and Matt gave a squeeze to a car horn dangling near his head. “Tip gets a toot.” Everyone was a regular — even if they weren’t. Matt kept up a steady stream of banter. The tablecloths were either red-checked or black-checked. The Forties-era sign over the grill advertised chocolate ice cream sodas. At Paul’s, you feel like the Dodgers are still in Flatbush and the Giants in Coogan’s Bluff. Of course, most of the customers have no idea where either of those places are. But it’s comforting to find yourself in such an amiable time warp.

The food, it’s true, is pretty unreconstructed as well. The French fries are thick and lightly fried, and thus a trifle potatoey. The onion rings are merely serviceable. But at Paul’s a medium-rare hamburger is always cooked medium rare, and it’s big and it’s juicy. The rest is detail. As the hand-lettered sign on the outside nonsensically declares, “If you didn’t know it was hamburger you would think it was.”

Paul’s Da Burger Joint, 131 Second Avenue, 212-529-3033. www.paulsburgers.com