Once upon a time before the words artisanal and gourmet were used to describe food there were burger joints. Not fast food places like we’re used to, but places where you could order a burger they way you wanted it and the person behind the counter wouldn’t have a meltdown because they didn’t have a button on the register to push for that.
Clown Alley was one of these places. It was opened up on Columbus Avenue sometime in the 40’s by Enrico Banducci who also opened the Hungry I and the Purple Onion [where Phyllis Diller and others got their careers started]. The place wasn’t anything gorgeous to look at and I think the clowns used in the decor were more to distract you from the fact that you just walked into a corner dump to get a burger.
The burgers where well, burgers. Nothing artisanal or gourmet about them, they where just made from ground beef thrown on a grill and served up with french fries. What set them apart was that they were big. Huge to be more exact. They make quarter pounders look like white castle sliders.
This was the type of place that you went to eat what people ate when they were hungry. They didn’t go there for the ambience or organic produce that was put on the burger [is there really such a thing as organic iceberg lettuce and if so why?] I always liked to take friends who had come from outside the US here who wanted to try real American food. The burgers were made by hand and not a machine. They were cooked on a greasy old grill and they never quite tasted the same twice. If you had a great burger today it could be awful tomorrow, but if you were hungry and didn’t have a lot of money, you wouldn’t be hungry for the rest of the day. Today’s equivalent would probably be the burrito.
The 80’s and the beginning of the foodie way of life started to change this. Burgers became déclassé even if they were made with meat from a farm to table place and rolled into patties on the thigh of a virgin. The burger, a symbol of American culture had just become uncool.
It turns out that while Clown Alley has closed it has re-opened under the name Pickles with a few changes to the decor and menu. It’s still not the same as Enrico’s, but at least it’s not cooked and frozen in some other part of the country. While they served burgers just like any fast food place in the US there was something about a quirky place like this that was just different. You’d see guys in suits sitting next to construction workers both connected by some ground up meat on a bun.