Dine + Design: The Classic American Burger Joint Gets the Parisian Treatment at PNY
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It was a long way from both Paris and New York where PNY Burger was conceived—somewhere along the Continental Divide Trail in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains, to be exact. For five months Rudy Guénaire hiked the paths between the Canadian and Mexican borders, fueling up at mom and pop burger joints whenever he got a chance. "I really loved the feeling of those little, kind of forgotten diners," Guénaire says. "That was one of the main feelings we wanted to express through the design [of PNY]."
But design wasn't exactly top of mind when Guénaire co-founded his own burger chain named after Paris and New York, what he calls the two most beautiful cities in the world. "The idea was very simple: It was to make the best burger possible," he says.
To that end, he started with the beef, sourcing an organic variety from the French countryside in Brittany. According to Guénaire, daily rainfall in Brittany makes it possible for cattle to be fully grass-fed. "The meat is incredible," he says. Once butchered, the beef is dry-aged for one to one-and-a-half months and ground just before serving. Cheddar cheese imported from a farm in the UK hugs a bun, which while made in France, is also an import at its core. "The bakers [here] don't understand how to produce a bun," Guénaire says, unraveling popular opinion about the French and their bread. Instead, he found an aspiring pastry chef from the U.S. to make the buns for PNY. "We took French ingredients, but we stuck to the American recipe." His secret sauce: "You have to be simple and straightforward and addictive."
PNY's most famous menu item—the Return of the Cowboy—was so addictive, in fact, "We removed it from the menu and customers got very angry and asked us to bring it back," Guénaire says. (Hence, the name.) Originally featured as a special, the burger is topped with cheddar cheese, onion jam, homemade BBQ sauce, and an onion ring for good measure.
Guénaire has since sold roughly 600,000 of them, and while the ingredients certainly hold their own (after just six month in business, PNY was named the best burger in Paris by Le Figaro newspaper), the setting in which they're served is undoubtedly part of the appeal. "The idea was to get this feeling of the small diner where everybody knows everybody, and mix that with design ideas that we took from Paris and New York, including a lot of work with light," Guénaire explains.
For PNY's sixth location in Faubourg Saint-Antoine, he called on Belgian architect Bernard Dubois, who after a six-hour brainstorming session was able to recreate the nostalgic elements of Guénaire's American diner days, including a reinterpretation of the booth with a small, curved wood partition. "It isn't the classic red leather booth that we're used to," Guénaire notes, though the coziness of it achieves the same effect. The small-scale tables are another riff on the classic diner design. "One thing that I like is that it's very difficult to date the project," Guénaire says. "You can't say it dates to the 60s, 70s, or 80s. It's a lot of different, very strong design [elements] from different periods, and the fact that you can't really distinguish which period it comes from is very interesting."
Like the food, the PNY approach to design is simple. "We don't really like decoration. We feel like it gets old very fast. And we don't like colors, so all of our restaurants don't have much color." But there is one exception: PNY's pink-and-blue Marais location, which Guénaire says came together primarily as a challenge for the architect. "We had an architect who absolutely hated color, so we thought it was interesting to give him the challenge of doing a very colorful restaurant," he explains. "Now, it's one of the most photographed locations of PNY."
"Sometimes we try to do something a little different because the chef wants to be creative," Guénaire says of his menu. "But people want the burger," with a side of good design, no doubt.