Members of the Hamburger of the Month Club say it's less about ?burgers and more about food, which makes sense considering the club has two vegetarians.
Madonna Commerate Schaeffer attends with her husband, ?Richard Schaeffer, a former restaurateur who ran the Brick Alley Bistro. "I wanted to meet people — I wanted the socialization," she said. "He was more interested in the burger."
Now, when 30 or so participants descend on a place for a prearranged prix ?fixe burger menu, the chef usually has a vegetarian special ready, along with all the beef. "The Delaware had the best salmon burger I've ever had," she said. "Cucumber salsa, just delish."
Beef is still the main event for the members of this informal eating group, founded three years ago by public relations professional Kathleen Rooney and friends. Once a month, an email goes out to its 50-odd members, inviting them to respond to secure a place at the table. For May, the dinner was at Tempo.
"We get an email, we RSVP, and we're there," Schaeffer said. "That's what nice about it — we've all belonged to organizations where there's a lot of structure, there's a lot of to-do and newsletter and goings-on. It's just fun."
They've hit casual joints like Dug's Dive, and they've visited finer establishments, like Oliver's and Rue Franklin.
Roy Roussel, chairman of the University at Buffalo's Media Studies Department, has been part of club for six months. As a Type II diabetic, he watches his diet, so if he has one hamburger a month, it has to be great.
"For the restaurant it's an interesting challenge, turning out 30 or 40 dishes at the same time," he said. There's also the draw of the burger itself. "Hamburgers have such a mythic place."
There's something pleasantly weird about a crowd descending on an upscale restaurant and ordering a hamburger, he said. "There's something about that that's attractive. If we were just ordering off the menu, I probably wouldn't go."
"The club is fun because it's effortless," said Susan Williams, an attorney. "It's a floating cocktail party, really."
Williams said she's an enthusiastic carnivore, albeit in limited amounts. "I feel better, relatively happier, if I have a small but flavorful piece of meat, whether filet mignon, heritage pork chop or a hamburger."
That said, she added, "I don't go because of the hamburger. I go because it's fun to get together with a group of people. It's early in the evening, right after work. You can sit down, have dinner, chat a bit and go home. It's stress-free."
The no-sweat membership rules have allowed interesting conversations to blossom, members said. "The reality is that many of us would never have known each other or gotten together outside of HOTMC," said Rooney. "We have doctors, lawyers, college professors, writers, marketers, artists, musicians; it's nuts."
The Hamburger of the Month Club sounds so good the name itself makes members. "It just kind of kept growing in that way," said Rooney. "When you tell someone, ‘I can't come because I have a hamburger club meeting,' they say, ?‘Can I come?' "
The May convocation of the Hamburger of the Month Club drew a crowd to Tempo, the fine-dining standard on Delaware Avenue better known for its $45 lobster risotto.
Tempo executive chef Paul Jenkins got a call from Sue Foster, a former co-worker at Rue Franklin, telling him she was in a burger club. He asked to join, and she said she would do better, Jenkins said: She would bring the club to him.
Jenkins wasn't about to miss the chance to throw down. "I think it's a good test of a chef's mettle to see how well he produces the basics," he said. "If you make a good burger, you've got a great start on everything else."
"The conjugation of hamburger is the grind on the beef, the bun, and whatever you finish it with," Jenkins said. "The hamburger is personal."
In the upstairs room, accented with big vases of gladioluses, a long table, covered in white, was set for 31 guests. After cocktail hour, they settled into their seats, chatting with friends and introducing themselves to new neighbors.
First was the minestrone soup or escarole salad with grapefruit supremes and ricotta salata. Then platters of fried dill pickle slices, crunchy, thin fries and battered Vidalia onion rings.
Then came the burgers, crusted with salt and pepper and pink inside, crowned with gorgonzola mousse, crispy prosciutto chips and whole roasted garlic cloves. The soft bun, sprinkled ?with poppyseeds, was stout enough to contain the modestly sized patty.
Appreciative murmurs went around the table, and conversation went into a lull. Pretty good deal for $25.
If you want to start your own dining club, Kathleen Rooney has some suggestions:
* Start small. HOTMC evolved into an eclectic list through common connections and friends of friends. Don't try to "build it." Let it happen.
* "Stick to a set date, time and format. We try to stick to the third Tuesday, a typically slow night for the average restaurant."
* No one is expected to come every month. There are no rules, dues or expectations. "It's a party. It's fluid."
* Have an RSVP system. Don't leave the person taking reservations hanging.
* "Cash is king. Plan ahead and stop at the ATM, unless you want to pick up the tab."
* "Introduce people who you think will have something in common. I enjoy bringing people together over a common goal or interest. It's like throwing a dinner party without any cleanup or menu planning."
* "Don't take it too seriously. Typically, our dinners are on the reasonable side, so no bitchin' to the kitchen if the $8 burger isn't done to perfection."