Dining Features

Union Burger Bar Opens in Southampton

Owner Ian Duke talks inspiration, ingredients and customer customization.

Calling this a work of art, the creation there on the plate before the small crowd that has gathered around it, might be a stretch. Might be. Who’s to say, really, what is art? To borrow from a supreme court judge who once famously stated he could not define a certain other art form but would certainly know it when he saw it, you know there’s something about this golden, glistening orb that, when pressed against the foundation upon which it gently rests, breaks into an oozing lava-like flow amid cheese, bacon, homemade hash browns…

If the Breakfast Burger at Union Burger Bar is not art (and we are not yet willing to concede that), then we’ll agree it is, at the very least, a stroke of genius.

The Breakfast Burger at Union Burger Bar, Photo: Courtesy Union Burger Bar
The Breakfast Burger at Union Burger Bar, Photo: Courtesy Union Burger Bar

The same may be said of Union Burger Bar (UBB) itself, a bastion of beef and buns built up in the minds of owner Ian Duke and Chef Scott Kampf this past year and now opening its doors as a reality. “Chef Scott Kampf and I first talked about doing a burger bar a little over a year ago, really just out of our love for America’s foremost delicacy,” says Duke, who also holds Southampton Social Club and Union Cantina in his portfolio of village places where people eat, drink and, in a word, enjoy. “The idea has continued to percolate with for a variety of reasons, but mostly because there are few things that I enjoy as much as a really good burger with fresh-cut fries and a cold beer. Something so simple. Maybe I’m an anomaly, but I think that most people really love the simplest of things.”

UBB is not a full ground-up creation, mind you, although its location adjoined to Union Cantina has a completely separate look, feel and entrance. Weeks of renovations have transformed the cozy space—seating for 50 is intentionally intimate—and infused it with an air of classic cool. Standing amid the exposed-steel-and-brick-wall of the new space, Union Cantina aficionados will recall its prior incarnation as the 400 Rabbits Bar, the former speakeasy in the back of the establishment that showcased, on one wall, the origin story of how a pair of frisky Mexican gods, in a night of wild abandon, begot 400 rabbits—and introduced the world to tequila. Not a bad foundation, actually.

That undercurrent of mischief and mayhem from those gods lives on, and runs very much through Duke’s own worldview. Why not have a little fun, try something a little off-center, breath new life into a place that’s been standing for more than a century? Although brand new, the feel of UBB is already speakeasy vintage, as if it’s been there forever, your own little secret. It is no secret, of course, that this village has distinctly lacked a true burger-centric joint, and UBB is not taking its flagship status lightly.

“In Southampton, it’s time for a modern take on a classic idea,” Duke says. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, but we’re doing it in the best possible way.”

Duke is no stranger to the top-shelf burger game—his Lucky’s Famous Burgers in New York City are a must-stop on any Manhattan burger pilgrimage—but here, he and the UBB team are looking to create an experience. Lucky’s, like Shake Shack and Five Guys, elevated the burger beyond mere fast food, evolving the Ray Kroc model into the concept of, as Duke puts it, “being able to get good food fast. Burger Bar is different. You’re taking more of the concept of a small restaurant and viewing the burger as more of a delicacy. That starts with the quality, obviously.”

Ian Duke, owner of Union Cantina, Photo: Barbara Lassen
Ian Duke, Photo: Barbara Lassen

At Burger Bar, you’ll choose your protein (more on that in a minute), your bun (Martin’s Potato Roll, Thomas’s English Muffin, Eli’s Brioche Bun, a multi-grain bun, pretzel bun or even a fresh lettuce wrap), your topping (the gamut from complimentary lettuce, tomato, raw onion and pickle to VIP toppings like bacon compote and house chili) and even a sauce, if that’s your thing. The combinations are endless, but they all begin with that burger. Duke and Chef Scott Kampf decided that nothing less than a special 75/25 blend—for the lay person, that’s the breakdown of lean beef to fat, and it’s one juicy ratio—of Niman Ranch beef. All grass-fed, 100% hormone free, antibiotic free and humanely raised. “The meat we are buying is expensive,” Duke says with understandable pride, “and it is fantastic.”

Of course, every ingredient meets exacting standards. “Guests’ palates have evolved,” Duke says. “Everyone’s looking for the freshest of fresh ingredients, so it matters, the quality of that tomato, that bun, the fries—really, you can’t focus enough on it.”

That evolution is reflected all across the menu. A California veggie burger, a turkey burger and a grilled chicken breast sandwich stand along the beefy choices. There’s the Rice Burger Bowl (black beans and rice, chopped avocado, melted habanero pepper jack cheese, pico de gallo and sour cream) and the Health Nut Salad (romaine and kale mix, hearts of palm, sweet corn, heirloom tomato, avocado, toasted pumpkin seeds and oregano lime vinaigrette), plus the Chopped Wedge and a house salad.

And let us not forget the fries.

No fewer than seven types of French fry offerings have earned their own section of the menu. “We tried at least 30 kinds of fries to come up with what we thought we should do here,” Duke admits. A tough job, admittedly, but somebody had to do it. “It doesn’t matter what anybody says to me, a fresh-cut potato fry is by far better than anything else. However, it’s not as good with anything on top of it. Hence the waffle fries, which we do covered in cheese and gravy with our Disco Fries.” He smirks. “Yes, a health-conscious move.”

Cue the giant pretzels and fried pickles and corn fritters. And there is an entire page of the menu dedicated to shakes, some designed to accompany your meal, others to finish it off. Or maybe even suffice as a meal unto themselves. The Big Blue Bunny: vanilla-frosted rim with rainbow sprinkles, topped with a Blue Bunny ice cream cone, whipped cream, more sprinkles and a cherry. The Kampfire: chocolate-frosted and graham cracker rim, vanilla and marshmallow milkshake topped with whipped cream, a UBB s’more, chocolate sauce and a cherry. There are also, naturally, boozy concoctions like the Drunken Jelly Doughnut (blended vanilla ice cream and jelly doughnuts with Grand Marnier) and the Shakey Bailey (a cookies & cream milkshake with Bailey’s Irish Cream and Stoli Vanil Vodka). “What’s better than a great shake?” Duke asks. “A great shake with booze!”

One of the many savory burgers available at Union Burger Bar, Photo: Courtesy Union Burger Bar
The Mac Daddy at Union Burger Bar, Photo: Courtesy Union Burger Bar

But we digress. UBB is first and foremost about the burgers, and “at the end of the day, the burger is really America’s food,” Duke says. “Many people claim to have invented it, and Burger Bar is really an homage to our cuisine. We give everybody the opportunity to bastardize it in whatever way they like, whether you’re a crazy health nut or you’re somebody who knows how to enjoy a really good burger. You can create your own, or go with one we recommend.”

Chef recommendations include that aforementioned Breakfast Burger, as well as the Black & Bleu—topped with bleu cheese, applewood bacon, lettuce, tomato and caramelized walnut crumble on a brioche bun—and the Mac Daddy, with homemade mac & cheese and onion hay on a pretzel bun. Duke and Kampf, who have collaborated so well on the menus at Union Cantina and Southampton Social Club, love all the house options they’ve created but there is a point of contention that is now being played out quite publicly.

“We vehemently disagree on the size of the burger,” Duke says.  So what is it? Thin versus thick? Duke’s five-ounce thin preference (served as a double, naturally) or Kampf’s eight-ounce thick favorite? The answer is yes. Diners can choose either. Why impose limits? “It’s such an obvious point,” Duke says. “Everything is about choices.”

With all due respect to the hot dog, historically nestled between baseball and apple pie in the pantheon of all-American fare, the burger is in fact a more democratic dish, for both chef and diner alike. Something for everyone that allows individual creativity to shine. Within reason, of course.

“You’re not coming here to get a steak, you’re not getting chicken parmigiana. When you go to an Italian restaurant, most people are ordering Italian food. You’re not saying, Hey, I want a rib-eye, So I’m going to an Italian restaurant. That doesn’t mean they can’t do a rib-eye. The same is true for Mexican, or Chinese food. We are creating a quality, individual experience around great burgers, in a fun environment.”

There will always be six beers on tap—a stout, an IPA, the top of their league in each category of beer—along with a stellar bottle selection. That tequila granted to us by the gods will be available, although, Duke says, “bourbon is the spirit I think of when I think of burgers.” Offerings of that most American of spirits will include a wide range, featuring classics like Woodford Reserve, Bulleit and Basil Hayden’s—even a Pappy Van Winkle if you time it right—but also Rough Rider Bourbon, made by Long Island Spirits on the North Fork.

Union Burger Bar, Photo: Steve McKenna
Union Burger Bar in Southampton, Photo: Steve McKenna

The idea of “local” matters to Duke, who has made efforts both personal and professional toward elevating the business and consumer experience in Southampton Village. The idea behind Union Burger Bar follows that same path, whether it’s Duke’s nod to local village history by bringing “Barrister’s Wednesdays” back to the Southampton culinary calendar, or the timing of the restaurant’s opening—not at the height of the summer season, but quite consciously at a time when there’s typically more ice and snow than foot traffic on the sidewalks.   

“I think this village needs this, and it’s not because I’m doing it,” he says. “We’ve lost so many restaurants, and others are looking to leave, we’ve lost so many businesses, something that is new and younger and a little innovative and fun, especially as we enter the doldrums of winter. I think people are nervous. Retailers are nervous, restaurateurs are definitely nervous, about what’s going on. Burger Bar is a place that’s economical, where you can bring the whole family, and it’s fun.”

You are not mistaken to think that Duke seems to utter the word fun every other sentence as he gets going about Union Burger Bar. He simply can’t help it. Only 1980s music plays here, and it will play consistently. The staff is as engaging as at his other locales, making UBB destined to become the kind of place where everybody feels like a regular after stepping through the front door, even for the first time.

“The whole vibe is fun. That’s what I want. I want energy. Casual, enjoy yourself. That’s different things to different people. But it’s all fun.” It might tough to define, but you know it when you see it.

Union Burger Bar, 40 Bowden Square, Southampton. 631-377-3500, unionburgerbar.com

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