Juicy burger is icing on cake

A spiffy new food stand is the latest sign of rejuvenation in once-seedy Franklin Square.

SquareBurger, a joint venture of Stephen Starr and Historic Philadelphia Inc., offers more than burgers. Also available are fries, a salad, and hot dogs. (JOHN COSTELLO / Staff Photographer)

Between the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Roundhouse, which is to say police headquarters, is a leafy, 7 1/2-acre patch of green that until three or four years ago was the ugly duckling of William Penn's original five squares (Rittenhouse the most prominent and elegant among them).

Its name is Franklin Square, and if you happen to have lived in Old City in the early 1980s and played softball there on Monday nights, your memory is of chasing after balls in the dry gulch of a nonworking fountain, dodging broken beer bottles, and hoping that your pop foul didn't crack the skull of a homeless guy or drug addict zonked out on one of the benches.

It was a disgrace and a defeat, severed from the city by approaches to the bridge and formidably widened stretches of Sixth and Race Streets; Exhibit A for how neglect feeds on scraps of the city that have slipped out of sight.

So to see it today - the 1838-vintage fountain spraying over a sea-blue pool, toddlers swinging, petunias swaying, a carousel whirling, a putt-putt golf course featuring replicas of the Liberty Bell and the Museum of Art - is to be rendered, well, almost breathless.

History has not just been reversed here, but sent so thoroughly packing that it is hard to imagine, if you hadn't witnessed it with your own eyes, how low Franklin Square had sunk.

One day last week, a bit of icing was being applied to the cake. A jaunty little stand called SquareBurger opened, handing out free (for the day) burgers to long lines of police officers and firefighters whose fallen brethren are memorialized by a beacon in a corner of the square.

It made for a bit of a Norman Rockwell visual - highway patrolmen in tall, black boots huddled at picnic tables, bent over their juicy, hand-formed burgers (and salami-wrapped hot dogs) as T-shirted denizens of local day-care centers frolicked around them.

The stand, clad invitingly in creamy clapboard, is determinedly noninstitutional and unapologetically channels a similar and wildy popular joint called the Shake Shack in Manhattan's (also refurbished) Madison Square Park, a project of uber-restaurateur Danny Meyer, who in turn modeled it after a retro roadside burger stand.

The Franklin Square stand is a joint venture, the first half of which is Philadelphia's prolific Stephen Starr, whose daughter has loved playing in the park, but whose restaurant group has tended toward trendier venues including Continental and the steak house Butcher & Singer.

The second half is Historic Philadelphia Inc., the nonprofit that has heroically revived the square and maintains it with 24-hour security and no-sleeping-on-benches rules under an agreement with the city.

In their first outing, the cheeseburgers ($4.75) were things of beauty, loosely packed, abidingly juicy, hand-formed, four-ounce patties topped with white American cheese, swirls of ketchup and mustard, onions and chopped pickles, on toasted Martin's potato buns - pictures of what, say, a McDonald's burger might have been if the company had (as California's beloved In-N-Out Burger chain has) invested in better ingredients and better meat.

The SquareBurger (it's round, by the way) doesn't add the lettuce and tomato of the Shake Shack's original. But it has a special seasoning (including garlic powder) and is made from a fresh, medium-ground 80/20 blend of steak trimmings and chuck from Indian Ridge, the steak-house purveyor in Telford, Bucks County. Because it's loosely hand-molded, it has a juicier, tenderer bite. It's grilled on a Vulcan flat-top and comes out easily on a par with - or better than - most Goodburger and Five Guys burgers.

Yes, the fries are frozen, but crispy sticks nonetheless. Yes, there are shakes (a tasty one reimagining Tastykake Krimpets). There are kosher, all-beef hot dogs (so-so). And even a Summer Love Salad, the "healthy choice," with corn and cukes, green beans and sweet red pepper.

The menu is a statement: Public spaces need not be doomed to hot-dog carts; reclaiming a park can reset the table.

If you turned back for a look before leaving last week, your memory was - this time around - of plumes of spray, and children playing, of balloons bobbing, and cops chowing down at picnic tables.

In Franklin Square, the sizzle was back.

In a column last week about Brauhaus Schmitz, the new German beer hall on South Street, I noted that the old Blue Ox Brauhaus in Fox Chase had closed. It has. But several readers correctly pointed out that the unrelated Blue Ox Bistro (7980 Oxford Ave., 215-728-9440, www.blueoxbistro.com) is operating in the same space, featuring German beer and a taste of the old Brauhaus fare.



Franklin Square
Sixth and Race Streets
Daily, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.