For all the years Carousel Luncheonette squatted innocuously at 182 Nassau Street, it seemed content to simply enjoy the patronage of people who already knew it was there, lovingly serving a small population of dedicated visitors every day. Then, last winter, Carousel vanished, as I mourned in a piece I wrote for the ‘Prince’ in the spring. When I left campus for the summer, 182 Nassau was a hollowed-out shell, a beige reminder that, as the warrior-poet Ponyboy famously quoted, “Nothing gold can stay.” Today, this mournful emptiness has been replaced: A Cheeburger Cheeburger has crash-landed into the space with all of the subtlety of its famous one-pound burgers.
Styled after the chromed-out diners of yore, Cheeburger Cheeburger is hypnotically enticing from a distance. Its huge storefront windows provide a porthole into a victual wonderland packed with polished silver furnishings, heraldic pink neon and eclectic ’50s- and/or Princeton-themed memorabilia, including a cardboard Betty Boop and a stuffed tiger gorging on a massive hamburger.
“I’ll just cross the street for a look,” you tell yourself. Next thing you know, you’re sitting dazedly in a comfy blue booth, you’ve ordered a burger as big as your face and you’re wondering which one of the over 100,000 milkshake flavor combinations you’ll use to wash it down.
I’ve been suspiciously eyeing Cheeburger since I returned to campus a few weeks ago, and one day I decided to scope it out. I ordered the legendary pounder (a deceptive beast that actually weighs 20 ounces) and packed it with toppings that have no business sitting together atop a pound of meat. It was delicious, though it derailed my entire day once my body realized what I had done.
The amaretto blueberry cheesecake milkshake I ordered afterward only exacerbated the problem, despite its equivalent tastiness. I was able, however, to cleanse my palate with Cheeburger’s version of Vanilla Coke. As a self-described Vanilla Coke fiend, this small touch was enough to justify the entire trip.
Despite my encouraging Cheeburger excursion, I couldn’t quite reconcile to myself the enormous differences between it and its predecessor, which had been so close to my heart. Cheeburger seems to be everything that Carousel was not. Carousel was a quintessential hole-in-the-wall, with a singularly dingy-but-delightful decor, environment and history. Cheeburger is a sparkling, glossy representative of an expanding chain — a cleverly tailored, immaculately groomed copy of a proven model. I kind of liked you, Cheeburger, but like a spurned lover stirred by a first new crush, I had to wonder if my shy feelings were a betrayal of my first love. Where wert thou, Carousel?
Then I hit upon the shared trait that drew me to both restaurants: America. Pure America. Carousel was an awkward cousin of the small-town American diner; Cheeburger is its Platonic ideal. Neither is quite right. Both are perfect. They express the intangible feeling of being in my home country — a feeling that I missed during my first summers abroad, during my first serious immersions into nations, cultures and languages that were radically, and sometimes unrecognizably, different from my own.
It would be easy to frame the transition from Carousel to Cheeburger as some kind of allegory about the dreaded expansion of homogenized commercialism, in which the David of localism slings futile rocks at the Goliath of the chain. Or perhaps it would be about the tacky consumerism of ’50s Americana and blah, blah, blah. I don’t really care. I’m enjoying my burger, nestled in the embrace of my motherland and just too content to listen.