FAST FOOD PART ONE: BYRON @ THE INTREPID FOX
I can’t help but curl my lip in a wry smile when people tell me they are in search of “the best hamburger in London”. Let’s face it, the hamburger offerings in London are so wretched that it is like telling people you are searching for “best case of gonorrhea in the brothel”
There are some exceptions of course. Hache promised to be a contender when we visited the Camden branch some time ago, but failed to impress on a more recent visit to its Chelsea outlet. Then there is the Hawksmoor Burger, which is as close as I can remember coming to a hamburger in the capital that any self respecting American would not feed to their dog. It comes at a price, however, with the addition of a drink and tip bringing it close to the £20, too much to feed a regular burger craving. Below this come a whole host of identikit “Gourmet Burger Union Diner” places, which are usually noticeable only for their awfulness.
Somewhere in between lies Byron, a growing chain, which has just opened a new branch in the space until recently occupied by Goth rock hang out, The Intrepid Fox. I mourned its passing on Twitter the other day, but realised, as I took my seat, that I had last entered the building prior to seeing Gene Loves Jezebel support John Cale at The Marquee in the mid 1980’s.
There are some nice touches in the new location and I particularly liked the jugs of tap water already placed on the table so you and the server were relieved of the whole “still or sparkling” pantomime. I was less convinced about the presence of linen napkins, but perhaps it is a green thing? The menu is short and service was prompt and friendly (more on this later). About ten minutes after I had taken my seat I was presented with a Monterey Jack Cheeseburger, a bowl of French fries and a bottle of Fentiman’s Ginger Beer.
Let’s skate around the main event for a moment. The fries were excellent, hot, crisp and fresh from the fryer. Byron does offer “Homemade Skin On Chips” but I am guessing that a trap door opens if you order them with your burger sending you down to the basement to hide your shame. The Ginger Beer was served with a lovely chilled glass, plus points for that too.
However, when I turned my attention to the burger it was hard not to feel that sudden sinking and dispirited feeling I have experienced so many times before. The Byron Burger is not an awful burger. Trust me, I have had far, far worse in the UK. The beef is obviously excellent, although it could have done with time on a hotter grill to gain a little more colour. The accompaniments were apologetic and the cheese should have been given opportunity to melt.
The bun was a bit of a disaster, in my opinion. The Americans use sweetened bread for their hamburger buns. Given their higher tolerance of sugar, it would probably taste like cake to the British, but there is some level of sweetness required, which for the life of me, I could not discern in the Byron bun. The other unspoken truth about why British burgers fall short so miserably is that we fail to acknowledge that a burger needs grease to be any good. It is meant to be messy and it is meant to be fun. Most British attempt seem predicated on sucking all the joy out of ordering and eating them.
The bill came to £15 including gratuity. That’s edging into Hawksmoor territory, but the tip was deserved for service, which was charming. I do, however, have just one suggestion for the Byron training manual. It might be good to warn staff that the time to ask customers how their burger is, is not when they have just shoved half of it in their gob. It is not a happy experience for either side of the equation and I owe profuse apologies to the young female server who had to watch me pull salad out of my mouth to give an answer.
As I left, I noticed that on the wall in front of me, the owners were kindly projecting moving images of lucky US folk cavorting happily with gloriously made hamburgers. The sight of someone eating a meaty Carl’s Jr came over as taunting rather than entertainment and reinforced the simple fact that even a mass chain like this can produce better burgers than 99% of places in the UK. God only help these British places if In N Out ever decide to look at this side of the pond.
The search continues and, for those who love it so, here is a picture of that Double Chilli Cheeseburger from Marty’s in Los Angeles. I am going to keep showing it until someone gets it right. You have been warned.