"It's not much but it's ours"

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


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.

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Anonymous Helen said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009 10:53:00 pm  
Anonymous Helen said...

The lack of decent burger buns in London drives me up the wall. I agree that more sweetness is needed. I do want to give credit to Tom from Byron though as he indulged a little whim of mine and welcomed me for a bun tasting in one of the restaurants - 9 different buns on total I think. The brioche came out top but he wouldn't be convinced to change. I live in hope. The best burger I've had in London since Hawksmoor was from 'The Meat Wagon' - a little van outside an industrial estate in Peckam - a 'bobcat' burger. Apparently the guy picked it up in the US. Chillies are fried in butter then sealed onto the burger with a layer of cheese. Brilliant.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009 11:06:00 pm  
Blogger fatima k said...

I've already tweeted to you and your bro about this, but I agree - burgers in London are generally a fool's errand. However, I do think the burger at BBR is worth consideration - I've had it twice now, and it is gloriously juicy, so much so that the waitress has to urgently bring finger bowls and extra napkins. The bun however is not sweet at all, and the fries are sad, but an amazing patty and a raspberry ripple milkshake make up for that.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009 11:19:00 pm  
Blogger Lizzie said...

I was there at Helen's Bun-Off, and I agree, a little sweetness is needed. We voted Burger King's bun up there near the top. And it needs sesame seeds!

...Let's face it, the closest we get to a good burger bun in London is Maccy D's.

Still, better than Hache's ciabatta monstrosities.

the courgette fries at Byron are great.

Thursday, December 03, 2009 12:04:00 am  
Anonymous zuriga said...

I've completly given up trying to find a good burger in the London area. It's not the bun, it's in the meat itself. British beef and therefore, the hamburger, does not have the same corn-fed cow taste of a 'Merican burger and never will. The grease and other accoutrements also may change the taste a bit, but basically it's the moo cow itself that makes the huge difference.

I've tried the Byron's in Guildford... not the worst at all and come in handy when I need a fix and can't get to the States.

Thursday, December 03, 2009 7:19:00 am  
Blogger Chris said...

Excellent review, you said everything on my mind. First of all, I completely disagree with zuriga - there is absolutely no reason British beef can't make a world-class burger, in fact the beef patty itself is spot-on at Byron. The bun, though, needs to go. There is no place for a floury bap in a burger and in fact full marks for Mr Byron for indulging us in our little experiment with the different buns. But at the end of the day, it's about more than just top-quality ingredients cooked with consistent precision - a good American burger is the opposite of precise, polite cooking. It's a pile of meat and grease and sweet bread, thrown together and unapologetically unhealthy. It seems we came back from Southern California with a very similar collection of photos of our favourite burgers, and if they have one thing in common it's that you don't see anything remotely similar to them over here. Yet.

Thursday, December 03, 2009 9:26:00 am  
Blogger Greedy Diva said...

I, too, had to communicate by eyebrow (and full cheeked nods) with the overzealous service. It's such slim pickings to find a decent greasy burger in London - I've been known to plan trips to the States around burger pangs. Byron is the closest thing I've found here in its price bracket (the meat was lovely) - although agree the bun needs an extra kick (but not too much sugar please). I'll stand by my shameful decision to order the skin on chips - I love them passionately and I'm a loyal girl at heart. The trap door did not open, but I suspect it was a close call when I started stuffing them in by the multiple - they were excellent.

Thursday, December 03, 2009 9:31:00 am  
Blogger Chris said...

Sorry one more point while I'm here - the In'N'Out Cheeseburger, in all its generous greasy loveliness is $1.99. Now that's value.

Thursday, December 03, 2009 9:36:00 am  
Anonymous Zack. said...

As an American,I agree that the UK burgers suck.But you'all should forget the sesame seed nonsense too.Who wants bits of grit in their burger?McDo foisted this monstrosity on us many decades ago only as a way to prevent their buns from crushing too easily when stacked and waiting to be used!Prior to that,and in the original home of the burger in Conn., burgers were served between 2 slices of toasted white bread.
And as for skin on the fries-I'm with DH,anyone who does that is lazy and should be sent to Afghanistan.
Don't despair though, you guys do much better beer than the U.S.

Thursday, December 03, 2009 10:19:00 am  
Blogger Passport Foodie said...

I completely agree. I have never had a good burger in England. Not when compared to In n Out, Five Guys and a million other burger joints in the U.S.

But I disagree that it's the beef. Most of the cows in the US are fed on corn, just like in England.

I think it's a combination of all the ingredients we use in the U.S., the bun, the REAL American cheese and of course, the burger meat. The patties need to be thin and double stacked. I'll take a shot in the dark here and say the biggest reason burgers are such crap in the U.K. is because most Brits making the burgers haven't had a truly good burger. Unless you go to the West Coast of the United States, chances are, you've never had a GREAT burger.

Passport Foodie

Thursday, December 03, 2009 2:57:00 pm  
Blogger sameer said...

you had a mooli AFTER that burger??? which one did you have? -sam @moolis.

Thursday, December 03, 2009 4:30:00 pm  
Blogger Patrick said...

Passport Foodie - there are some good East Coast burger places - Shake Shack in NYC being one of them.

Thursday, December 03, 2009 6:05:00 pm  
Anonymous John C. said...

Try Grumpy White's in the Boston area for a legendary char-grilled burger!And those triple cooked fries-any woman capable of making those will be deluged with proposals of marriage.
Probably the lack of a decent grill in the UK and fact they cook the burgers on TOO LOW temperature,so they never get that sealed-in flavour;taste;juice.

The UK prefers its food "wet" -slop like shepherd's pie;fish pie;curries;etc all semi-liquid with occasional small lumps.
This is not a burger culture.

Friday, December 04, 2009 9:34:00 am  
Anonymous Helen said...

If you think the burgers in London are bad, you should try one in Lisbon. We bought burgers from a late night stand there and they had bombay mix in them. Not joking.

Sunday, December 06, 2009 7:28:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the burger from the bar menu at the rivington grill is surprisingly good. i'd rate it up there with hawksmoor's.

Monday, December 07, 2009 10:01:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm siding with my American counterparts - part of the problem is British beef.

Actually, Passport Foodie - American beef is grain fed while British beef is forage-fed. And, if you've ever eaten and American and British steak you can clearly tell the difference. British beef has a texture that is dare I say mushy (even when cooked) and with an off putting smell. And don't try to tell me that if you get it at the overpriced Ginger Pig it's better. Thank goodness for Jack O'Shea's Irish and now American beef!

Monday, December 07, 2009 11:25:00 am  
Anonymous D.Z. said...

It's amazing how every time DH talk about burgers,the number of comments is very high.
What is it about the burger that elicits such a response ?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009 9:46:00 am  

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