The sandwich, as everyone knows, was popularised by a fat, corrupt, adulterous Etonian aristocrat in a wig who aspired to be able to stuff a light meal down his gullet and drunkenly gamble the night away at the Hellfire Club without ever having to pick up a fork or put down his hand of cards. In short, it’s a quintessentially British creation. At first glance it appears sensible, composed, and breathtakingly simple – and yet there’s a tendency towards eccentricity and humour loitering just out of sight, the possibility of Marmite and jam fillings and even crisps. It’s enough to make you start tearing up with patriotic fervour in the middle of a Pret. Before long, this quick and easy dish was one of a busy society’s staple foodstuffs.
Then something happened. An ingenious German baron and would-be revolutionary by the name of Karl Drais, who’d already done his bit for healthy living by inventing the first bicycle, decided to further advance the field of heart disease by inventing the meat grinder. Low-grade patties of minced beef, filled out with onions or spices, grew in popularity amongst immigrants from the town of Hamburg to the USA. And somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, depending on who you believe, someone came up with the idea of putting the meat into a bap, and the hamburger came into existence as the sandwich’s laid-back, disreputable younger brother – its Billy Carter, if you like The rest, as they say, is history, and today this greasy bit of bread-and-beef is a worldwide phenomenon, thanks in part to a few terrifyingly powerful fast-food franchises; perhaps the most successful American cultural export of all.
It was probably only a matter of time, then, before the restaurateurs of London employed their usual tactic of mugging a country in an alleyway for its national cuisine and claiming it as its own. Burger bars that cater to a fashionable working crowd, as opposed to unashamed junk-food takeaways, are becoming more and more prevalent in the streets of our capital. The New Zealand diner-style Gourmet Burger Kitchen franchise, complete with frothy milkshakes and squashed-tomato ketchup dispensers, has built up twenty-nine restaurants in London since 2001; the hip, upscale Byron Burgers, which was – tellingly – the brainchild of Tom Byng, one-time owner of in-crowd Notting Hill eateries, and casual-dining colossus Gondola Holdings, has installed twenty-four restaurants here in just five years.
Since arriving in London, I’ve made it my mission to visit as many of these joints as possible, albeit without the awe-inspiring discipline and rigour of, say, Burgerac; if it can really be said about someone stuffing his face with barely digestable hyper-dense fast-food, I’m really a bit of a dilettante. But even I’ve begun to be struck by, increasingly, the lengths to which London’s burger restaurants are willing to go in order to attract the trendy crowd; since the product is, at base, so delightfully simple, so plain, so everyperson-ish, these venues find themselves needing to maintain an edge, a selling point, by dressing up a dining experience which ought to be egalitarian and plain-spirited in needless novelty and a false sense of exclusivity.
The very concept of Meat Liquor, to give a prominent example, a restaurant unpromisingly located behind Debenhams near Oxford Street, under a concrete car park and adjacent to a strip club, seems to have been founded on the principles of a nightclub; customers queue in the cold outside an unprepossessing tinted door, amongst an astonishing number of young, cool, attractive people, in the hope of being eventually allowed into a darkened room (no bookings, no incomplete parties, no exceptions). Meat Liquor’s burgers are reasonably priced, succulent, and greasy enough to have transparentised the paper they’re served on before they even arrive at your table; but the fact that the actual dining experience is so cheap-and-cheerful, even pointedly American, like a sort of hipster TGI Friday’s, makes the trendy microfascism of the service all the more absurd. I’m not trying to get into the Groucho Club; I just want to eat some cow toenails in a bun with a side order of processed potato-peelings, deep-fried. How on earth have we managed to make the signature foodstuff of the 99% so stuck-up?
A more welcome gimmick, I find, is the so-called ‘secret burger’ available at select establishments around the city. The secret burger is rarely a secret (the website of Joe Allen’s, in Covent Garden, cheerfully suggests that you ask them about it) but that hardly matters; while enforced queuing and unaccommodating restaurant rules devalue the customer to give the venue a sense of classiness, the secret burger flatters our childish egos by letting us play at being James Bond when we’re ordering our food. So our fellow diners have ordered the most expensive thing on the menu? Irrelevant. We snap our menu shut, raise an eyebrow to the waiter, and ask, ‘Could I have the burger, please?’ Trumped. (Ripples of astonishment through the entire restaurant. ‘Burger? But there isn’t a burger, is there?’ And so on.)
Then there are the real oddities. Burger & Lobster, in Green Park, in offering both of its title items for the same price of £20, poses its customers with a genuine consumer’s riddle; is it more sensible to order the overpriced burger, or the suspiciously cheap lobster? Hache, a three-restaurant franchise in Camden, Chelsea, and Clapham, attempt to distinguish themselves from the crowd with offbeat recipes including a Chinese-style duck and hoi sin burger, a fusion that I became terribly excited about before discovering that it resulted in a soggy ciabatta bun, a solid lump of duck breast that refused to retain any of the sauce, and strips of cucumber contributing to a general air of damp starchy insubstantiality. And, inevitably, given the popularity of Man Vs. Food on the telly, Red Dog Saloon in Hoxton has decided to distinguish itself based on the values of sheer pig-out quantity and competitive eating; their three-tier Devastator Burger looks to be of about the same size and nutritional content of Marlon Brando, and they challenge you to eat it and a couple of wheelbarrowfuls of side dishes within 15 minutes or so. I haven’t had a chance to get to Red Dog yet, but I’m assuming their floors aren’t carpeted.
My current favourite place to stop in for a quick burger, thank God, could never stand comparison to such fashionable hi-concepts. Kua Aina, just off Carnaby Street, certainly doesn’t serve the most consistently tasty burger in London (although to their credit, their meals all come with dinky fries instead of chips, which displays an admirable respect for the cultural heritage of the dish. If we continue to blithely serve our burgers with colossal chunks of potato without a moment’s thought for the consequences, we can’t then complain when American restaurants start cooking up battered fish with french fries and non-mushy peas. We have been warned) but their gimmick is, at least, perfectly harmless and perfectly non-intrusive; as purveyors of ‘Hawaiian-style burgers’, they offer a couple of patties that contain pineapple slices, an option which can be safely ignored by everyone apart from those three or four weirdos out there who’d put pineapple on their pizza too, if we let them. More relevantly, the staff are friendly and relaxed with all-comers, the restaurant opens out onto the street in a welcoming fashion, complete with tables perched on the very edge of one of London’s busiest shopping districts, and they’re happy to let the food and the customer chatter take centre stage. A restaurant possessed by the spirit of the ploughman, in short – and not the spirit of the Earl of bloody Sandwich.