“Another burger bar?!” I hear you exclaim. Two as a matter of fact. “Does London need another one, let alone two purveyors of meat sandwiches and other all-American foods?” I must admit that even I, a self-confessed burger addict who gets more excited on holiday when I see a fast food chain we don’t have in Blighty than I do some ancient artefact or piece of celebrated architecture, had immediate reservations when I discovered that two successful American burger chains were moving into the capital’s already saturated burger business. This said I’m also a fan of choice – the more the better – when it comes to restaurants, so, with my vegetarian friend in tow, I ventured to Five Guys with enthusiasm, excitement and an empty stomach.
Just a note to make reference to the distinction that exists between burger purveyors; there is the gourmet burgers, which are characterised chiefly by their presentation: served on a plate, their appearance is generally neater. Then there is the fast food burger: served wrapped and delivered in a bag. Presentation is a distant second to taste. This is the burger you grew up on. Both are equally valid, delicious and potentially exceptional styles of burger and do not bare comparing. To do this would be as pointless as comparing lager and ale.
Five Guys sits in the fast food category. However, rather than fast food, theirs would better be characterised as “good food quickly”, to quote Seinfeld. They don’t have a freezer; everything they serve is freshly delivered. Whether it’s the potatoes, which on the day we visited were from The Netherlands, the vegetables, which are all locally sourced or the beef patties that come from corn-fed cows in Ireland, all the ingredients are chosen with fastidious attention to detail.
Situated smack-dab in the middle of Leicester Square and Covent Garden, Five Guys have bagged the ultimate location for their first venture outside of the United States. Founded in 1986 by the five Murrell brothers in Washington DC, the little establishment gathered a cult following as it steadily perfected its methods before gaining notoriety and being voted best burger in the metropolitan area. Since branching out of DC in 2003, it now has restaurants across America and is a firm favourite of thousands of Americans, including A-List celebrities and none other than Barrack Obama.
The venue is simple, lacking pretention: wooden floor, red seats, the red and white tiled walls, which might feel clinical if it were not for the numerous commendations, glowing magazine articles and giant quotes from celebrities and food critics that are scattered everywhere you look. It was impeccably clean despite the high turnaround; the queues never dropped below fifty, which went around the block, on the night we visited.
The burger menu is short but sweet; three burgers (hamburger, cheeseburger or bacon cheeseburger) either single or doubles. I ordered the bacon cheeseburger then had my choice of additional toppings. You can choose as many as you like, ala Subway, and create your dream burger at no extra charge. I went for the classics, onions, tomato, lettuce and ketchup and mayonnaise. But there’s also jalapenos, grilled mushrooms and more. At £8.95, not including fries or drink, this is more than you will pay at Burger King or McDonalds and closer to what you would pay at a gourmet burger restaurant and here you’re not guaranteed a seat.
The big Bacon Cheeseburger is substantial – I open my wrapping to a fat meat sandwich, overflowing with melted cheese and chunks of onion – this is a down and dirty burger. The patties are hand crafted, each made uniquely to order. As I bit into it juices gushed out. The meat was perfectly cooked, medium rare; flavoursome and indeed tasted very fresh. My scepticism about the durability of the untoasted bun was unfounded; despite the juiciness and girth of the toppings stayed together. It’s easy to understand what all the fuss is about; it’s an exceptional burger that stands head and shoulders above any other fast food restaurant we have here; it is however considerably more expensive. But if you’re willing to pay more for freshness then this is your burger.
My dinner companion – a vegetarian – opted for the veggie sandwich with cheese. Much like everything else at Five Guys, it is what it says it is – tomato, lettuce, onions, green peppers in bread with melted cheese. The cheese was bland and rubbery and the vegetables lightly grilled and unseasoned and the bun was soggy and had become stuck to the wrapper. It underwhelmed my eyes; it underwhelmed her taste buds and appetite. If you do not wish to go down the much maligned veggie/ bean burger route then you must have something of substance between the buns: a portabello mushroom, a beetroot, a pineapple, an egg. While you can argue that a vegetarian will not choose to eat at a hamburger restaurant and that vegetarian options are not Five Guys’ forte, if you are someone, like myself who often goes out with a group of people who are vegetarians or do not eat red meat, then the lack of sufficient substitutes puts Five Guys at a decided disadvantage.
Far more satisfying are their fries. Hand-cut and rustic in appearance, the portions are large. A small at £2.70 is substantial. Like everything on the menu, the selection is limited: just two types– Five-Guys style, which is akin to skin on fries, and Cajun – the same style but doused in a Cajun spice. Crunchy on the outside but soft and fluffy in the middle; they’re cooked in peanut oil, which in addition to giving them a smoky, nutty flavour is actually lower in cholesterol. Never mind a fast food restaurant, these are up there with the best fries I have eaten, and I’m not just quoting from another of the many giant quotes that adorn the walls.
Unlike the menu, your selection of beverages to wash down your meal is anything but limited. Boasting over 100 choices, all available from a futuristic Coca-Cola soda fountain, I was like a kid in a candy store and managed to embarrass my companion; Vanilla Coke gets me excited, so imagine my happiness at the prospect of orange, lemon and lime and even raspberry coke. And it doesn’t stop there – Grape, Fruit Punch and Strawberry Fanta! In the US this is common, but here this is a welcome novelty. And free refills means that you can try all 100 varieties if you wish.
Remember that line in Pulp Fiction about McDonalds serving beer in Amsterdam? Well if you’re craving a beer with your burger, you don’t need to go across the channel to achieve this; Five Guys has you covered with a great selection of bottled beers; from Budweiser, to Brew Dog to Brooklyn, whether you’re starting your night or easing it down to a close, you can do it with the style of Vincent Vega.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries does what it says on the… The sign. Fast food: they do it well, they make it fresh and they’re proud of it. Perhaps too proud; the bombardment of praise from publications adorning the walls in giant letters, photographs of celebrity visitors and other endorsements has a tendency to feel a mixture of smug and uncertain. Five Guys do what they do very well, the queues are around the block and the restaurant is full of customers that were very happy. They’ve already made the sale by getting people in the door, now they should let their food do the talking for them. And yet while you may have misgivings about this and their much to be desired options for vegetarians and simplicity of their establishment, there is much to be said for someone who knows their business and produces for that. Five Guys is unpretentious, as their manager put it, “If you want a hamburger and fries, come to Five Guys.” You can’t argue with that.
This article was first posted on July 14, 2013