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Thursday, 18 December 2014

Experiential dining: Fancy burgers

Accompanied by our London host, we set off from the Charring Cross train station to Trafalgar Square where we saw chalk-writers expressing their political views peacefully while a kilt-clad lad played the bagpipes, as the blue cock watched over them all, moving on to Leicester Square with its erratic jet fountain and a 7-storey M&M building, and finally to Chinatown where I was hoping to enjoy some Asian cuisine.
"Are you sure about this?" my knowledgeable host asked me. We were browsing through the garish menu cards of the Asian restaurants. Some were pasted onto the doors and windows of the restaurants; one covered the front display to the point that you could barely see inside. Others had their menus posted on sandwich boards on the road, but they were usually accompanied by hawkers stationed right by them. Living in a tourist town myself, I know how plebeian that looks and feels.
"Look at the range of dishes they claim to serve you," my host continued. "Compare that with the number of customers seated in the restaurant. Can they really cook all those meals? Or are they just going to dig them out of the freezer for you?" He had a point: these places looked empty, while their menu cards would need a good quarter of an hour to be read in full. And who knows for just how long the crispy ducks had been on hanging on the window display? Feeling rather sheepish, I agreed to look elsewhere. It was our treat that night, and I didn't want to appear 'cheap'.
A few shortcuts later, the red lanterns and crispy duck displays gave way to standing-room-only bars, dessert restaurants, jamboneries (at least, that's what it looked like to me - instead of cupcakes on the display, they had cones full of cholesterol-laden treats) and upmarket tobacco stores, where I presume you could not smoke what you ordered if you take smoking bans seriously. Here, there were no hawkers; in fact, quite the opposite was happening: people were queuing up to get in.
That's how we ourselves ended up queuing at a place my host described to me as a 'fancy burger bar'. It feels a little weird admittedly to be queuing up for a burger. How good must that burger be? We don't have McDonalds in our town. We do have Goody's, but, the idea of going out for a burger among my family is not common, and it certainly isn't considered a must-have-before-you-die kind of meal. Having a burger sounds like having a souvlaki, not a sit-down restaurant meal.
So here we were, feeling like fish out of water, as we took part in a performance of what looked like the typical English habit of queuing. We gave our name to the informal-looking gent who spoke in a rather well-versed Cockney accent (this could have been part of the act for all I know) at the door of the restaurant (which he didn't come to immediately - we had to wait till he did), and then we joined the back of the queue, where we got bored. I asked if we could be excused from the queue and go for a little walk (we were told we'd need to wait about 25 minutes for the appropriate table to be found), where I had some time to take in the sights that surrounded us: the lights on the buildings were bold and brassy, the people bore smug smiles as they rushed by, the window displays were brimming with goods and the cars sped by as if they never stopped working. This was a very fast world.
We were eventually seated after waiting for about twenty minutes (about the time it would have taken us to find a McDonalds in the area, order a burger and eat it, I suppose, chit-chat time included). The place was full (as to be expected if you are queuing up to get in), mainly with young-looking people, but I also spotted a couple of middle-aged men sitting next to us, with an expensive looking bottle of wine (in an ice bucket) on the table. (Wine with burgers, another new one for us.) Some people must have been tourists (they had come with their suitcases), but most were 'locals' from the sound of their accents. The atmosphere in the restaurant was buzzing, with people nattering constantly over their meals, melodies of golden oldies playing softly in the background, and a silent black-and-white Porky Pig cartoon being screened on one of the walls, all reminiscent of the 50s American hamburger joint.

A very efficient looking waiter (with a non-native English accent) brought us a rather unassuming A4 menu card. The food choices were rather spartan but the prices of the burgers seemed reasonable, which is not surprising given the mass-produced food displayed around the seating area and the staircase leading to the basement (ie the toilets). The walls of the restaurant were stacked with boxes of canola oil and gherkin cans. The tables had a range of bottled sauces on them. Watching the waiters bringing food to other people's tables, it was obvious that the fries were προ-κατ (the Greek phrase for 'machine-processed and frozen'), as were the uniform and perfectly sized onion rings and the burger buns. At this point, the only thing that differentiated them from McDonalds was the plates: their burgers didn't come wrapped up in paper and cardboard, and you ate with metallic knives and forks.

It's the drinks where they 'grabbed your bum', as Greeks say (σου πιάνουν τον κώλο). A bottle of cider or an Oreos-flavoured milkshake cost almost as much as the burger itself. Paying 80 pounds for the five of us may not sound expensive when 'London prices' is taken into consideration, but translate 80 pounds into Greek-earned euros, and we just paid 100 euros for a burger meal. The waiters were all very friendly, but their politeness and helpfulness did not seem so heartfelt. Their efficiency came from the line that the management adhered to, not from the depths of their soul. Needless to say, I did not leave a tip. We still talk about it every now and then over our de facto organic, local, seasonal Cretan meals, where so little is προ-κατ, not even our mass-produced bakery bread which is hand-shaped and hand-sliced.

We keep in mind that we did not go to the fancy burger place for the food. We did it for the experience, which I suppose we could gauge as a very positive one overall. It's interesting to see how the other half live.

Bonus photos: To complete the experience, our host suggested a dessert restaurant to sweeten our palates. 25 pounds later, we took a long walk back to our train station, almost missing the very last train home. It was all just another part of the London experience.

Away from the madding crowds of Soho, the streets of central London were empty. We had Waterloo bridge to ourselves.

More bonus photos: Real food for real people - I cooked beef burgers (with layers of roast veges), zucchini fries (a menu item at the burger bar) and onion rings at home a week later. Like filo pastry, the home-made stuff does not compare to anything store-bought.

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