You will find very few bigger advocates of London dining than this blog. Even 6 years since I moved down from Liverpool I am frequently pleasantly surprised by the variety, skill and passion of London restaurants, if not quite so often by the prices. But it's also fair to say that I spend most of my time thinking about, writing about and organising my life around food and eating out, and with research (and let's face it, borderline obsession) eventually comes a trained eye for a decent menu, a kind of food sixth sense which steers me away from anywhere touristy or chainy or indeed anywhere likely to be mediocre, overpriced or a combination of the two.
But what would your experience of London's restaurants be like if you weren't armed with thorough research? What if, like any number of the millions of tourists London hosts every year, you had nothing to go on other than a nice looking space, somewhere near a major port of entry, with a reassuring menu of modern standards? Can you really blame any hapless tourist for dismissing the food here as rubbish after he or she made the honest mistake of sitting down in the nearest All Bar One or Angus Steakhouse? On Saturday I had a terrifying glimpse into the alternative reality of London dining when, meeting friends for drinks near Waterloo, I fought hard against my better judgement and paid for a "burger" at the Fire Station.
First things first, this was not a cheap burger. At £9.50 it's at what I would call the upper end of acceptable for a sit-down restaurant burger (the superb Hawksmoor burger notwithstanding), and with this price comes a certain weight of expectations - that the meat will be premium, the patty competently cooked, and the sides generous and/or good quality. Any hope that the sides would be any good were dashed with the use of the term "fat chips" on the menu, but what the hell I thought, I can just leave them.
I could probably write a number of paragraphs on why this burger was just so, so awful, but I'll try and keep it brief. The meat, first off, was very odd indeed. It smelled very strongly of raw beef, but slightly stale raw beef, a bit like the whiff outside a closed butchers shop on a Sunday. It was also both dry, as if it had been overcooked, and quite pink, something which should be impossible so perhaps the less I know about how this bizarre effect was produced the better. Salad was nondescript and slathered with far too much cheap mayonnaise, and why they had decided to put the tomato relish in a separate pot I couldn't tell you. But worst of all, the bun - a bland floury bap better suited to a cheese and tomato sandwich than a burger - was so over-toasted it splintered apart on the first bite, rendering both its texture and its purpose as a vehicle for the beef completely unsuitable. And yes, the fat chips were dire - huge, flat, wobbly and reeking of old oil, they slumped across the huge plate like a pod of lugubrious sea lions.
The important thing to remember here is I wasn't going out of my way to find a bad place, I just happened to be with friends somewhere handy and open and near the station, and I ordered some food. And it occurred to me, as my dismal burger in its crispbread bun splintered and shattered into a thousand pieces in my hands, that this is what eating out must be like for a good number of London residents and tourists. If you're not a food obsessive, you won't know that just around the corner is Masters Superfish or the Anchor and Hope and you'll order your crappy £10 burger and hate it and then tell all your friends that London food is rubbish. And that makes me sad.
Way over on the other end of the burger scale, however, better news. Byron Hamburgers, of whose existing product I still have niggles with but are nevertheless well worth their very reasonable price, have teamed up with master butchers O'Shea's of Knightsbridge and produced a brand-new 8oz premium burger. Little details have emerged of this exciting new venture, but it will be available from this Thursday exclusively at the Wardour St, Kings Road, Kensington and Gloucester Road branches and chances are it will be well worth checking out. I'll see you there.
Fire Station 1/10
Thanks to @gastro1 (Dino) for the Byron tipoff
Update 12/01/10: I'm not entirely sure of the difference, but I've been told by Byron that the meat is in fact coming from O'Shea's of Knightsbridge and not Jack O'Shea's. I'm as confused as you...