Monday, 25 November 2013
Five Guys, Covent Garden
It was billed as the "burger wars". Two behemoths of US burger culture, Five Guys and Shake Shack, were opening their first London branches within a few days of each other, and for while it seemed it was all any food blogger or restaurant critic was talking about. Would you go for the small-town, mass-market appeal of Five Guys, with their generous portions and limitless toppings? Or the refined, big-city chic Shake Shack, each sandwich a mini work of art and accompanied by an oh-so-clever selection of trendy London craft beers and Paul A Young chocolates? We went, we queued, we ate. At the time, it was Shake Shack that seemed to be winning the battle for hearts and minds but as with so many of these things, once the initial hype died down we all snuck back off to MeatLiquor and Patty & Bun and left them to it. I don't know about you, but I've not returned to Shake Shack and never even made it to Five Guys London in the first place.
So I was in Covent Garden one lunchtime looking for Christmas presents and avoiding the chuggers and I noticed Five Guys, shining pristine bright red and white like a hospital emergency room made out of Lego, totally unmistakable and unmistakably totally deserted. Finally, I thought, here was my chance to try their flagship offering without the prejudice of a three-hour wait clouding the results, and I wandered inside.
The welcome was friendly, the choices to be made fairly simple. I'd been warned the 'normal' burger was enough for a party of six, so stuck to the 'little cheeseburger' with 'little fries' and 'little drink', the ordering of which was faintly emasculating but when it arrived turned out to be plenty big enough. The only thing 'little' about the portion of fries, for example, was the ridiculous tiny cup they filled up to the brim before pouring a good half pound of overfill into the bottom of the brown takeaway bag. As to why, your guess is as good as mine. But they tasted pretty good - thank you "Guy Poskitt farm - UK" where apparently they were from that day.
I noticed something, too, while I was waiting for my Five Guys order to be delivered. Around the room hang quotes and reviews from esteemed Stateside publications like the New York and Los Angeles Times, full of praise for their product, as you might expect from the home of the cheeseburger, but in words that veer worryingly close to hyperbolic cult-like fervour. But where were the UK reviews? Not a single one visible anywhere on the walls, and only one, a blogger, quoted very briefly as part of an electronic slideshow on the back of the tills. Even the most mediocre burger joint can usually find at least a blogger or two to quote on their stationery - are things really that bad, six months after a launch that was reported on the national news, that only one critic in town has anything positive to say?
The burger was, as others will no doubt have told you long before now, a pretty nondescript affair. The beef had no discernible flavour and was cooked through to dry grey. The plastic cheese did its job servicably well, and I didn't hate the heavily seeded bun even though, crumpled and somewhat deflated, it didn't look particularly appetising. But it was all instantly forgettable, and for over £10 for the whole lot including a drink from one of those machines that pretend to offer thousands of different flavours but somehow always leave you with the exact same chemical-infused fizz no matter what you choose, it was too expensive.
"Instantly forgettable". Perhaps that explains it. Barely six months on, it's terribly obvious that, aside from a few timid American tourists, the crowds have turned their backs on Five Guys and (from what I gather) Shake Shack as well. I can't help thinking that these huge operations just sat on their hands for too long, waiting for the right moment to strike, and by the time they'd decided to finally grace us with their presence, safe in the knowledge that they were what London had been waiting for, we'd quietly created a healthy selection of world-class burgers of our own, thankyouverymuch.
Schadenfreude, you say? Well, you can hardly blame us. It's never nice to see a good business failing, never mind two, but the acres of empty, roped-off queuing areas at both Five Guys and Shake Shack just point towards not only a massive over-confidence in your own product but a rather arrogant attitude to the reception they were expecting from a city already hardly struggling for a way to enjoy minced beef and cheese inside a semi-brioche bun. Cheeseburger and fries? Hot dogs? Buffalo wings? Nah, you're alright America, we're good, thanks. What else you got?