20 May 2011

Byron, London - Restaurant Review

“When a man is tired of burgers, he is tired of life”. I think that’s an actual quote. Or maybe not. I might be paraphrasing Samuel Johnson slightly. But anyway, you get my gist – burgers are one of those universal foods that everyone loves to eat.

Maybe you like yours smothered with melting cheese, a dollop of controversial ketchup perhaps, or even some exotic kimchi. Maybe you’re of the besandaled bean burger brigade (but let’s be honest, those don’t really count as burgers) or maybe you’re an oligarch enjoying $5,000 worth of the World’sMostExpensiveBurger™ in Las Vegas, US of A. There’s no getting around it – your way, my way, or every which way but loose, everyone, but everyone loves a good burger.

For such a simple dish of what is essentially meat and bread there is a seemingly infinite variety of interpretations, and I don’t think you could get two people to agree on what the perfect burger should consist of. My personal view is that the best burger (and best food in general) always needs a sense of location – a Five Guys cheeseburger ‘all the way’ in Chicago, birthplace of the legendary Ray Kroc, is a very different proposition to a beef and foie gras burger at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, as tasty as the latter may be.

In my experience though, European burger joints aren’t a patch on their American cousins. How much of this is actual flavour as opposed to location is difficult to say. Undoubtedly there are exemplary examples on both sides of the pond and, although I’ve never been, if queuing for hours to eat food from paper plates is your thing then London’s Meateasy (to reopen soon) is frequently cited as the ‘best’ in the UK.

But where Europe totally fails is in producing a chain of restaurants serving good burgers that is an alternative to the ubiquitous McD’s and Burger Kings. Where in Europe are the In’N’Outs, Five Guys, and Shake Shacks of this world? Gourmet Burger Kitchen had a go, but they’re pretty dire and fairly pricey (the clue is in their oxymoronic name). Then there was dear old Wimpy; famous for their Bender burger, which is basically a frankfurter contorted into a torus wedged in bun and served with chips (always chips at Wimpy, never fries).

Enter stage right Byron. Inspired by a sojourn in the US, Tom Byng returned to the UK determined to open up a restaurant serving the sort of hamburgers he had experienced stateside. In late 2007 Byng teamed up with Gondola Holdings – the same company behind the Zizzi, Ask, and Pizza Express chains (wait! – don’t go away, Byron is actually rather good). The first branch opened up on London’s Kensington High Street and Byron now boasts 14 locations across London.

Incidentally, the name Byron has nothing to do with the famous poet. Instead, students of etymology will recognise it as meaning “of the cow shed”. Byng had originally wanted to call it “Vincent”, after the famous character Vincent Vega in Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction. I think this would have made an awesome name for a burger restaurant (remember the fantastic “royale with cheese” and “big kahuna burger” dialogues), but sadly some bloke in Liverpool had already trademarked it. Oh well, I suppose Byron does have more of a British ring to it, which seems more fitting.

I’ve been to Byron a few times, although all my visits have been to either their King’s Road restaurant or their branch in that love-it-or-loathe-it temple of consumerism that is the Westfield Shopping Centre. Both restaurants are fairly spartan in design, with white brick tiles and functional furniture being the order of the day.

The menu at Byron is fairly simple, with six standard burgers on offer (4 beef, 1 chicken, 1 veggie) that can then be further customised with additional toppings (all burgers are around the £8 mark). Then you can select from sides such as fries, onion rings, and coleslaw. There are also a few salads on offer, but who comes to a burger restaurant and orders a beetroot and goat’s cheese salad?

My usual favourites are the regular cheeseburger (with lurid yellow American cheese, of course) and also the Byron burger that is made with dry cure bacon, cheddar cheese, and secret Byron sauce (a bit like Thousand Island dressing). The burgers come served in soft plain white buns that have been lightly grilled, as well as lettuce, tomato, red onion, mayonnaise, and a dill pickle on the side.

The beef is sourced from Scotland, and it is minced onsite daily. The best thing though is that Byron cook their burgers medium by default, and it’s fantastic to see a restaurant not getting all "elf 'n' safety" about cooking minced beef this way. The resulting burgers have always been cooked accurately and, although I have tasted better, they still possess a good meaty flavour with a pleasing char on the outside and a still pink and juicy centre.

Sides of onion rings and French fries (£2.95 each) are well executed, although the courgette fries (£3.25) are cut too thick in my opinion and can be a bit heavy and greasy. For these I would suggest Byron take lessons from Polpetto, who make arguably the best zucchini fries in town.
Desserts are fairly straightforward, although I always skip the cheesecake, brownies, and ice cream sundaes and head straight for a vanilla malt shake (£4.20). Which, on rare occasions I have been known to share with Mrs. Nibbler.
So there we have it. Byron is really rather good and I can't complain at all. However, their real achievement I feel is in achieving something that has seemingly eluded many before them: creating a UK chain of restaurants serving high quality, authentic burgers. I'm sure Gondola Holdings are champing at the bit to expand further, and I'll be very interested to see how the concept holds up when there are dozens of restaurants across the country. But for now, at least, if you're after a decent and accessible burger in London, then look no further than Byron.

Food:        7 / 10
Service:     7 / 10
Ambiance: 7 / 10

Various locations in London
Byron on Urbanspoon
Byron on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

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