Buns of Meal: A Brief History of the Hamburger in Lebanon.

I’m not normally one for scathing restaurant reviews. Come to think of it, I’m not one for restaurant reviews of any kind. The truth is, contrarily to my approach to most things in life, I’m resolutely unadventurous when it comes to food. I stick to a few choice staples, I usually know what I like on a menu and I rarely stray for my exceedingly boring culinary path. It may come as a surprise to those who’ve seen me lumber around with my 110 kilos, but I’m just not that into food.

One thing I do enjoy, however, is a good hamburger. It’s a food item that is guaranteed to raise your floundering spirits. Such a simple construct yet so deeply satisfying. But I’m afraid my faith in the state of the Hamburger took a beating last week. Before I tell you why, let’s take a walk down memory lane and explore the history of the humble hamburger in Lebanon.

I remember when I first ventured over in the mid 90s as a Harry Potter spectacle-wearing buck-toothed teen, being enamoured by what seemed to me to be, two exotic places: Winners and Juicy Burger. Having come over from London, where I used to spend my pocket money on the soggy and questionable fare offered up by the twin bastions of the evil West, McDonald’s and Burger King, I was in awe of these burgers. They seemed to offer up an authenticity lacking in my post-cinema Big Mac at Whitley’s on Queensway. Their décor was kitsch, but the burgers were made with pride. I only enjoyed them a couple of times though, before these places saw their untimely end. But my friends who grew up in Lebanon think back to their Winners days with swelling hearts, and I’ve appropriated a smidgen of their nostalgia.

Then, one fateful day in 1998, Lebanon changed. Something irreversible happened. McDonald’s came to town. My classmates at the Lycce and I headed to Dora in a convoy of serveeces, with our minds racing through fantasies of Filet-O-Fish and Chicken Nugget 9-packs. We queued for hours, like Muscovites had after the fall of communism outside their first McDonalds, for a taste of the junk food we used to love back in Europe. All thoughts of mloukhie and shish barak were exorcised in the months that followed, as Friday afternoons became the sacred time where we drowned our week’s sorrows in a draft Coca-Cola, under the benevolent eye of a redheaded clown.

But soon McDonalds and Burger King stopped satisfying us. They were too generic, too fast, with too little heart. We started heading to Crepaway, Roadster and Bob’s Dinner. The burgers here were made with love again, a throwback to Winners and Juicy. The restaurants themselves were decorated and conceptualized, it was happiness once again.

Then we got older, and we travelled and saw the world and all the burgers it had to offer. And we needed something more. That’s when Classic Burger came to town, offering up a New York style burger joint in the heart of Beirut. They banned smoking, and tarted up the place to feel like a mid-town Manhattan eatery. And every bite became a voyage. A gourmet escapade across the oceans. Then came the imitators. Burger Co opened its doors, giving you the opportunity to spend half your hard-earned wage on a meat patty and some lettuce. Everyone seemed to want to jump on the bandwagon, much like they had with the post-clubbing hot-dog epidemic. And this is where we come full circle to my loss of faith in the hamburger.

Last Sunday, I headed off to meet some friends in the newest burger joint in town, Mrs Robinson, in the An Nahar building. As I heaved myself out of bed that morning, the gentle throbbing of my head and dryness of my mouth bore testimony to my nascent hangover. And as we all know, nothing cures a hangover like an expertly crafted burger. So you can imagine my anticipation as I was heading over to the “new best burger place in town”. I got there with a friend to meet up with a coupe more people. We placed our orders. And waited. And waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Our table remained barren. No drinks, no appetizers. I called over the waiter, who was impervious to the anguish our situation was causing. “We have hangovers to cure here, mister!” I was tempted to cry our in desperation. But I contained myself. We waited. And waited.

At this point, my body went into a sort of hunger-and-thirst-fuelled trance. I marched over to a waiter and demanded my Coca-Cola. Physically reaching behind the bar to obtain. A half hour passed and the first burger poked its head tentatively by our table. As it settled in front of the Chosen One in our group, our hearts sank. Not only was our sustenance nowhere to be seen, this burger was pitiful. It had the diameter of a copper coin and looked like it tasted about as good. Another half hour and the second burger appeared. At this point words were had with the staff. Our hangovers were exiting our bodies and angling straight for the manager’s neck.

I nicely enquired where the kitchen was. A bemused manager told me, not quite understanding my motivations. I marched straight to the kitchen and demanded to flip my own burger so I could eat and leave this godforsaken place. I was assured it would be at the table soon. I calmed down, and returned to my cursed seat.

Another half an hour. More arguing, and a full two hours after our initial order, my food shows up. It was revolting beyond words. I fully expected the meat to push aside the bread and start mooing. It wasn’t rare, it was alive. We ordered our bill in disgust. A hundred dollars for 4 soggy, crappy burgers. Deeply unsatisfied and with stomachs grumbling we left. And that is when, my friends, I decided that the “classy burger joint” bandwagon has to be stopped. We’ve lost our senses. We’re paying 25 bucks a pop for excruciatingly bad food, with bad service and an attitude. And we’ll probably pay some hefty hospital bills at some point judging by the texture these beef patties presented in our plates. Whatever you do, do not eat at Mrs Robinson. You’ll thank me.

So where does our hope lie? Well, ladies and gentlemen, the answer may be closer to home than we imagine. It’s time to bring back the Lebanese Burger, to shower the praise upon it that it deserves. What a glorious concoction. Prime meat, cabbage coleslaw and fries inside the burger. Genius. I want the meet the person who crafted this fine piece of cuisine and shake their hand. Let the fast food chains quiver in their boots, and the over-priced under-satisfying quasi-American burger joints bow their heads in shame. The Lebanese Burger is back. With red Lebanese ketchup and green Lebanese lettuce, let us hoist its colours with pride. The Lebanese Burger is back. And it’s here to stay.

34 Responses to “Buns of Meal: A Brief History of the Hamburger in Lebanon.”

  1. Malek S.
    December 13, 2010 at 12:07 am #

    I agree with your article a 100%, and i enjoy your witty humor in writting! but with all due respect buddy, you need to give a standing ovation to brgr co whom honestly in my opinion are the only ones who reached the ultimate burger success story with their tasty product. This is the taste I used to get in new york, and I’ve lived in manhattan forever 15 years. They are on the pricy side I admit, but nothing that you feel you paid for with no value, and I cherish my stomach!!! Cheers guys!!

  2. Toni
    December 13, 2010 at 8:51 am #

    Im sorry but Burger co. rocks, and saying otherwise would have us question the credibility of your taste in burgers sir. As for this new one, still haven’t tried it…will let u know…

  3. Mustapha
    December 13, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

    Mmmmm, “winners and Juicy burgers”. Obviously you and I are from the same generation. Juicy burgers had a killer roast beef burger..

  4. IVY SAYS
    December 13, 2010 at 1:00 pm #

    Amen to that! I always get those Lebanese burger cravings- which I refer to as Hamburkaftas!

    If you haven’t yet given up on gourmet-ish burgers I do suggest you try out Casper’s mouth-watering burgers(and no this is not a paid advertisement.)
    Seems like we were both thinking about burgers this weekend because here’s my review
    http://ivysays.com/2010/12/13/ivys-search-for-the-best-burger-in-beirut-continues-next-stop-casper-gambinis/

    Do give it a shot and lette me know your verdict.

    Bisoux

    Ivy

  5. Rami
    December 13, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    Enjoyed reading it too!!
    If you really want to get your hands on some good Lebanese burger, I recommend you try Canadian Burger at Bourj Hammoud.
    You’ll sure think “what the hell am I doing here!!” when you get there, but it’s really good!
    Oh and it’s for 2,500L.L only!! 😀

  6. Chantal
    December 13, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    Two hours for a yukky burger!! Man…
    I tasted mushroom burger for the 1st time yesterday @ Bob’s & it wasn’t bad!!
    Hope you’re feeling better now & ready for another Burger adventure 😉

  7. Mark
    December 13, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    Someone needs to create a “Bring Back Juicy Burger” tshirt

  8. bassem
    December 13, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

    I was planning on visiting Mrs. Robinson this week end. now I changed my mind. Can you guys tell me where to have a great burger regardless of the price?

  9. Toni
    December 13, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

    Dude head to Brgr co. Trust me!

  10. Nasri Atallah
    December 13, 2010 at 8:46 pm #

    It’s heartwarming to see that so many people care about the quality of their burger. I have to say Canadian Burger in Burj Hammoud sounds like something I’d enjoy. Also Hani’s in Caracas will be getting a visit soon.

  11. Riham
    December 13, 2010 at 9:30 pm #

    Well what do you know, I am now craving a burger!
    I love that I meet people in all sorts of ways in this country, and they’re all very different from each other, and they ALL stood in line in the first few weeks McDonald’s opened here waiting to try it! I was 10 and begged my mother to keep waiting in the looooooong queue to try it.

    I don’t know about winners and Juicy burgers, but the rest, I totally agree with the path you drew in the search for a good burger.

  12. Anthony
    December 14, 2010 at 2:23 am #

    Hey Nasri,

    This looks like a great blog. I was putting together a piece on a conversation I had with a hot dog vendor in Washington, and stumbled upon this site. Anyways, I used to hate the Lebanese burder (I first tried it at “ALWAYS” in Zahle, to disastrous results), but I sometimes miss it.

    Anyways, I’ve linked to your blog and, for those interested, have provided my “hot dog conversation” piece below.

    http://pagelebanon.com/2010/12/13/conversations-from-washington-a-hot-dog-dalai-lamas-take-on-lebanon/

    Keep it up!

  13. Liliane
    December 14, 2010 at 1:28 pm #

    try tico tico in dekwaneh 😛

  14. leon
    December 16, 2010 at 12:37 am #

    Brings so many old memories back, especially the day we all went for the opening of McDonalds!!

  15. Malek S.
    December 16, 2010 at 1:41 am #

    Ya the Mcdonalds good old days….we used to wait for hours to get in…!! I don’t know why I can’t eat there anymore….

  16. bassem
    December 21, 2010 at 5:42 pm #

    I went to burger co. and honestly, its amazing, actually the best I’ve tasted in Lebanon. Thxs Toni.

  17. Sandra
    December 21, 2010 at 8:13 pm #

    Completely agree! Hail to the real Lebanese burger! I find that I enjoy my burgers most after a long day at the beach. I highly recommend traveling (hah!) down to the sandy shores of Jyie for the succulent meat, thick fries,rustic-style buns with sesame and coleslaw and Ketchup out of a glass bottle. There’s no other way to eat it.Cheers!

  18. Mimi
    December 29, 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    Hey. You got it all wrong. My children have been there twice in the last 10 days and they continue to say they have the best juiciest burgers that they have ever had in the world. Their dad is difficult to please and when he says he has waited for a half an hour for something, it really has been only 5 minutes. So let’s put this in perspective, give Mrs. Robinson’s another try.

  19. Hisham
    January 16, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    This is crap. Mrs. Robinson was good and in my opinion equal to if not greater than Burger co, which I used to go to on a routine basis. Don’t get me wrong for a pure burger, burger co is better but I think the atmosphere is better in Mrs. Robinson. Moreover, Mrs. Robsinon’s service is perfectly fine every week I go.

  20. Riccardo
    January 21, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

    Guys, you are tending to compare the joints! Focus on the burgers! Classic Burger Joint is by far the outlier! Since its inception over a year ago you could expect and you got the exact same exquisite taste burger! And trust me I evaluate them minimum once a week. The few times I gave Burger Co. a trial I had more and more disappointment! Especially knowing the Chef’s capabilities! every time my burger had a different taste! They are tiny and over priced; their waiters have an attitude problem! It is like they have directions to surprise you! And you have to just hope for the best! To be fair, their Hot dog is good! They should focus on that and maybe change the name to HotDog Co.
    Classic Burger Fries suck I have to admit, but they claim their potatoes are local and the quality differs according to availability, but if we are talking burgers in Lebanon, THAT IS THE PLACE!
    Lovely article, well done! You have however missed the Let’s Burger’s short-lived impact…

  21. moe
    January 21, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    best burger ever,,

  22. Boudy Nasrala
    January 21, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    Great article!

    For all of you Juicy Burger nostalgic out there 😉 here’s a great article from 1984 that I discovered while doing the initial research on Classic Burger.

    Thanks for mentioning Classic Burger 😉 I’m glad you liked it. it’s nice to see the success of the brand (We’ve been getting lots of positive echoes!). But I can tell you it wasn’t an easy task! We put a lot of effort in creating the “burger joint’ experience while adapting it to our – Lebanese – taste…months of research, traveling, tasting, testing and tasting again ;-)))

    Let’s hope Juicy Burger’s example will remind all those leaving the country for a “better” opportunity, how adventurous and how entrepreneurial Lebanese people were…and still are!

  23. Malek S.
    January 21, 2011 at 6:50 pm #

    I’ve been around lately, on a burger quest….and my final verdict is out!! Brgr co. Is the best burger in Lebanon and that’s my final opinion!!!

  24. Lea*
    January 27, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    Niiice article!

    i love what you said about Classic Burger Joint:
    “… And every bite became a voyage. A gourmet escapade across the oceans.”

    it’s so true! i love everything about that place!
    the authenticity, the friendly atmosphere, the mouthwatering burgers and the “classic” branding and interior!

    for me, classic burger joint is the B.E.S.T and O.N.L.Y burger joint by far!

    “Burger addict” since day 1 :)

  25. Youssef
    January 29, 2011 at 1:21 am #

    Nice article. Thanks for the advice: I will never visit Mrs Robinson. I think I would have gone crazy if the same happened to me. I visit classic burger joint regulary

    and I became a classic burger addict. The quality of their burgers is always great and all the waiters are very friendly. I’ve tried most of the menu items and I was

    satisfied in every visit to classic. I would like to congratulate those guys on the concept and would like to thank them for banning smoking to help us enjoy the great taste of their burgers. The price is very fair compared to the quality of food I am getting.

  26. Elie Francis
    February 11, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    hey man,

    2 of my friends did post some comments over your blog… but none of them did appear here…
    this doesn’t seem like an “open-to-comments” post!!!

    thanks
    Elie

  27. Dar El Akhdar
    February 27, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    Don’t know when you went but I just had a flawless experience at Mrs. Robinson – everything from the appetizers to the deserts was de-li-cious and the service was extra cordial… Maybe things have turned around since your above visit? :)

    Anyway would love to hear your thoughts on my shot at burger-appreciation >> “Burger Branding”:

    http://noteconnection.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/burger-branding

    For me so far, Classic Burger Joint has the best casual/diner burger in town, Burger Nation was terribly disappointing despite its great location, and Mrs. Robinson provided me with a great upscale burger dining experience with delicious burgers as well

  28. Boudy Nasrala
    March 8, 2011 at 3:33 am #

    @ Dar El Akhdar, thanks for your nice comments and post on your Blog 😉
    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed your experience!

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