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.