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Learning the rules of Burger Club

A good burger should taste of real meat not mince. A perfect one should make you want to run naked in a field. Adrian Turpin reveals how people are becoming friends - falling in love - in the quest for the ultimate beef patty

If you have ever looked at a restaurant menu and said, "I feel like something simple. I think I'll just have a burger", then the UK's Burger Club is a bit of an eye-opener.

If you have ever looked at a restaurant menu and said, "I feel like something simple. I think I'll just have a burger", then the UK's Burger Club is a bit of an eye-opener.

The first rule of Burger Club, says the organisation's website, in a parody of the film Fight Club, "is that nobody talks about Burger Club". The second rule of Burger Club is that, in rating a burger, cheese may be taken into account but that extras such as onions and bacon are distracting fripperies and should be ignored. And the third rule? Judges should not be swayed by the quality of any accompanying chips. "Burgers are burgers and fries are fries."

A fourth, strictly unofficial rule, might be that pedantry is allowed and possibly invited. "Has anyone in the UK [internet chat board] ever had a great burger?" asks regular contributor MobyP. "Let's define our terms here - I'm talking about the kind of place where they grind the meat at earliest just before service - where it tastes of MEAT, as opposed to cooked mince. Where the sheer shock of red-blood and rush of iron hitting your bloodstream makes you want to run naked in the fields and rip out the throat of some animal." McDonald's, as you might imagine, is anathema.

The original Burger Club began in New York as part of the foodie website egullet.org, its aim to find the city's best burger. A rather geeky evaluation sheet was created, which invited marks for qualities such as juiciness and value for money (not forgetting to mention "greasiness", "brownness", "doneness" and "molding" - whatever that may be).

But, crucially, burger inspecting did not have to be a lonely occupation: tasting events and restaurant outings were organised. People became friends and fell in love in the quest for the ultimate beef patty. Before long the Burger Club had burst the bounds of New York city and spread across the country. It was only a matter of time before egullet.org's British members launched their own version.

"You could get the impression that we are a bunch of obsessives," says Andy Lynes, a former internal auditor for British Telecom turned food writer, who is also one of egullet's British-based website managers. "I have to confess, it can bring out the trainspotter or the stamp collector in people." To date, Penny Blacks of the burger world have been found at the Eagle Diner off Oxford Street and Hamburger Union on Garrick Street. The latter triumphed despite shocking problems with its buns, which failed another of the club's criteria, "seediness".

It's easy to poke gentle fun at the monomaniac enthusiasm of the UK burger clubbers (although, to be fair, they seem quite capable of laughing at themselves). Perhaps we should take them more seriously, though. Food and the internet have been comfortable bedfellows for years. But in Britain, at least, there has been a tendency for most foodie websites to be a little staid: more Delia Smith than Alain Ducasse.

Traditionally, recipes have predominated, and the target market has been homebodies rather than social butterflies. What haven't been tapped in this country, until now, are the tremendous social possibilities that food offers. While the US has seen a boom in gastronomic websites like the Big Apple's www.foodienyc.com, which mixes online culinary discussion with real-life social events, Brits have been happy to set a table for one and a computer.

It's hardly a surprise that egullet should blaze a trail for internet gastronomes who want to meet in the flesh. Since its launch in August 2001, the website has always been an irrepressibly lively - even argumentative - forum for both hobbyists and professional cooks. Food writers and journalists have come to see egullet as a source of industry news and gossip, while famous chefs posting on the message boards have included Anthony Bourdain and Shaun Hill of the Merchant House in Ludlow.

Evenings out, chewing the fat literally and figuratively, are a natural extension to this. When not hunting burgers, some of egullet's British contingent meet regularly to eat, share views and knock back the odd bottle of wine at some of Britain's smarter restaurants.

This year's "winter feast", for example, saw around 20 of the society's members go to Oliver Peyton's "posh café", Inn the Park, in St James's Park. Part of the pleasure of an event like this seems to be arguing online for days about the menu (which, on reflection, probably beats doing it at the table). Having settled on a starter of smoked mackerel with beetroot and horseradish, followed by the splendidly medieval-sounding whole roast suckling pig with braised red cabbage, they then spent the next few days dissecting the meal's merits online.

"The pig's cheeks were the real highlight for me," one member wrote. "I toyed with the idea of trying to extract its tongue but felt this might be pushing the boundaries of good manners." Less squeam-inducing follow-ups to the meal included where to buy sprout tops.

This formula of extended online anticipation, followed by formalised gluttony, and lip-smacking post-mortem has been repeated for other restaurants like The Square and Chez Bruce. Of course, in a way, this is only what dining societies have been doing for centuries. But - put this down to the internet perhaps - there is something pleasingly democratic about this set-up.

"My impression is that traditional dining clubs have often been a bit old and stuffy," Lynes says. "With us, it's a social occasion but you know that ultimately people are there for the food rather than to show off. We've got all classes and professions, the theatre, the catering business. There is never any awkwardness because everyone has common ground."

Egullet's meetings might not be to everyone's taste. However friendly their individual members may be, internet communities can be a strange thing, with their in-jokes and arcane internal politics. But they show that, finally, the web is waking up to the fact that an interest in food does not need to be a solitary business.

I suspect we're going to be seeing a lot more of this kind of thing - sites like www.redepicurus.com, which offers like-minded people a chance to gather for, say, a three course-meal at the Charlotte Street Hotel or dinner at the chef's table at Gordon Ramsay's at Claridge's. It's a sign of the times, perhaps, that one of the most recent additions to Britain's booming online dating scene is www.blindplate.com.uk, in which six or eight singletons meet to cook and eat a three-course meal.

As for egullet.org itself, social success has its own price. "Recently, we've been trying to cut down some of the less relevant chatter on the site. In a funny way, it can become too sociable. For us, what you have to remember is, it's always about the food."

Visit www.egullet.com, www.foodienyc.com, www.redepicurus.com and www.blindplate.com