Sometimes only a burger will do. Now, I am aware of how incendiary that sounds to those who have arrived at this page having jogged through the fitness features, all glowing and healthy. But it is true – go on, admit it. Even vegetarians crave beanburgers, fries and onion rings sometimes...
You'd have to have been living in a cave, or somewhere that served only potted-meat sandwiches, not to have noticed the burger wars. In recent years, small chains have appeared across London and in our other large towns and cities, all claiming to have the one true bun. Gourmet Burger Kitchen quickly established turf, but Hamburger Union, Haché, Byron, Black & Blue and the Fine Burger Co have all crowded in and now you can't move for ground beef.
The latest is Guerilla Burgers, taking over a Tootsies (remember them? They served, er, burgers, and have now closed down) on James Street, the strip near Selfridges where every doorway leads to a restaurant. Rawk music pumps out of the open doors and post-work hipsters sup beer from bottles with lime in the top (which I thought died out in the 1990s).
It's a perky operation, with slangy slogans – "power to the patty" - and a menu dripping with modern terminology. I'm not sure calling starters "apps" is really working for them, but let's be generous. Meanwhile, not to spoil the surprise, but the burgers are the worst thing about Guerilla Burgers. Our apps of crayfish cocktail (£5) served in a jam jar, three-bean veggie chilli (£3) served in a cup and "nice little chicken bites" (£4) served, phew, on a plate are all punchy and fresh-tasting, with only the searing heat of the chilli smacking of an acquaintance with the microwave.
My "new yorico jumbo all-beef hot dog" (£5) is as much of a mouthful as its title. The attendant fried onions are melting, the bun is nicely, unhealthily soft and white and, once it has been dressed with the ketchup and mustard from a heap of tabletop condiments, it does taste pretty authentic. Not authentic at all, really, are the sweet-potato fries on the side (£3). But they're crisp and hot, with a soft inside and that gummy taste that works well with the mustard.
What is really not nice is the Russian tarragon dressing that seems to be served on the side of every dish. Sweet and cloying, it has us all going "gaaaaah" and trying to wipe our tongues on the napkins, of which we have been brought three each. I like service that pre-empts my mess.
And so, with regret, to the burgers. On the upside, customers can choose between beef and turkey patties, or a grilled chicken breast in their bun. A nod to health, it gives the pseudo-dieters, who really shouldn't be in a place like this, something to order. They can also have cottage cheese instead of fried onion rings, and cous cous instead of chips. See, I'm distracting myself again. OK. The buns are small, seeded and a bit flimsy. The crispy bacon on the BLT and Rodeo burgers is anything but. The size, modest. The taste, meh. Only the green-chilli burger passes muster, but that's because the recipient souses it with extra chipotle and chilli.
This is ballast, good for soaking up margaritas, but it sure isn't "The meal of the people, one that NEVER FAILS to satisfy!" as Guerilla puts it, capitals and all.
Nevertheless I like this place. The staff are genuinely helpful and the menu does have range beyond what's expected of a fast-food joint. The music's great – roaming from The Clash to Queen to The Beatles – and while loud, is probably just about right for the majority of the clientele, who are younger and less married than me. And it's priced for pacy business – I could come in and have just a hot dog, fries, and a juice for a tenner. Proper espresso, served in a shot glass, is £1.
My son says he doesn't fancy pudding, having already had the same components of a sundae blended together as a milkshake. He doesn't want two-hour baked cheesecake ("I don't want to wait that long," he says. Bless. He is 13) so the rest of us share a slab of the dense, sour-sweet confection. It's a good conclusion.
Despite burger wars, the real foodie buzz has moved on either to Mexican, or back to Greek. Or is it Thai? But if you want cheap and cheerful in W1, Guerilla can probably withstand fashion's foibles.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Guerilla Burgers, 35 James Street, London W1, tel: 020 7486 1511 Lunch and dinner daily. About £40 for three courses for two, with beer
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010'. www.hardens.comReuse content