Shake Shack, 24 Market Building, Covent Garden Piazza, London WC2
Five Guys, 1-3 Long Acre, Covent Garden, London WC2

 

People think this job is easy, but it's hard, I tell you, damned hard. My mission this week: to spend an entire day queuing for, and then eating, burgers. Like Morgan Spurlock in a hurry, I will be attempting my own Vine-length version of Super Size Me.

The two burger hotspots I'll be queuing outside are both Stateside legends – upscale New Yorker Shake Shack, and homely Virginian Five Guys. Over-hyped, over-seasoned and over here, these US invaders opened within a day of each other in London's Covent Garden, to a supersized reaction normally reserved for liberating armies. There was a two-hour queue outside Five Guys on opening night; a fast-feeding frenzy not seen in Covent Garden since Balthazar's advance-booking lines got swamped by angry restaurant critics.

I hit Shake Shack first, joining the lunch queue at the prized time of 11.40 on a Monday morning. The site, in Covent Garden's glass-roofed market building, is primer than the grass-fed Aberdeen Angus used for Shake Shack's burgers. Round here, the trade isn't just passing, it's staggering around stunned, as disoriented tourists escape the attentions of buskers and unsettling human statues.

With its subfusc grey frontage and terraced al fresco seating, Shake Shack blends right in, apart from the queue of sweaty early-adopters. But the line moves quickly, wrangled by a smiley charmbot, and I'm at the counter within 10 minutes. Waiting for my order on the pleasant wooden terrace, listening to a street entertainer assaulting an aria from Madam Butterfly, it's almost like being in a proper café, rather than a fast-food place. Until I get my food.

The overall effect of the Shake Shack cheeseburger – of salt and grease and yielding mushiness – sets all the pleasure receptors buzzing. But it's Pavlovian; the flavour never arrives. For all the hype about Shake Shack's suppliers – the Scottish beef, the rare breed pork, the collaborations with local food heroes like St John and Paul A Young – this is a big, greasy bag of disappointment. The meat has the flabby, pre-chewed characterlessness of a mass-produced patty. The bun is sweetish, softish and a bit supermarketish. A couple of slices of tasteless tomato and a lettuce leaf add nothing. Only the crinkle-cut fries – ribbed for extra pleasure – are any good.

I'm already feeling a bit sick. But onwards, to Five Guys. Wow. Now HERE is a place you could never get tired of hating. Straddling a corner site at the top of Long Acre, it is hard and shiny and garish and loud, a red-and-white chequered circle of hell. That you have to queue to get into. And then queue again to collect your food.

Shunning the way of Morgan Spurlock, I get them to undersize me, by ordering the 'little' cheeseburger at £5.50, plus Five Guys fries. Again, the fries are good, in as much as they taste of actual food. But the burger is just warm pap; striped from the grill, it might as well have been steamed. What flavour there is comes from the toppings – 15 are on offer and you can order any or all of them for free. The menu also warns that all burgers are available bunless, an offer about as appealing as John McCririck being available shirtless.

It's not exactly a news story; restaurant critic hates fast-food restaurant. So let's not dwell. Let's pass over the ersatz folksiness of the big sacks of potatoes and boxes of peanut oil, which make a claim for Five Guys, with its 1,000-plus branches, as a down-home, rural, meat and potatoes (and peanuts) kind of place. Let's try to block out the memory of that soda fountain, dispensing unlimited amounts of 100 different flavours of soft drink, all of them revolting. And let's try to forget the betrayed look on the faces of the red-capped staff, who've signed up believing they'll be part of an exciting new food concept, and have somehow ended up working in McDonalds.

Instead, let's gaze in wonder at that queue. What are they thinking of?

A case study in successful brand building, these new arrivals will probably do brilliantly. More branches are planned for both. Shake Shack in particular has been clever in marketing itself as the foodie's choice – rather like Krispy Kreme donuts did when they first launched in the UK and were only available in Harrods, making them cult objects of desire.

But thanks to the new wave of home-grown burger joints that have opened in recent years, including superior chains like Byron, we've got used to our burgers being a bit better than this – nubbly and charred and actually tasting of beef. For all their branding, Five Guys and Shake Shack are both offering fast food. And here's my bulletin from the frontline. Fast-food burgers don't taste very nice. And they don't make you feel very good after you've eaten them. No shit, Spurlock.

Shake Shack, 24 Market Building, Covent Garden Piazza, London WC2 (0207-2400054. Around £10 a head for burger and fries

Food: **
Ambience: **
Service: ****

Five Guys, 1-3 Long Acre, Covent Garden, London WC2 (0207-2402057). Around £10 a head for burger and fries

Food: *
Ambience: no stars
Service: ****

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Travel
travelWhy Japan's love hotels are thriving through an economic downturn
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
Alexander McQueen A/W 2014
fashionPolitics aside, tartan is on-trend again this season
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Sport
Joel jumps over the board...and into a giant hole
footballFrom joy to despair in a matter of seconds
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week