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Middle East

Nothing quite like a McAli’s burger... Iran’s foodies opt for taste of America with a glut of high-end grill restaurants in Tehran

Upmarket grills adorned with Americana are proving a hit in wealthy areas, finds Jason Rezaian in Tehran

At the Garage Grill in an upmarket Tehran neighbourhood, classic rock plays from the speakers, and photos of Paul Newman, James Dean and hot rods line the walls. It could be an old-time American diner, except that its hamburger prices reflect a wealthier target market here.

Next door, Dukkan Burger serves its fare on butcher paper, with Heinz ketchup and French’s mustard supplied on request. The clientele includes young women clutching designer handbags, arriving with their dates in European luxury cars.

Greasy burger joints have been part of Tehran’s fast-food landscape for decades, even in the years just after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when any symbol of US culture was denounced as an example of “Westoxification”. They were mostly in downtown working-class neighbourhoods, serving labourers or students watching their budgets.

Now, though, high-end burger restaurants are popping up across the city, making the gut-busting American institution the latest trend in Tehran dining.

Facebook pages dedicated to local hamburger outlets debate their relative merits, comparing them to McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Burger King and other US chains. That fascination with brands has resulted in such blatant rip-offs as McAli’s, Superstar – conspicuously similar in appearance to Carl’s Jr – and even a place calling itself  Five Guys.

After a string of restaurants catering to Tehran’s rich opened and closed in recent years, observers of the capital’s culinary scene say the rise of the quality burger is not surprising, especially given Iranians’ love of grilled meat. “Burgers are very simple. It’s a promise that’s easy to deliver on,” said Payam Kashani-Nejad, the founder of Gumboo Guide, a website devoted to reviews of Tehran restaurants. “And it’s a big market.”

David Yaghoobi, until recently creative director at a top Iranian advertising agency and now based in London, noted that the burger is still somewhat exotic to Iranians, boosting its appeal.

“In Iran, most things foreign are considered high-end, and as a burger is considered foreign, maybe there is some of that, too,” he said.

It is no coincidence, then, that most of the new hamburger restaurants are in the affluent neighbourhoods of northern Tehran, in the foothills of the snowcapped Alborz Mountains – places such as Niavaran, where Garage Grill and Dukkan could dare to open side by side.

“Our concept is purely American,” said Arash Farhadpour-Shirazi, co-owner of Garage Grill. “Burgers and cars.”

A neon Route 66 sign hangs in the front door above the back half of a classic Austin Mini. The car’s front half and the front of an orange BMW 2002 double as the grills.

“It’s a short escape into a different environment,” Farhadpour-Shirazi said. “Iranians love the American style. The grass is greener in the US.”

In nearby Farmanieh, the most popular of Tehran’s new burger joints, Burgerland, was opened last year by members of the Iranian underground band Barobax. Fans line up to take photos with them, but they deny that that is the main reason Burgerland is packed.

“Maybe the first and second time people come it’s to see us, but if they didn’t like the food, they wouldn’t come again and again,” said Khashayar Moradi Haghgoo, who owns and runs the restaurant with his bandmates.

Across town, in the western neighbourhood of Shahrak-e Gharb, BurgerHouse sees itself as the pioneer of Tehran’s hamburger craze. In business for three years, owner Amir Javadi said no one else was selling quality burgers in the city when he opened, and then “this year, all of a sudden, burger joints started sprouting like mushrooms”.

BurgerHouse started out as just takeout and delivery but  accidentally became Tehran’s lone drive-in restaurant.

“We noticed that people would pick up their orders and then just sit in their cars and eat,” Javadi said. “There are extra costs for delivery, like the packaging, so we started giving the option of bringing trays to customers’ cars.”

Every night, even during the freezing winter, the narrow street that is home to BurgerHouse is lined with cars of regulars waiting for their order numbers to appear on a screen.

To Javadi, the success of burgers in Tehran is unconnected to any particular cultural trends or preferences beyond the simple pleasures of the food itself. “No one looks at a burger as something American or even foreign any more,” Javadi said. “It’s one of the world’s favourite foods.”

© The Washington Post