London picks up the pace on fast food

(Thomas Bowles/ ) - Meat Liquor is a popular place to catch a bite to eat and drink in central London.

(Thomas Bowles/ ) - Meat Liquor is a popular place to catch a bite to eat and drink in central London.

“I can’t believe people queue for that,” says a man in a suit and tie as he walks briskly past the mass of eager customers chatting outside Meat Liquor, a popular burger joint in central London.

But after six months working in the British capital, I’m craving a taste of greasy, down-home American diner food, and no snide comment is going to deter me from trying what are rumored to be the best burgers in the city.

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It’s a Wednesday night, and as we approach the restaurant, which is a short walk from Oxford Circus, I mistake it at first for a nightclub. A line of trendy 20-somethings, waiting to score a coveted table, stretches down the street. My boyfriend and I file in at the end of the queue and huddle beneath the glowing heaters in an attempt to fend off the London damp. The crowd is buzzing, cold hands clinging to cans of cider.

Details: London fast food

The line moves relatively quickly, and soon we’re inside, where the scene is dark and chaotic. The look of the space is influenced by the squat bars of eastern Berlin, which co-owners Yianni Papoutsis and Scott Collins have both frequented. The Rococo-style domed ceiling is splattered with sinister red-and-black illustrations. But any unease we feel about the punk venue fades once the cafeteria-style tray comes out, piled high with chicken wings, coleslaw, messy and oozing cheeseburgers and proper fries — not the potato chunks the Brits call chips.

Across the table, my boyfriend is already several bites into his double-patty Dead Hippie burger, which is starting to drip a mix of cheese and onions onto the table. My cheeseburger, stuffed with pickles, lettuce and red onions, is satisfying enough, but pretty soon I’m feeling burger envy. With its addictive special sauce and double-decker patties, the juicy Dead Hippie is our favorite, hands down.

When I come up for air, the crowd around the cocktail bar has grown, and I remember my drink. I admit that the familiar old American favorites are much more thrilling when paired with an absinthe-based cocktail served in the ultimate hipster accouterment: a Mason jar. But despite the allure of my cold glass of Donkey Punch, my attention is still on the skinny, salty fries.

“We worked for months to get something as close to the perfect french fry as possible,” says Papoutsis, who’s also Meat Liquor’s chef. “I love McDonald’s french fries. They’re the best in the world, in my opinion.”

As for Meat Liquor’s fries, they’re not the best I’ve ever tasted, but they’re certainly on a par with Mickey D’s.

Byronic burgers

The United States may get a bad rap as “fast food nation,” but its high-calorie comfort food has found a niche in London. And making junk food cool is something that only the Brits could pull off. Who knew that the humble hamburger could be so chic?

“The hamburger is America’s biggest single culinary gift to the world,” says British burgermeister Tom Byng, the founder of Byron. The upmarket British burger chain was inspired by Byng’s time studying in Providence, R.I., where he was a regular late-night customer at the Silver Top Diner, a local greasy spoon.

The look of the trendy location where I meet Byng on Wardour Street in Soho is a far cry from the linoleum floors and formica tabletops of traditional American diners, but I wouldn’t expect anything less in London’s popular theater district. Byron’s modern take on the classic U.S. burger joint features sleek leather booths, wooden floors, exposed-brick walls, vintage furniture and high ceilings.

I order a cheeseburger at noon on the dot. There are very few people in the restaurant, but it’s still early for the lunch-break crowd. The simple menu offers several burger options — all pink, succulent, salty and sweet. The beef is high-quality, obtained from a supplier in Scotland and minced fresh at a London butcher seven days a week.

This is really the nostalgic American burger that I’m after, and Byng confesses that he once brought back a suitcase full of Martin’s Potato Rolls from the States for “burger research,” so that he could capture the buns’ taste and texture. Byron’s burger is far less messy than Meat Liquor’s and boasts fewer frills, but it’s nice not to need a whole roll of paper towels to wipe my hands with.

Byng won’t concede that he started the trend, but since Byron opened in 2007, a premium-priced-patty craze has swept London. In a cursory search, I’m overwhelmed by all the choices: Burger & Lobster, Patty & Bun, Mother Flipper, Honest Burgers, Dirty Burger, Lucky Chip, SliderBar, plus Papoutsis and Collins’s infamous Meat empire of Meat Market, Meat Mission and Meat Liquor.

Even American restaurateur Danny Meyer, the owner of patty-chic purveyor Shake Shack, has caught on to the movement and plans to open his first British outpost in London’s historic Covent Garden market this summer.

Fancy franks

The fad doesn’t stop at burgers. Since it opened last August, Bubbledogs, a restaurant that pairs hot dogs with champagne, has swiftly become the darling of this city fixated on poshed-up junk food. Though it may be the age of austerity here, I couldn’t believe that Brits would ditch caviar for wieners. But they have.

Instead of being scared off by the wait at Bubbledogs, which can be up to two hours on weekends, customers indulge in a pre-dinner street party outside. Fashionable media types from the local Fitzrovia neighborhood bring along cans of gin and tonic to sip while they brave the elements. (At the end of a Saturday evening, the sidewalk is strewn with empties.)

After friends warn me about the long wait around dinnertime, I decide to pop in for a late lunch on a weekday. At 3 p.m., Bubbledogs is tame, and I easily grab a seat at a high wooden table. The restaurant is relatively small, and I can see how it could quickly get mobbed.

The afternoon crowd is mixed, with a smattering of professionals, tourists and families. A few linger at the copper-topped bar, but for the most part, people seem to have come in for a quick bite. I know that it’s slightly early for alcohol, but I order a glass of Gaston Chiquet anyway.

Bubbledogs’ owners — Sandia Chang, a California sommelier, and her husband, James Knappett, former chef at Michelin-starred restaurant the Ledbury — have created a concise menu featuring 10 dogs. After mulling the New Yorker, served street-cart-vendor-style with sauerkraut and onions, I decide on the Fourth of July, a bacon-wrapped hot dog with smoky barbecue sauce and coleslaw, plus a side of crunchy tater tots.

The idea of contrasting a heavy hot dog with the crisp taste of champagne isn’t as sacrilegious as it seems when you consider other European pairings, such as Italian prosecco and lardo or Spain’s cava and Serrano ham. Despite my affinity for a cold beer with a traditional ballgame-style hot dog, the carefully selected grower champagne provides a refreshing contrast.

Fashionable fried chicken

The effort to offer glamorous but affordable midrange dining options such as Bubbledogs is a recent development here, says William Leigh, chef and co-founder of fried chicken restaurant Wishbone.

Fried chicken is something of a cultural phenomenon in London, a particular favorite of those in search of a cheap late-night snack on their way home from the pub, who may scoff at Wishbone’s chicken sandwich, which is almost $10. But unlike Chicken Cottage and KFC, prominent chicken chains on Britain’s high streets that have been maligned for using low-grade ingredients, Wishbone uses free-range Cotswolds chickens.

Leigh’s restaurant is the newest addition to Brixton’s old covered market in South London, a microcosm of the city’s many international flavors. Wishbone is across from a Mexican restaurant and a few doors down from the popular sourdough pizzeria Franco Manca.

This is my first time venturing to Brixton, and I manage to get lost. A smiling man selling flowers outside the subway station gives me directions and seems to approve of my restaurant selection, which I take as a good sign. When I finally arrive at Wishbone around 7 p.m., the upstairs dining room, a cool, industrial loft space, is already busy.

Hip-hop and rap music provide the backdrop to this venue that offers what some London bloggers have dubbed “dude-food.” But though there are a few tables full of men with barbecue sauce on their fingers and baskets of wings picked clean, I’m not the only girl in the place.

I end up sampling a bit of everything off the relatively small menu and am surprised by the range of international takes on fried chicken. I eat all of my unexpected but tasty Thai thighs paired with tamarind dressing, mint, chili peppers and shallots. But my clear favorites are the Buffalo wings — some of the best I’ve had in London — and deep-fried mac and cheese, which is sinfully rich and gooey.

As I gingerly lick my fingers, I think about how much this city — once known predominantly for its newspaper-wrapped fish and chips — has to offer diners. From its Michelin-starred fine-dining establishments to its local gastropubs, London has become one of the leading culinary capitals in the world.

With so many options, it may be hard for some to understand why these intrinsically low-cost food types have become so popular. But when you look more closely, it’s pretty simple.

Everyone loves comfort food.

Mackintosh is a special correspondent for The Washington Post’s London bureau.

 
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