Sunday, 5 December 2010

A woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a burger

Byron, 341 Upper Street, N1 0PB 
The Diner, 21 Essex Road, N1 2SA

Like many Londoners, I seem to have been overcome by the desire to find the "perfect burger". For me, this largely involves compiling a mental list of the things a good burger must include and then comparing each new burger experience against this imaginary burger-benchmark. Eating a burger has, therefore, become a slightly more analytical experience than perhaps it should be. I find myself scrutinising the bun (is it going to fall apart?), the cheese (no Monterey Jack, how could you?) and, of course, the meat (not even remotely pink, you swine!). However, if I am honest, when I go for a burger, I don't necessarily want a high-class gourmet experience. I am more likely to go somewhere local that serves decent beer than trek across town to find absolute burger perfection. So, this post is not about the best burger, it is about the two places that, between them, are making pretty good money from my desire to eat grilled meat, bread and cheese.

I first heard of Byron at a festival, so it was a happy day when I discovered that they have a restaurant in Islington, meaning that I wouldn't have to wait a year or go to Wales for my next fix. Their burgers are excellent. Fast food prices have not prevented them from sourcing top quality meat. Cooked how you like and with a choice of cheese, they have the texture and flavour to compete with the proper burgers that, apparently, can be found in every town in the US from Portland to San Diego. Chilled beer glasses and skin-on chips elevate it into junk food heaven. The downside: the Islington branch is not particularly comfortable, as if they want you to eat quickly and move on; and the music is bad. We went for a burger breakfast one Sunday and they were playing awful trashy house - probably the last thing your ears need on the morning after. Set against the excellent burgers and perky service, these are minor points that do not significantly detract from an otherwise great restaurant.

The Diner oozes faux-retro style: think giant red banquettes and jukebox neon lights. At first glance, The Diner is impressive. They serve Pacifico Clara which is, without a doubt, one of the finest beers produced on this fair Earth. The menu is a vast homage to Americana so, as well as burgers, you can have corndogs and tacos. Not to be overlooked, the music is proper classic rock which, as everyone knows, is the music of junk food. However, the food is not great. The burgers taste a bit like they were bought in frozen and, even though they asked us how we wanted them (rare), they came out limp and cooked through. Slightly cold chips were topped with dry, flavourless chilli. If the food was good, the place would be brilliant but it is average at best. The service is variable and can be outright  rude. Although in fairness to the staff at the Islington branch, the team at The Diner in Shoreditch make Islington appear charming by comparison.

There is a reason for the Pride and Prejudice reference in the title. In the same way that Elizabeth eventually concludes of Darcy and Wickham: "there is but such a quantity of merit between them; just enough to make one good sort of man", somewhere between Byron and The Diner is the perfect restaurant. To strain my literary reference to the point of breaking, one has all the goodness (Byron) and the other all the appearance of it (The Diner). If it were up to me, we would always err on the side of good cooking. Unfortunately, Mr Fork prefers The Diner so we are stuck between the two. For now.

Byron on Urbanspoon
Byron Islington on Urbanspoon

The Diner on Urbanspoon
The Diner on Urbanspoon


  1. Please can you continue your quest with regular updates? I too am still in search of the perfect burger! Happy to stick with Byron until it is discovered though!

  2. Thanks! Sticking with Byron is no hardship, fortunately. We should go burger hunting. Better than squirrel hunting any day...