I'm not sure when burgers got so popular in the UK. When I was younger they were cheap, squashy but strangely delicious things you had in McDonald's as an end-of-term treat (until BSE happened, anyway). At some point they must have started turning up on pub menus and now there are whole websites devoted to them and several chains claiming to produce the 'best burger in town' at a price that would have bought at least half a dozen Happy Meals in the early 90s.
In Oxford the competition has just been taken to a new level with the opening of a branch of Byron Burgers - a newish London chain now beginning an assault on the rest of the south - a mere two doors from George Street fixture Gourmet Burger Kitchen. I reviewed the latter a couple of months ago. Both places are fitted out so as to look as little as possible as if they belong in Oxford, though personally I prefer GBK's cute American diner look to the rather ugly post-industrial Byron vibe with its slightly too loud music.
Still, comparisons are odious so from now on I'll stick to describing what I had at Byron. Said post-industrial interior was offset by some pretty friendly service, almost too friendly at times: any place where someone offers to explain the menu to me will always have to work slightly harder thereafter to win my approbation, and I find it slightly suspicious when staff claim to have more than one 'favourite' item, although these may just have been the result of opening week enthusiasm. My burger was a Byron (£9.25), with cheddar, lovely snappy dry cure bacon and special Byron sauce: I don't recall any of these elements dominating and the result was a succulent, well-balanced (aesthetically if not nutritionally) and rather impressive combination. The Photographer had a Classic hamburger (£6.25) with extra mushrooms and chilli sauce that he described as 'like ketchup, only nice'. We both enjoyed the tender, juicy pinkness of the medium-cooked meat.
I'd been looking forward to trying the courgette fries (£3.25). Cooked in a crunchy batter they tasted pretty good at first, and weren't at all greasy, but after a while the contrast between sogginess and crispiness got a bit much. I'd advise you share them. French fries (£2.95), meanwhile, were fine: tasty without being the best chips I've ever had.
I have an unfortunate weakness for Oreo cookies and the Photographer has a discerning eye for a good brownie, so a chocolate brownie (£4.75) and Oreo and brownie sundae (£4.75) went down very well. The quality of the ice cream wasn't skimped on, as sometimes happens, and the sauce drizzled on both was especially chocolatety and delectable. However, crowd-pleasing desserts aren't that difficult: we were more impressed by the wide-ranging and interesting beer selection. We sampled the Dark Arts Surreal Stout, if only for the name. It was deep and dark with with a very striking flavour and an intriguing Marmite bouquet; the light and perfectly pleasant Camden Hells Lager we had alongside it was inevitably overshadowed.
So are the 'proper hamburgers' Byron claim to serve the pinnacle of twenty years of burger evolution? Quite possibly. My childhood conditioning (and concern for my arteries) mean that I'll probably never consider going for a burger and ice cream sundae and paying close on £20 for that with a beer as more than an occasional indulgence, but this is a pretty good place to get that fix.
I was invited to review Byron Burgers. I found it better than GBK - it offers higher quality for about the same price - but other burger restaurants are available, not least the independent Atomic Burger on the Cowley Road.
33-35 George Street OX1 2AY