N.B. As of August 2020 Five Guys has reopened.
I really wasn’t intending to review Five Guys. It’s not that I am some sort of food snob (I’ll eat Nando’s or KFC happily, it doesn’t all have to be sit down meals with a bottle of wine). It’s not even that I don’t like burgers – I do, quite, although I don’t eat them very often. It’s more that Five Guys is a quick meal. A cheap meal. And does anyone really need a review of places like this, where the risk is low? After all, if it’s rubbish you’ve only wasted a tenner, tops, and half an hour. Nevertheless, I went there for lunch and decided that actually, yes, I do want to review it, because it’s a great example of hype versus experience.
Before Five Guys had even opened there was a lot of chat on Twitter about how great it was going to be. Only the second one in the UK, and the only one outside London; finally, Reading’s the first to get something! It’s taken a huge site upstairs in the Oracle and all around the walls are quotes about how great they are from all over the US (“The Willy Wonka of Burgercraft”, “The Best $5 Burger A Man Can Eat” – it really is all about men and guys, it seems, which is a great way to irk half your potential customers). Even inside the toilets there are framed magazine covers saying how great their burgers are. Well, they’re certainly a long way from five dollars, but are they all they’re cracked up to be?
Arriving at the restaurant there’s initially a bit of confusion because the designers have decided to put a ruddy big table where it makes most sense for people to queue, so they have to have staff ushering people round to the tills. The ordering is pretty simple; this is after all just a burger bar and their tagline is “burgers and fries” so there’s only so involved it can get. So yes, the menu is primarily burgers and little burgers with a choice of fifteen different toppings all included for free (unless you really want a grilled cheese sandwich, or are a vegetarian being forced to endure this by a partner or a pushy friend). We ordered a cheeseburger each but picked different toppings. I had lettuce, mayonnaise, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, relish, pickles and mustard. I think so, anyway: I must admit that standing in front of my red baseball-hatted server I was a bit overwhelmed by the choices. Between the two of us we also had a regular fries and one drink (which seemed like a good idea at the time, although typing it now it somehow feels a bit cheap).
Once you’ve ordered and paid the system works a bit like Starbucks – you take your number, stand at the far end of the counter and watch baffled while you wonder how so many staff can make such a big deal of looking so busy and so noisy and yet your food still takes an age to arrive. Brilliant. In the meantime one of you stands in front of the “Coca Cola Freestyle” machine and tries to pick a drink. All of the Coke brands are there: Fanta, Sprite, Coke, Dr Pepper, Powerade, water, plus some I’d never heard of. The real draw is that you can mix in an extra flavour, such as cherry, lime, raspberry or cherry vanilla. It gives a quite amazing total of over 100 different drinks to choose from like some kind of carbonated jukebox (no root beer though, which disappointed my companion). Like a jukebox, it’s quite good fun to flick through the choices and pick something that you simply can’t get anywhere else. This I liked, although knowing that it’s all syrup and water takes the edge off somewhat. On the upside you can go back as many times as you like and top up your red and white paper cup: bottomless soft drinks, in a place where most of the stuff you order is going to make you far from bottomless.
When the food comes it’s in a brown paper bag; there are no trays in Five Guys. The burgers are wrapped in paper-foil and look a bit forlorn – squashed, even though they’ve been assembled by the red ants behind the counter only moments ago. Despite this the taste isn’t bad. The patties (a standard burger has two, which you wouldn’t necessarily know unless you’re really paying attention) are well done but moist – I’d rather have had them pink though, as we shall see, that would probably have made a messy experience messier still. The burger buns are your standard seeded burger baps (despite what any of the blurb might say: their posters say they are baked on site, but that might not apply outside of the US).
I said it was a messy experience and it really, really is. The fillings are wet. Even keeping my burger wrapped I ended up covered in meat juices and bits of stray onion, which is never an attractive look I find – well, not unless you’re on a date with Gregg Wallace, anyway. Like Gregg, there’s nothing posh about this burger: it’s a get-your-face-in-and-eat-it-in-record-time-before-it-all-slides-apart-like-some-kind-of-meat-apocalypse sort of burger. So I did, although the last bit of the burger, where the bun had been gently steaming in burger juices, went in the bin. It’s just a bit too much, or was for me anyway (in the course of writing this up I’ve read that a cheeseburger has 830 calories and that discovery makes me feel a tad queasy.)
The fries were OK. We had a regular tub of the Cajun spiced fries and they seemed to go on forever, an endless pile of them looking up menacingly from the bottom of the paper bag. I kept shaking them out into the tub but, War of the Worlds style, they kept coming. At the start the spicing was piquant and exciting; by the end it was just hot and even slightly numbing. I think a good chip, of any size, should be fluffy on the inside and crunchy on the outside but these were firm and if they’d ever had any crispness it had vanished in the matter of minutes it took them to arrive at my table.
We sat on some smart oak-finish furniture looking out over the Oracle riverside (say what you like about the food but it’s not a bad view) talking about Five Guys, trying not to get sauce on our clothes and shaking some more fries out of the endless paper bag. Neither of us was sure what the fuss was about. They are just burgers. The fries were OK at best. The drinks machine was ace and a lot of fun. But £20.50 for two burgers, one fries and one drink? Well, it’s a genius marketing concept masking a pretty average lunch.
I’m sure this is sacrilege, but I think I might even prefer a Big Mac.
Five Guys – 5.5
The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG