There was a story doing the rounds last month about fifteen restaurant operators eyeing up Reading with a view to opening in the town. Beyond that the specifics were vague – who were they? Where exactly were they hoping to open? – but that didn’t stop it being picked up by one of the local sites (on a slow news day, perhaps) which reported it as “fifteen national food chains” in talks about moving in. As a result, I saw a little bit of discussion and speculation on Twitter, but I couldn’t bring myself to be hugely excited. I’ve never subscribed to the “chains bad, indies good” theory of restaurants – nobody who’s eaten at both Côte and Picasso could buy that for a second – but I do think it’s true that when you look at what Reading really needs, more chains wouldn’t really be at the top of the list.
That’s not to say that some chains aren’t wonderful things, or that Reading wouldn’t benefit from them; I finally went to Wahaca recently, and it’s every bit as good as everyone says. I’d love to see Busaba or Leon set up a branch in Reading, for that matter. But I’d rather see an independent bistro, or a bakery, or a little Vietnamese place, or a sushi restaurant, or any of a dozen types of establishment which just don’t fit the chain mould at all. But maybe, even having said all that, I’m being too harsh to the chain restaurants. After all, there are good chains and bad chains, big chains and small chains. So this week I decided to give one of them a try – and because it’s both ages since I tried a new chain and ages since I had a burger, one option on the Oracle leapt out and simply demanded to be chosen.
Handmade Burger Co. wasn’t the burger company Reading was hoping for when LSQ2 gave up its spot right on the edge of the Oracle; back then, everyone was clamouring, rightly or wrongly, for Gourmet Burger Kitchen (except me, I wanted – and still want – a Byron). But when HBC opened in late 2012 if at least sounded more interesting than GBK: a small, family-owned chain that had, if the website is to be believed, grown out of a single branch in Birmingham. Who doesn’t like a rags to riches underdog story? I didn’t go back in 2012, but since then it has grown to 25 locations across the country and, again if you buy the blurb on the website, makes its burgers from scratch using 48 fresh ingredients delivered 6 days a week. Well, it all sounded worth a shout to me – and after all, restaurant websites are always a really good indicator, aren’t they?
Going in on a weekday evening, the thing that struck me about the room was how many tables they had crammed into quite a cavernous space. It’s very high-ceilinged (all the other pitches in that row are two floors) but the tables are really jammed in together, especially in the middle of the room. The décor was quite nondescript – all very plain tables and chairs, but it didn’t feel like a table for two was quite big enough for two people and to make matters worse, the neighbouring table for two wasn’t especially far away either. The tables with banquettes were better, but we didn’t get shown to one of those and I didn’t have the energy to ask for one. That said, people like the place: I arrived early on a weekday evening and by the time I left the restaurant was largely full. Would I have wanted to arrive when the place was full and try to have a conversation in a big echoey packed room with a very limited amount of soft furnishings? Well, this probably makes me sound about a million years old, but: no, not on your nelly.
The model works in much the same way as Nando’s – you get shown to a table, pick what you want from the menu, order at the bar, collect your drinks and wait for your food to come to the table. The basic burger comes with a dizzying number of topping options, or you can have a chicken burger, or go bunless, or have a gluten free bun, or have it in a pitta, or even (how random is this?) in a Yorkshire pudding. Or you can have a vegan burger. Or a veggie burger. Or something a bit like a burger but on a skewer. The possibilities are, if not endless, a lot less finite than I would personally choose. It really does cater for everyone. Everyone who likes burgers.
HBC’s new menu, and indeed the board outside, proudly boasted that they now do something they touchingly refer to as “dirty burgers”. The website doesn’t define exactly what this means and how or why they are dirty (although surely it’s not a literal sanitary description), nor did the menu. A little pamphlet folded away inside my cutlery tin also talked about the burgers but again, there was no real explanation beyond them being “juicy, messy and full of flavour” (as opposed, presumably, to the dry, tidy, bland offerings elsewhere on the menu). But I am a marketing department’s dream, and they were in a little boxed off section with their own fancy typeface, and so I went for the “D.B. Fried Onion” figuring that it was worth a try.
“Watch out with this, it’s dirty” said the waitress as she put it in front of me (not something you ever want someone to say to you while bringing food to your table, in my experience), although she also didn’t explain exactly what this meant. It was in the Five Guys style of presentation i.e. wrapped in foil and looking for all the world like it had been sat on. When I opened it up, I still wasn’t sure this hadn’t actually happened. It was a pretty bog-standard, fairly uninspiring cheeseburger. The patty was thin, flat and grey – thin enough that you could see why no effort had been made to cook it anything less than well done. The fried onions were tasty enough, although they lacked the true caramelised sweetness of really mouthwatering fried onions. There was lots of gooey orange processed American cheese, my favourite kind on a burger, but it just wasn’t enough to rescue it. I didn’t mind the “fresh buttermilk bun” (why HBC doesn’t call it brioche like every other restaurant I have no idea), but overall it was inoffensive and disappointing. I’ve seen dirtier episodes of Antiques Roadshow, put it that way. Oh, there was also some “jalapeno slaw” and a bit of gherkin but it looked like such an afterthought – as you can maybe tell from the picture – that I just couldn’t be bothered.
The “dirty burger” section of the menu also offers the horrors of something called “Hipster Chips” and I’m afraid this is where I do have to stop for a little rant. No, no, no, no, no. First of all, “hipster” is something other people call you, not something you call yourself (I tell you what, I’m such a hipster, me, said no one ever). And second of all, it is never, ever a term of endearment. So I didn’t order them, and I can’t tell you what chips with sriracha mayonnaise taste like, because they might as well have been called “Look What A Zany Wanker I Am Chips”. I mean, credit to HBC for calling them chips rather than fries, but it’s not enough. So instead I had some “Denver Chips”, which were topped with pulled pork, barbecue sauce and melted cheese. There was a bit of pulled pork, though not masses, a lake of enamel-strippingly sweet sauce and some curls of cheese (some of which had melted and some of which, worryingly enough, hadn’t) and underneath a poor abused pile of average chips which deserved better. I didn’t eat them all.
From the not-so-dirty menu the peanut butter and bacon burger sounded less obviously dirty but still good. Sadly it simply wasn’t dirty enough. First up the bun looked like a common or garden burger bun – pale and wan with a few sesame seeds on top. It was dry and crumbly and not at all like the sourdough bun I expected, as advertised on the walls of the restaurant (perhaps “sourdough”, like “artisan”, is just something people say to waste space on menus nowadays). But let’s not focus on the bun, let’s focus on the filling because that’s where this really disappointed. The burger was thick – oddly much thicker, it seemed, than the “dirty burger” – resolutely far from juicy, and bland. There were one or two rashers of unremarkable bacon without much salt or smoke. I was hoping for a big dollop of peanut butter on the burger, slowly melting into a savoury, nutty satay, but instead I got a minuscule smidge hidden underneath the lettuce leaf. It’s almost like they didn’t want me to be able to taste it. But never mind, because you did get lots of chilli jam. Too much, a big, sweet liquefied pool of the stuff dripping out of the side. So much of it that it really should have been called a “chilli jam and smoked bacon burger”; except of course, if it had been called that I wouldn’t have ordered it, just as I dearly wish I hadn’t ordered this.
I also had a side of chips which hadn’t been slathered with pulled pork and barbecue sauce, instead coming with rosemary and salt. This was my chance to find out what the chips were like before they got mucked around with, but again it was far from a success. They were soft and flaccid, a bit like chip shop chips that had been sitting around too long. There was loads of the salt and rosemary on them and the rosemary was lovely, but the salt was in huge rocks that you couldn’t really disperse or even eat with the chips. Much of it was left in the bowl afterwards. But then much of the chips were left, too, because they were just too squidgy and boring. That’s a damning indictment; I never leave chips. Sit me in front of a bowl of chips and I will peck away, even if I’m not hungry, and suddenly they’ll be gone. Not these.
When I saw that the menu had malted milkshakes I knew I had to have one, because I bloody love a malted shake. So I had a malted vanilla milkshake. Really, I wanted a peanut butter one, but I resisted because I am profesh and I thought double peanut butter in a single review would not be profesh (also, my dining companion was one of those oddballs who loathes the stuff). It was huge, served in one of those big tin milkshake blending glasses. There were a few discernible dots of vanilla but otherwise it mostly reminded me of the white ice cream of my youth – ah, the wonders of not-especially-Italian Gino Ginelli – not actually truly vanilla flavoured, but vanilla-esque. There wasn’t nearly enough malt for my liking but the malt was only an extra 30p so at least I didn’t feel hugely ripped off. My guest had an Erdinger weissbeer because he really fancied a beer. He didn’t finish it, because I really fancied cutting my losses and leaving.
Service throughout was actually pretty good, for what is essentially a pretty low-frills restaurant with limited table service. The young lady at the bar enthused over the peanut butter burger – it deserves to be tried, apparently – and was friendly and chatty and the other ladies bringing plates and checking up on us (then removing the clothes peg from our table number, another of those subtle ways of indicating that we had been processed) were also really nice. But, like I said, you order at the bar, you pay in advance and you have to fetch some things like soft drinks yourself, so the service can only be so good. I wonder how many people actually tip on paying, before they’ve had any service, or put money in the jar on the way out. I wonder, too, how enjoyable it must be to work in a restaurant run to this model. Dinner for two – two burgers, two chips, two drinks – came to thirty-four pounds and was done and dusted in about thirty-four minutes.
I’m not really in the target market for burgers: as I’ve said many times, they’re just a sandwich. But I can see there’s a time and a place for them, and I like to think I can tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I was puzzled, though, because I have a friend who is a huge burger connoisseur – I mean, he travels for burgers the way I travel for sushi, and then some – and last time he went to Handmade Burger Co. I heard he thought it was much improved. Well, I’m not sure how bad it was before or if I was just extremely unlucky but it’s hard to see the appeal; there’s not much in the way of charm or atmosphere, the burgers were disappointing and at that price you could do far better in the Oakford or even Five Guys (and, I’m guessing, CAU for that matter). Fifteen restaurant chains circling Reading? The news still doesn’t thrill me, but it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t do better than this.
Handmade Burger Co. – 5.3
Riverside, The Oracle Shopping Centre, RG1 2AG