Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Five Guys / Covent Garden

Returning to our hallowed pages, Mr Hazeel brings back tales of two warring factions in Covent Garden. Will one triumph over the other?

Who are they?

Everyone loves a rivalry. From X-Factor judges to The Great British Bake-off people enjoy seeing two evenly matched personalities go hammer-and-tongs at each other, hopefully with a few snide remarks thrown in as well. Earlier this year, the London burger scene (if there is such a thing) witnessed a similar situation as two American burger chains opened their first UK venues within waddling distance of one another. Both venues nabbed the headlines with pictures of long queues outside their doors as lots of Londoners wanted to get their first taste of… err… a burger. First to open was Shake Shack whose defining characteristics seemed to be a belief that ice cream was actually frozen custard and that concrete should come with toppings. As can be seen here, it got a bit of a dressing-down from the burger cognoscenti. How would the rival down the road fare?


The first thing that strikes you about Five Guys is the colour scheme – everything you can see, including the staff, is decked out in red and white, usually with a check pattern for good measure. The overall effect is to make the interior feel sterile and give you a headache at the same time. The next gimmick in evidence is a big box of free monkey nuts at the front of the queue with patrons encouraged to help themselves. The reason for the largesse is that all of Five Guys’ chips are fried in peanut oil and that customers might like to get in the mood with the original article. Despite being free and plentiful, you’re not allowed to take any out of the store. Five Guys’ website explains that this is because they’re concerned that, due to the high number of people with peanut allergies, peanuts outside the tightly controlled environment of the restaurant could cause unintended harm. However, there clearly aren't enough people with allergies that Five Guys feels the need to stop using peanut oil in their fryers…

The menu itself is pleasantly simple. You can have a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a bacon cheeseburger or a bacon burger in either regular or “little”. You can, however, have as many toppings as you like from the 15 on offer. I went for a bacon cheeseburger with a modest selection of grilled onions, ketchup, mayo and grilled mushrooms. Sides are limited to fries in either “Five Guys Style” or “Cajun” with the latter being spicy and the former being deep-fried, sliced potato. I ordered medium fries but was asked whether I might like to reconsider since “Medium is enough for two people”. I relented and went for small, the first time I’ve done so since I outgrew Happy Meals. The simplicity of the menu carries over to their serving method whereby the chips are dumped into the bottom of a large paper bag and then garnished with the burger which has been wrapped in foil. Drinks are served from large fountains which apparently allow you to choose from over 100 combinations of Coca-Cola products.

After getting myself a drink (and despite the 100 exciting possibilities I chose boring old Diet Coke) I sat down to make a start on the burger. I was glad I’d heeded the advice of the woman at the counter as the quantity of chips was really quite daunting and made me wonder why they even bothered with a large option, especially when John Prescott doesn't live in London any more. The chips themselves were quite tasty but unfortunately hadn't been blanched and were floppy, soggy lumps of starch. The burger itself was fairly substantial with two patties and a fairly generous amount of toppings. Unfortunately, the foil wrapping had prevented the moisture from the burger from escaping and meant that the bun had gone limp. Despite the foil, it had also gone rather cold.

The burger itself was, well, a burger, nothing more, nothing less. I couldn't say that it was bad, it was just unremarkable. If anything, it reminded me most of something from McDonalds. Unfortunately, this lack of noteworthiness threw into relief my biggest gripe with the place – the price. For the burger, chips and drink, I was charged the kingly sum of £14.00. That’s more than double what I would have paid at a high street chain for something that was almost exactly the same in terms of quality.


While some people think that the current fad for burger restaurants is due to consumers developing an inverse snobbery against more upmarket dining, the truth is that the margins on making and selling burgers are large enough to make a popcorn seller look twice and everyone wants to get in on the act. While a meal at Five Guys may cost less than the olives at a Michelin-starred palace, it begins to look very expensive when burgers of a similar standard are available on every British high street for less than half the price. No amount of free monkey nuts is going to change that.

The rivalry with Shake Shack is clearly well deserved - both are rubbish.


5/10 – Chilled monkey balls.

Where can I find them?
A stone's throw from Leicester Square tube (Northern and Piccadilly Lines)