He’s selling something we all really missed without knowing it: a proper hamburger.
If you haven’t been yet, you’ve read about it, or been told about MEATliquor.
It’s become synonymous with the new wave of London eating, and this widespread recognition has been hadron-collider-fast.
We’d had a few chats with co-founder Yianni on our many, many visits through the /wagon and /easy days, so when we heard that MEATliquor would be coming soon, we altercated at length about what it would be, and what we hoped it would be: a place having the hallmarks of a proper American dive bar (darkness, redness, occasionally shirty service and loud music), but in London, that served all the meticulously researched and recreated Americana of the previous MEATporiums.
The Meatwagon / Meateasy classics are there, and they are, for the most part, sublime: The Bacon Cheeseburger is an art form in itself, and a must-order on a first visit. These are take ‘em as they come, greasy, juicy, messy beasts. Likewise with the saucy, tacky chilli cheese fries, which balance the not too saucy chilli with the gloopy cheese, made in such a way that they coat the fries without making them soggy. Cheesy alchemy.
The Mac ‘n cheese has had a revamp and the new model is now saucier, and dirty-cheesier than before; exceptional. Forks will clash.
And some new dishes are stealing the limelight too, like the fried pickles, which are a tangy-crunch slap in the face, or the buffalo chicken burger which is flat-out phenomenal - like a mahoosive boneless buffalo wing, in a bun.
Timing is Everything
Consistency, or indeed the lack of it, appears to be putting first-timers off a bit (if the twittersphere is anything to go by).
We have to admit, it has happened to us too.
Our first experience of the newly added Mushroom Swiss was disappointing - the meat had not been seasoned and the mildness of the Swiss cheese and mushrooms resulted in a blandness that not even the red onions and extra pickle could save. But on second tasting a much better job had been done and it tasted pretty decent, although it’s still one of the lesser burgers in their ever increasing repertoire. A friend of B/A shared a similar experience, where a Dead Hippie was missing key ingredients.
It’s fucking long, it starts early and it’s a clear deterrent. But let’s get some perspective.
If you’ve been to San Francisco in the last few years and tried to visit any of the popular restaurants, then you’ll know first hand what queues can be. You queue for brunch, for coffee, for sandwiches, hell, even for ice cream. The same thing happens in Foursquare paradise New York City. Just take Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. It’s the new cultural barometer for good chow: if there’s a queue outside, it’s probably worth queuing for. Remember the Long Table Market in Dalston before Christmas? Yeah.
ML takes the same approach. The only genuine gripe is the setup doesn’t suit it. Were it a classic fast food joint then things would work better; more covers would be in and out and the overall atmosphere would be less flustered. The choice of it being like a dive bar, but in reality being a restaurant, makes for a culture clash that makes it neither. You can’t finish up your food and while away the evening working your way down the impressive cocktail list without feeling a bit guilty for all those queued up in the cold outside.
It doesn’t bother us too much, since we’ve always taken an ‘eat and get the hell out’ approach with ML and the #MEATEASY before it. A quick scan around the room though and you can tell that Londoners want to linger, or at least spend as much time inside as they did in the queue.
But what does it all mean?
MEATliquor is a compilation restaurant. A greatest hits.
It imitates the best of what Yianni has had in America and recreates it for London. He is the ultimate English fanboy of American food. The crusader that actually does his fucking research, goes in the kitchen and reproduces what he liked over there as best he can.
There aren’t any original dishes here. The bacon cheeseburger’s roots are from Hodad’s in San Diego (see our review). The deep fried pickles are a mainstay in diners across the West coast. The chilli burger is an interpretation of the Bobcat Burger from Bobcat Bite in New Mexico. The buffalo wings are, well, buffalo wings. There’s even talk of jalapeño poppers - another classic bar food being tested for the recently confirmed second venue, MEATmarket, in Covent Garden.
To be clear, these greasy facsimiles are No Bad Thing. In fact, it’s not been done successfully before, which is a large part of explaining their success. Every ‘American’ burger joint has been a parody run by people who don’t seem to have ever eaten a sandwich in America. And then there’s your stubbornly English burgers, doled out by the likes of Byron, Giraffe and gastropubs up and down the Northern line. But they are still stiff-upper-lipped versions of a Yankee Doodle archetype. Unlike its rivals, Meatliquor is not designed to please everyone. Yianni is a master craftsman of some of the most iconic dishes America has to offer, and judging by our experience on both sides of the pond, it’s not preposterous to say he would be considered that in America too. He’s selling something we all really missed without knowing it: a proper hamburger.
MEATmarket’s announcement confirms they’ve proven their market and can keep going from here. All of the MEATenterprises have benefited from a hyper-connected, drooling, price conscious fanbase, and their slow but sure approach to growth will stand them in good stead.
The implications for the London restaurant scene are already unfolding: the queues at Pitt Cue down the road, residencies from foodtrucks in pubs (like Lucky Chip at the Sebright Arms, or Kimchi Cult at the Rose & Crown in Walthamstow). The long-established faux diners are desperately trying to change their menus to resemble something similar (and actually authentic) so they can compete - they didn’t pull their tube socks up quickly enough. Nobody is talking about The Diner, or Ed’s Easy Diner. Byron continue to expand aggressively into every corner of London they possibly can and risk becoming the Pizza Express poster-child of burgers.
The restaurant groups must be scratching their heads still; the buzz Yianni and Scott can generate without expensive PR agencies fudging it for them must be annoying for the well-funded big guns. It’s not a big secret though: all you need is a good product.
But what of the ‘wagon?
The big difference between us and America is the upgrade path. The dream here is different. Compare the successful foodtrucks of Los Angeles and you get a different picture - they’re proud of their mobility. If anything, their strategy is more trucks in more locations. Kogi BBQ is the shining example of this. Their daily matrix of serving locations covers the entire LA Metro area. It’s quite the operation.
London is not blessed with the same mercifully laid back food trading laws. And that’s why a proper home makes sense. But we’re sad the ‘wagon has disappeared from view. Here’s hoping it reappears again this summer.
We bloody love what they’re doing. Shocker, huh? Had we the time, money and inclination, it’s exactly what we would do too. It’s having a domino effect on the quality of American food across the South East, and it’ll be interesting to see if the influence reaches beyond the M25.
The name of this very blog means we’re inherently biased, but we don’t think burgers are a trend. We’ve always loved burgers; since we were tiny, and we always will. It’s just that the good ones were something you’d only ever get on holiday. To use marketing wonk-speak, that’s the gamechanger here. Timing is everything, and Yianni continues to get his freakishly right.
MEATliquor is our version of Arnold’s - the first port of call whenever a meeting place is required anywhere in the vicinity of Central London. We’ll go there for ALL of the food, some of the food, or only for drinks - even if it means having to buy the cheapest thing on the menu to meet their have-to-order-food-to-drink license. The only bone of contention is who gets to be the Fonz…
We like it, you might not. We’ll see you in there.
- Simon & Rob.