Many of my friends and relatives are vegetarians. And I respect those who, for reasons of conscience, health, or religious convictions—or perhaps paranoia about Mad Cow Disease or genetic engineering—opt not to eat animal products. I myself eat meat only occasionally and am generally content with a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and chocolate. But when it comes to hamburgers, I must confess a special weakness. I could pass up a steak without a second glance, but I can’t easily ignore a well-made burger. Hence my ongoing search for great—or at least interesting—hamburger joints. Here are a few of my current favorites.
To many people, In-N-Out is just another chain of cheap restaurants in the western U.S. To me, it’s a model of elegant simplicity. The menu contains exactly four food choices: hamburger, cheeseburger, double cheeseburger, fries. There are shakes and the usual beverage assortment—but that’s it. No salads, fish sandwiches, designer chicken pieces, or trendy desserts. Just the basics. If you have to wait in line, it isn’t because the person in front of you can’t decide what to order—and yes, you can shorten the process even further by ordering a combo.
The burgers themselves are merely average. Subjectively, though, I feel better about eating an In-N-Out burger because I know all the ingredients are fresh and unadulterated. The chain uses no freezers or microwaves. The beef is fresh; the lettuce is merely broken, not shredded to within an inch of its life; the cheese and shakes are actually made of dairy products. The potatoes used to make the fries were peeled and sliced while you were standing in line, and each burger is made to order after you order it. Every time I visit In-N-Out, there’s a long line, both inside and at the drive-through. Speaking of which: the ubiquitous two-step drive-through process—first place an order through an intercom, and then drive up to a window to retrieve your order—was In-N-Out’s invention.
The first time I saw a Fatburger restaurant in Las Vegas, I wondered how a company could get away with a name like “Fatburger.” How brazen! How politically incorrect! How delightful! I couldn’t wait to try it. Fatburgers are very tasty hamburgers—certainly the best fast food burgers I’ve tried. They’re an order of magnitude better than In-N-Out, and compared to the major chains, well…there is no comparison. Like In-N-Out, Fatburger uses never-frozen beef, real cheese, and lettuce that can be identified without using a microscope. But Fatburger uses significantly more beef—in fact, more of everything. And although it’s technically “fast food,” Fatburger cooks are clearly in no particular rush to throw your order together. It takes as long as it takes, deal with it—we’ll bring it to your table when it’s ready. In other words, there’s much more attention to detail.
As for the whole “fat” thing…the story is that in 1952, when Lovie Yancey founded Fatburger, the word “fat” was a slang term that meant, basically, “good” or sometimes, “fortunate.” That association never occurred to me on my first visit to Fatburger; I assumed they were using “fat” in the straightforward sense of “plump”—which is certainly true of their burgers—rather than “made of triglycerides,” which is less true; their beef is in fact extremely lean.
Mel’s Drive-In on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco is not only not a drive-in, there’s not even anywhere to park nearby. This is not so much of a problem at Mel’s other six locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it did give me pause. How can a place called a “drive-in” not cater to customers in cars? This required careful consideration over a burger, fries, and a malt.
For me, the quintessential diner food is the cheeseburger, which you know will be prepared with greater care (and, invariably, more beef) than at any fast-food restaurant. Mel’s is exactly what you’d expect in this regard—good food, reasonably priced. But it’s the story behind the restaurant that makes it interesting. The first Mel’s Drive-In (named after co-owner Mel Weiss) opened in San Francisco in 1947. It was hugely popular and soon became a small chain. But after a couple of decades, competition from fast-food places drove Mel’s out of business. Just before the original store was to be demolished, George Lucas discovered it, and decided to use it as the setting for his famous 1973 film “American Graffiti”—a nostalgic look at the car-centered teen culture of the 1950s, in which the drive-in restaurant played a crucial role. After filming was completed, the restaurant was torn down, but in 1985 Weiss’s son Steven decided to give Mel’s another go, this time capitalizing on the popularity of the movie. Although the chain has not yet grown to its previous peak of 11 outlets, the diners are extremely popular despite (or perhaps because of) the increased presence of nearby fast food restaurants.
Everything about Mel’s—from the food to the décor to the menus—is supposed to be an authentic reproduction of a ’50s diner (namely, the Mel’s of 50 years ago). But in fact, what you see is not so much authentic 1950s as reproductions of memorabilia from “American Graffiti,” which in turn was a reproduction of 1950s California. Everywhere you look there are posters and stills from the film. So they’re not selling the 1950s diner experience but rather the “American Graffiti” experience.
Burger Joint is a small chain of three restaurants in San Francisco at which I’ve had uniformly outstanding burger-eating experiences. I found it slightly interesting that each of the few items on the menu (burgers made of beef, chicken, or vegetable products, plus hot dogs) came with fries. You can order fries by themselves, though not a sandwich by itself. The food’s quality is excellent, but after a while, it seems a bit preachy to go on about the virtues of simple menus and fresh ingredients—I’m sure you have, by now, caught on to the fact that these are rules number one and two in Joe’s Hamburger Happiness Handbook.
But while looking at Burger Joint’s delightfully sparse menu, it suddenly hit me. At the very top of the menu were the helpful words: “all burgers served with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, red onion, & pickles.” This menu thus follows one of the most important principles of user interface design: it tells you what to expect without requiring any tedious guessing or exploration.
At most fast-food restaurants, the exact composition of the burgers is a mystery. Without toppings listed on the menu, customers wonder whether the restaurant follows an additive model or a subtractive model. In the additive model, which was once the norm at Wendy’s, the default burger (“Just give me a Double”) consists of meat and bun; to get anything else on the sandwich you have to ask for it explicitly. In the more common subtractive model, burgers come with a predetermined list of toppings, and if you don’t want one of these, you have to ask for it to be removed (“Hold the onion”). Some restaurants use a hybrid model, whereby certain toppings are supplied automatically but you can also add extras (“No tomato but add bacon”). The problem with the implicitly subtractive models is that every transaction needs to start with the customer asking, “What does that come with?” followed by a list of ingredients, a moment of decision, and a request for any desired alterations. Inefficient and annoying—and also a likely cause of customer dissatisfaction if the ritual is not performed and the final burger is not to one’s liking. So listing default toppings on the menu is a Good Thing. Fatburger also lists the default ingredients on their menu, as do many other quality burger joints. That’s now number three in my handbook.
But back to those ubiquitous fries…Burger Joint has the right idea: A great burger needs to be accompanied by great fries. The French fry is such a conceptually simple food, it astonishes me that anyone can mess it up. And yet I’ve had lots of lousy fries. It is very, very easy to make good fries. Rule four, then, is to make French fries right. By “right” I mean: Slice fresh, unpeeled potatoes. Deep fry in hot oil until crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. Sprinkle with salt. Serve immediately.
So there you have it—the ingredients of a great burger joint. Keep your menu simple. Deliver high-quality products at a reasonable price, and be kind to your customers by telling them exactly what to expect. Oh, and don’t forget the importance of a killer side dish. Hmmm…besides fast-food establishments, this crazy approach could also apply to computer manufacturers, Web sites, car companies, and most other businesses. It’s so crazy, it just might work. —Joe Kissell