Monday, 25 February 2013


          Byron is a small chain of burger restaurants, with all but 2 of their 30 or so sites located in London. This is not at all surprising given the fondness for burgers that the capital has acquired in recent years. But if we look a bit deeper we can see a group of restaurants innovating not imitating, appealing to a wide range of areas and demographics, and very possibly being the most reliable restaurant group in the city.
        When Byron started (around 5 years ago) the demand for burgers was already growing, with chains like GBK et al offering affordable meals at a step up in quality from the real fast food giants. We have since moved to a state of affairs in which burgers are deified in a seemingly endless parade of individual restaurants that have legions of dogmatic followers across the social media landscape. Byron is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, and has remained largely unmoved in its approach since its inception.   
            The food is good – a minimum requirement, and one which is easily met. The burgers are cooked to an attractive pink medium, seasoned well, and are unfussy in their style and toppings. The Scottish meat is allowed to shine without an overload of sauces or eclectic additions; the pickle is even served on the side. Fries can be fat, thin or courgette, the traditional options both very good and the courgette surprisingly delightful. Salads, veggie burgers and a few sides mean that you can come here with boring people and they won’t be massively short changed. Deserts are heavy on American nostalgia and pleasingly bad for you, but even better is the ridiculously good Oreo cookie milkshake, which is embarrassing for an adult to order but well worth it. Things are kept interesting with a fairly regular roster of specials – recent ones have included the self-explanatory Triple Cheesemas and the cheddar and pickled onion topped Mo burger. It is fairly safe to say that Byron does not produce the best burgers in town (they cannot compete with  the more fetishist elements of the restaurant trade), and the menu is lacking in deep-fried-stuff-with sauce-and-cheese wow factor, but in terms of quality, consistency and price there are few that can match them.

The attention to detail in the food is matched with their drinks list, which is short and accurate. Drinking wine with burgers is frankly idiotic (unless you are Miles in Sideways in which case it’s funny) but if you must, Byron have helpfully split the few they have into categories of ‘Good, Better, Great, Best’. There is also some decent bourbon which makes a lot of sense, but it is the beer list which needs to beer good here, and it is. The second most appropriate drink to have with burgers (after Coca Cola), beer is given the correct amount of thought here; there is some washing-it-down lager for good measure, but also some really good craft selections from home and abroad. The USA has a lot to contribute in the beer and burger stakes, and some real classics are currently available like Bear Republic Racer 5, Sierra Nevada Pale and Brooklyn Lager. Some excellent stuff for the UK is provided by Kernel, Camden Town and Brewdog, and they even have their own hoppy and fresh house ale, Byron Pale (brewed by Camden Town). This list is considered and then changed fairly regularly to keep things exciting, showing their dedication to good beer. The only disappointment is the lack of draft options, as both cost and freshness can be a concern with bottled beer.
       Often with chains (even small ones) the downside is conformity of style and environment that makes them dull and devoid of character and a sense of place. This trap is avoided by Byron, as the individual restaurants have their own personality and a sense of where they are – the Soho branch is small and eclectic, Camden is cool and functional, and Kings Road a bit more formal. Even the shopping centre locations are bearable. However they do share a common trait – most are bright, welcoming, comfortable and pleasant – which are not often words used to describe the new brigade of trendy gourmet fast food joints.
        The concept of a restaurant group that focuses on serving basic, affordable food with a good drinks list in comfortable surroundings may sound a touch dull for the modern London diner. And it can be said that these places are not revolutionary, nor are they world beating. Yet while the focus remains on quality over convenience, and food designed to be enjoyed not instagrammed, Byron’s popularity will continue to grow, not just amonst the young but across all social and economic groups. Chains tend to have a bad reputation because there are simply so many bad examples out there, but here is at least one exception that proves the rule.  

Friday, 15 February 2013

New Breweries Making Good Beer

      Although not all of the recent brewery openings in London have yielded fabulous beer, many were at least decent starts and something on which to hopefully improve over time. Many will go on to brew great beer and though the interim period may provide the public with a few duds, perhaps this is a small price to pay for such growth in the capital’s brewing landscape. However, when new breweries are able to create good beers at the first attempt, this is properly exciting. In the recent past we have seen that new ventures that instantly produce great stuff can go on to become some of the big names in British brewing – Magic Rock being a prime example.
         One such place to make a good first impression is Rocky Head, based in South West London, with their imaginatively named ‘Pale Ale’. This is a relative rarity in bars and shops at the moment but if you find it is certainly worth a go. It looks great - an appetising shade of orangey gold, with a frothy head, and the aroma is punchy and fresh, full of marmalade and burnt lemon tart, with an interesting note of tomato vine. There is also plenty to enjoy on the palate; a pretty brutal, heady whack of alcohol, a long dry rasping bitterness and chewy tomato and marmalade which offers a touch of sweetness. It may be a little unrefined – the alcohol is dominant, the hops are subdued giving the beer loads of bitterness without a lot of complexity or fresh hop character, and it’s a bit too dry. But this is still an impressive debut, for its ambition, flavour and lack of brewing faults.   

         Even better though, are some pale ales from Bermondsey. Partizan beers are still quite difficult to find (unless you visit the brewery on a Saturday) but give it a few months and they will be everywhere. The combination of cool looking bottles and the use of in-vogue hops will get you some attention, but you can only keep it with quality beer, and judging by their early efforts there will be a steady stream of it. A Citra, Pacific Jade and Cascade pale ale at 5.1% was incredibly clean, with plenty of hop character and a pleasing bitterness, all delivered through a light, nicely carbonated body that gave the beer real crispness. A Cascade and Wakatu hopped 6.1% pale ale was bigger and better, with the warmth of the alcohol providing a more interesting foil to the bitterness. A strong malt backbone that delivered biscuits and dry toast to the palate was balanced nicely by a long bitter finish and lemony, grassy hops. The body was too thin for the bitterness and the alcohol, but it is a minor error in a very decent beer. For their sake and ours, let’s hope these clever new breweries don’t get second album syndrome. If they don’t, they can look forward to plenty of our money over the coming years.