A burger with a side order of smugness

A new year and a new hamburger - for is the hamburger not elemental? Is it not like the two hemispheres of the earth, seamed by
the biota? Or possibly two robust thighs, between which is pressed beefy virility?

Or, not forgetting, two pillowy breasts, equipped with a minced cleavage? Then again, can the hamburger not be conceived of as a 3-D diagram of the social structure of early-21st-century Britain? The upper bun represents the burgeoning middle class, at its apex a scattering of sesame-seed bankers, while the meat patty is the barrier to social mobility and the lower bun . . . You get the picture: add ketchup and you've got a vivid simulacrum of violent revolution.

The big burger chains are all well and good but they don't satisfy the bourgeoisie's demand for plebeian fare without the plebs in evidence (apart from the staff). Numerous outlets have stepped into this breach over the years. When I was a kid, in the early 1970s, my American mother used to take my brother and me to an upmarket hamburger joint on the Fulham Road called the Great American Disaster, where food was served on wooden trenchers and the walls were decorated with front pages of the New York Times, reporting such national traumas as the Wall Street Crash and the assassination of JFK.

Southern comfort

Wow! You couldn't get away with such a theme nowadays. For a start, there are too many disasters - you could devote an entire floor to spree shootings alone. And, in the 51st state, using the humiliations of Afghanistan, Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon blowout and so on
(let alone 9/11) as restaurant decor would probably earn you a Predator drone strike.

No, the GAD de nos jours is the largely innocuous GBK (Gourmet Burger Kitchen), started by three Kiwis who missed the hearty fare of the southern bunosphere. GBK's shtick is that all of its beef is sourced from "traceable" Aberdeen Angus herds, while all of its food is cooked to order. Fair enough. The GBK look is functionalist wood'n'tile, and if you stump up £8.70 for one of its signature Kiwiburgers (with beetroot, egg, pineapple, cheese, salad, mayo and relish), it will make a donation of 25p on your behalf which goes to help save the kiwi in Whakatane. Presumably these are the birds rather than the people, but you never know.

GBK isn't the only chain flogging such exotica as buffalo burgers and wagyu beef, but here's the real grist of the matter: is any of these upmarket burgers worth paying 100-200 per cent more for than you would for a Whopper or a Big Mac?

Sometimes, in my view, but by no means always. Take the other evening, when the youngest whelp and I had an hour to kill before some after-school event. We could've swerved into McDonald's and endured the squeech, scritch and wibble of massed teen-phoniness; the food would've been pap but the bill would've been insubstantial. Instead, we opted for a branch of GBK so small, it was like an oaken phone booth. Yes, you get a better class of fast-food diner in GBK but, my dear, the noise. There was a table of yummy mummies in gilets and jeans who, between them, had a few buggy-loads of toddlers, and the screeching, snorting and wailing were almost insupportable.

Coalition blues

Struck dumb by this, my nine-year-old signed to the waitress that he wanted a plain burger and some fries, while I requested a buffalo burger but they'd run out. I've had buffalo burgers before and, frankly, once you've bitten into these survivors of a great American extinction, you'll never return to fatty old beef. So, I ordered a chorizo salad with sweet potato, rocket, blah, blah, blah . . . Jesus! The food was OK but it wasn't £25 OK (with drinks). It would've been less than a tenner underneath the golden arches.

One foible of GBK is that, although your order is brought to you, you have to make it at the counter. This demi-service seems to result in some glitches. My bottle of Coke arrived completely flat and, when I raised this with the waitress, she was very sweet and immediately replaced it - but it was way too late for me. I'd sunk into depression, thinking to myself, "This is what 2011 is going to be all about: flat Coke sipped in pricey burger bars while the upper middle classes bray at their kids." On reflection, probably a better image of coalition Britain than the burger qua burger - or, at any rate, an upmarket one.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency