London's American Burger Battle

Two American burger chains, Shake Shack and Five Guys, opened their first locations in Europe to much fanfare. But the reviews from the British are in, and they’re dismal.

07.30.13 8:45 AM ET

Two of America’s favorite burger joints have opened up in Europe for the first time. After much hype and fanfare, the London reviews are in, and most of them are awful.

For those of us who’ve gone weak at the knees for Five Guys’ Cajun fries in Washington D.C., and braved the Shake Shack line for a Hopscotch concrete in Madison Square Park, the disappointment feels closer to betrayal. How could this transatlantic transfer have gone so wrong?

Excited by America’s adoration for the cult cheeseburgers, restaurant critics, foodies and early-adopters rushed to Covent Garden in Central London, where Shake Shack and Five Guys opened their doors in July less than 500 yards apart. Sadly, the Independent newspaper seemed to capture the prevailing mood: “This is a big, greasy bag of disappointment.”

Some went further, comparing the burgers unfavorably to Burger King or McDonald’s. “At least those two titans of takeaway have the nous to price themselves according to worth,” wrote Tom Parker Bowles, on Mail Online. “I leave with a heavy heart. Because something’s been lost in translation.”

And it wasn’t just the stuffy critics who turned their thumbs down. Online reviews were mixed but some of the amateur eaters on Yelp and Urbanspoon were just as damning. “What a let down, £8 [$12] for a greasy, limp, fatty mess,” declared Andy Copping after a trip to Five Guys.

Perhaps these new arrivals were merely the victims of expectation mismanagement. Undeterred by the rank reviews, The Daily Beast embarked on a mission of mercy. The line stretching from the Five Guys front door offered reasons to believe word-of-mouth had been kinder on the Virginia-based chain. Once inside, however, it was clear that the ostentatiously roped-off line was entirely unnecessary; a modest group waited to place their order while seats at the tables out back were plentiful.

Occupying pride of place by the entrance was a beaming review, albeit not of this location. It had been published by the Washington Times—in 1994.  It may have been wise to journey 3,500 miles, and almost two decades since the most recent Guardian review concluded: “Grayish patties. Cheap-tasting with a weird boiled quality. Blee…. One star.”

WASHINGTON - MAY 29:  (AFP OUT) US President Barack Obama orders lunch at a "Five Guys" burgers and fries restaurant May 29, 2009 in Washington, DC.  President Obama traveled with his motorcade to the burger restaurant in Southeast Washington.  (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Barack Obama

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

At least Five Guys has President Obama on its side.

Was Mollie Catalano, the director of communications at Five Guys, surprised that the restaurant critics were so hostile? “No. We have our niche,” she told me. “There’s been some negative ones and there’s been some positive ones.”

Once I’d unwrapped a mushy, tasteless burger—unrecognizable from those on sale in the US—it was hard to see how anyone could have looked kindly on this import. Jonathan Rosenfeld, a London travel executive, who was sitting at the next table, was appalled at the £8 [$12] cheeseburgers. “This is obscenely priced,” he said. “It is supposed to be a posh McDonald’s but it’s just like McDonald’s in here.”

Five Guys said they have tried to keep the burger as similar as possible to those on sale in America, but the Irish beef used here has failed to replicate the flavor. One member of staff admitted that it had been “a logistical nightmare” to find the right suppliers, although dozens of superior British hamburger joints seem to have managed the feat.

A short walk away, occupying another prime slice of London real estate, stands the newest branch of New York’s burger chain, Shake Shack. A week after opening one in Turkey, Danny Meyer’s brand landed in the U.K. in July. “I hope we’re not too late to the game,” he confessed to the London Evening Standard.

Unfortunately for Meyer, he is a decade too late. Unlike the sub-par Five Guys, there is nothing wrong with the burgers being served in the glass-covered Covent Garden plaza, it’s just that there is nothing exceptional about them in a city crammed with luxury burger chains.

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When the old-school green buzzer goes off, the burgers arrive looking good but they don’t quite match those at the U.S. Shake Shacks. Each potato roll is shipped in from the United States so the difference must be in the blend of beef, which has been sourced from grass-fed Scottish cattle but somehow fails to emulate the trademark taste. The patty in my SmokeShack struggled desperately to stand out from its dressing.

The Independent was certainly not impressed. “The overall effect of the Shake Shack cheeseburger—of salt and grease and yielding mushiness—sets all the pleasure receptors buzzing. But it’s Pavlovian; the flavour never arrives,” wrote Tracey MacLeod.

If this restaurant had opened in 2003, the reviews would have been far kinder but the growth of Gourmet Burger Kitchen, and its many imitators including Byron, means most cities in Britain already have one or two branches of a burger chain that uses high quality meat or organic produce. Alex Palma, one of the Americans helping to launch Shake Shack in London, accepted that there was much fiercer competition when it came to high-end chains. “You guys should be proud of the standard of food over here,” he said.

Despite the long waits, most Shake Shack customers were happy enough with their burgers, although they are far more expensive than their New York cousins, between $11.50 and $13.80 for a double burger. At that price people said they expected more. “I think the buzz is going to die out,” said Shushmita Sen, 25, who works in a drugstore in London. “GBK and Byron are far better.”

For at least one customer, the Shake Shack hype was worthwhile. Writing in the London Evening Standard, Grace Dent was effusive: “It was the best burger I’ve ever eaten. Damn these burger wizards!”  It may be at least two decades before someone utters that phrase in the London branch of Five Guys.