How Paris Became Obsessed With the Hamburger
It's early on a Friday afternoon and Le Ruisseau, a comfy restaurant in northern Paris, is already filling up with customers. I take my seat and contemplate the menu, which features several variations of one of the city's hottest food items – the hamburger. I finally settle on the "Cheddar Burger," and by the time I leave, the joint is bustling with diners devouring burgers between sips of beer or iced tea.
It wasn't long ago that noshing a burger in a Paris restaurant was a rare activity. Sure McDonalds or, MacDo as its called here, has been around since the 1970s, and Belgian fast-food chain Quick opened its first French franchise in 1980. However, until recently, the French generally dismissed burgers as junk food items favored by teenagers, who often swarmed fast-food joints after school let out.
But now burgers are everywhere. Old-school Parisian brasseries include them on their menus alongside foie gras and steak frites, and every month it seems like a new specialty burger spot opens. Articles dedicated to the capital's best burgers have become regular fixtures in the French press, appearing everywhere from Le Figaro to Elle to Vanity Fair. According to a study by the market research firm Gira Conseil, more than 1.19 billion burgers were consumed in the country in 2015, and three quarters of restaurants in France now offer burgers on the menu.
So what is to blame for this wave of burger mania? Some Parisian food writers say a young generation with an appetite for American culture is driving the trend.
"I think it is a general fascination for all things New York," French food writer Clotilde Dusoulier told The Daily Beast. "The juice bars, the health food, the kale, the vegan and vegetarian options, and the burgers…I think in general the French are very drawn to American pop culture, and in a sense those food trends are a part of pop culture, even if it's edible culture."
Indeed, some of the city's biggest burger hotspots have Americans at the helm. Le Camion qui Fume, launched by Los Angeles-native Kristin Frederick, hit the scene as a California-style gourmet food truck before adding a brick-and-mortar restaurant. And 20 years after John Goldstein opened Coffee Parisien on Rue Princesse, the eatery has grown to include three other outposts, and regularly makes the city's "top burger" lists. The Obamac’Burger, named for the commander-in-chief, is reportedly a menu favorite.
"When the food truck started that was the first good hamburger," Paris-based American cookbook author and former pastry chef David Lebovitz told The Daily Beast. "It was such a novelty and got so much press that it became a part of everyone's vocabulary: 'le burger.'"
Bernard Boutboul, the general director of Gira Conseil, believes that the burger's smashing success in France is attributed to its having transcended its fast-food origins to seduce more refined French palates.
"The burger market is exploding because it succeeded in overcoming a major challenge: to move upmarket," Boutbould told the French food industry magazine Resto Connection last year.
According to Boutbould, the burger's status significantly changed in 2011 thanks to Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno, who launched his burger à la carte at the five-star Le Meurice hotel, and nabbed the title "best burger in the world." The ensuing buzz helped generate the burger craze, said Boutbould, and by becoming high-end it became a "respectable" food item in the eyes of the French.
Paris burgers typically come in one of two forms: either basic fast-food-style patties familiar to most Americans, or gourmet items that can include accoutrements from high-end foie gras, to locally-sourced organic blue cheese. And while a burger meal is inexpensive by Paris dining standards, prices are a bit higher than your average American patties, typically costing between €12 ($14) and €16 ($18). Le Meurice's haute cuisine hamburger comes with an astonishing €42 ($48) price tag.
Many Paris burger joints also add a French touch to their patties, including Big Fernand, a popular Right Bank nook that smothers its burgers in regional cheeses.
"In the United States there are more traditional burgers, but far fewer gourmet burgers with creative ingredients," Julien Lacheray, the founder and editor-in-chief of Paris Burger, told The Daily Beast. Lacheray launched Paris Burger in 2013, and, along with his staff, has tested and ranked some 250 burgers in the capital. Of that number, a mere eight burgers were assigned his top 5/5 ranking.
Indeed, it was Lacheray's magazine that led me to Le Ruisseau. On the hunt for a good burger in my neighborhood, I made use of the site's search feature and typed in my Arrondissement. I wasn’t disappointed, either. The burger was juicy, the bun comprised French bread made in-house, and the fries were crisp. However, as I made my way back home only to pass another burger-centric bistro, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the Parisian patty's culinary triumph could spiral into a tired, "too much of a good thing," scenario. As much as I had enjoyed my burger, my appreciation for traditional French fare is one of the reasons I like living here.
Apparently, I'm not the only one to consider this potentially negative upshot of the burger phenomenon.
"The other night my partner and I were going out to eat and we just wanted to go to a wine bar and have cheese and charcuterie, and there wasn't one," said Lebovitz. "We were walking for five or six blocks and it was all hipster places with everyone drinking beer outside and eating hamburgers."
"I just think we're oversaturated with burger places," he added.
"We don't need that many new burger places opening every month or every week," she said. "It gets kind of ridiculous at some point."
Maybe so. But the French capital's burger obsession shows no sign of slowing. Popular American chain Five Guys is set to make its French debut in the coming months, and French Burger Factory, yet another option for gourmet patties, recently opened in eastern Paris.
For better or worse, it looks like "le burger" is here to stay.