One day we look back at the Burger Bar Wars of 2010-2011 and think, “Really, why did we get so excited?” Granted, I have only been to two of the combatants in this fight, but they’re arguably the champions thus far: Brgr and, now, Burgatory Bar. In regards to a comparison between the two restaurants and the burger trend in general, I have two things to admit:
1) Honestly, I’d love to come down on one side or the other, but Brgr and Burgatory are about even when it comes to overall experience. Both have definite advantages on their competition, but when you tally up the highs and lows… it’s a draw.
2) How to put this… I don’t get the burger trend. I get having burgers. I get having places that specialize in burgers. I understand the appeal of having a focus that takes a very specific, beloved food item and experiments with it or classes it up. But why are people going so apeshit about these places? A good burger is not hard to find in any place whose culinary landscape is at least defined enough to have two or three quality diners (and that category basically includes every inhabited area of the USA). An inventive, classy burger isn’t even that difficult to find. But because these places are putting the burger out front, in the spotlight, and making a grand display of how creative they can be with this institution, suddenly we’re all about burgers.
Eateries specializing in a very specific food item are often right ahead or right in line with trends. Think cupcake bakeries, or donuts, or crepes. Maybe the burger thing confuses me because there have always been places that specialize in burgers – namely, most establishments that have mainstream American/diner food – and this trend is just attempting to create a classy culture around something that at its best is classless.
But you didn’t look at this to read pages of pontification on the socioeconomic implications of the “burger bar” idea. Despite my reservations on the whole topic, I was more than willing to give Burgatory a try, especially since my roommate was so keen.
Burgatory’s location shares a similar juxtaposed feel that Brgr has – place kind of wedged into a central spot between other notables. Instead of a hot corner of East Liberty, Burgatory is tucked into a little corner of the Waterworks Mall, at the far end by the Barnes and Noble and immediately proceeding Uncle Sam’s Subs.
The interior is an industrial chic. Steel, a bit of wood and leather, and lighting that veers between atmospheric and “garage workshop.” If it’s a look that’s more accessible to a wider demographic than Brgr’s, it also comes off less comfortably stylish. Its styled elements are hit and miss. The rectangular bar in the center of the restaurant is well placed and cleanly divides the restaurant into halves without completely closing off either space. The booth seating is wide and comfy, with tall booth backs to create little environments unto themselves, but the table seating, with its hard, constraining chairs, misses on the comfort level.
The standout feature of Burgatory, as opposed to Brgr, is the ability for visitors to deviate from the pre-designed burger selections and invent their own burger creation. They offer some pretty interesting choices for a make-your-own, including a diverse patty selection that includes natural beef, jerk chicken, bison, and a veggie burger. Some of the selections are free with the custom option and some cost up to a dollar extra. Going simple and sticking to the free choices will keep you under ten, but an extravagant design could run you past fifteen. With all the choices, its tempting to go to the extreme.
The custom option is convenient for both those who are extremely picky and those who long to try something really different. The only problem is that if you would like to add anything to a pre-designed burger, it falls under the customized option.
As my roommate found out when he ordered the Standard Deluxe, a basic cheeseburger with lettuce, onion, and tomato, but found that adding bacon required utilizing the handy customizing forms found in the centerpiece of our table setting. For just one change, he had to fill out the form. When ordering dinner starts to feel like filling out forms at the State License Office, you’ve got a system in need of fine tuning.
It is hard to argue against the burger itself, however. It was a well prepared medium well, very moist and flavorful, and was further accented by the slightly tangy house burger sauce. The extra effort in ordering the bacon on top paid off in two thick slices of crispy bacon. The bun was tasty too, soft and fresh.
The burgers come with a mix of homemade sweet and russet potato chips, but Adam chose to replace them with french fries. The shoestring fries were crispy but fairly unsubstantial and were over-seasoned to the point of dehydration. On a thicker fry, the same coating of seasoning would have been a welcome counterpart to the neutral potato beneath the crispy skin. As they were, it was just too much salt for something so slight.
As for my selection, my feelings run completely opposite to my opinion on Adam’s choice. I stuck with the homemade potato chips and we both agreed that they were the best thing we had in the entire meal. They were crispy, a little soft in places from the oil, and seasoned just enough to pop the natural flavors of the potato but not so much as to exhaust the senses with sodium.
The burger, on the other hand, was a disappointment. I went with a pre-designed selection, Phat Patti’s Veggie, a homemade veggie burger made with cremini mushrooms, lentils, and cashews, and topped by tomato, arugula, smoked Gouda, and the intriguing avocado-wasabi. The whole wheat bun was fresh and hearty without being too dry, and the toppings were of good quality, but the veggie patty was lacking in flavor and solid structure. Instead of a nice, firm burger-like patty, it was crumbly and soft, like a crab cake, which wouldn’t have been the worst thing if the patty had any real flavor, which it didn’t. The toppings did a fair job of dressing up the affair, but without them, the veggie burger would have been a bust. Despite containing “about a million secret ingredients” (as stated on the menu), the burger didn’t showcase any flavor beyond an earthy blandness.
We were pretty full and should have walked away then, but the call of milkshakes was too great. I had been so taken with the booze shakes at Brgr and so underwhelmed with my just-consumed burger, that I felt that I owed Burgatory another comparison. I went for the Monkey Business: Basically Bananas Foster in shake form, with dark rum and banana liquor, topped with a minor mountain of whipped cream and banana chips.
It was delicious, but very, very boozy. Adam couldn’t take the alcohol content, but I could stomach it, at least until I became overfilled to the point of mild queasiness.
I was intrigued by the booze-less shake option Milk & Cereal, so lucky for me, I got to try a few sips when Adam ordered it as his post-dinner dessert mistake (a mistake in that we should not have continued to put stuff in our bodies, not in that the shake itself was bad). The idea made perfect sense to me, as it would for anyone who had dared to top their dish of vanilla ice cream with Fruit Loops. Again, the shake was delicious, and it tasted as much of fruity kids’ cereal as it did of in-house hand-turned vanilla bean ice cream.
Burgatory boasts a lot of positive qualities, chief among them its location in a rather chain-swamped area. Our service was friendly and accommodating, and the price was mostly on par with its competition. I wished the lighting had been more neutral and the seating a bit more comfortable, but the atmosphere inside was fairly pleasant. I preferred the style at Brgr more, simply because it seemed both more put together and more comfortable (rare in a lounge-like atmosphere like that one, but it is a nice design), but I can see how Burgatory would attract a wider demographic that might get scared off by too much sheen and seeming poshness.
I think the two establishments have a lot they could learn from one another. Brgr could use a slightly looser hand with its menu, and Burgatory could use a little tweaking with its own. They offer a fair amount of the same things at about the same price, so their difference really comes down to approach. Brgr is attempting to uplift the burger, while Burgatory is… well, I’m not really sure. Highlighting it, maybe? Celebrating it?
I’m not sure when I’d make a point to get back there, but I recommend giving Burgatory Bar a try next time you’re in or near the Waterworks Mall. It might not exactly beat its competition in the trendy burger bar war, but it’s sure as hell a better option than the chain restaurants that fill out the majority of the area dining options.