D.C.'s burger restaurant craze: Haven't we had enough?
But City Paper food critic Chris Shott believes there’s yet more room in the marketplace. “As pervasive as these places are on paper,” he says, “there are still pockets that could use a good burger joint.” He identifies Union Station as one such lacuna, rightfully dismissing the presence of McDonald's and Johnny Rockets.
Shott admits to a bias toward a good burger. “To be perfectly honest, the burger is one of the reasons I failed previously to convert to being a vegetarian,” he explains. “Just the smell of the meat on the grill proved impossible to resist.”
That’s an American sentiment, to be sure. But ours is a country of innovation and immigration, too. Washingtonian food critic Todd Kliman says high rents in the District make it nearly impossible for residents to get compelling ethnic food — meals that hit the same price point as most burgers.
“To make it in the city, you need to have a lot of capital behind you — either a hotel restaurant, or a big name behind the place and investors with deep pockets, or a high-turnover place like a burger joint,” he says.
Hence Ozersky’s “inevitability” of the hamburger. With our scuffling economic recovery, restaurateurs are hesitant to take risks. “A high-end burger place — that combination sounds ridiculous — is still a streamlined operation,” Kliman says. “Not to say that there’s no care or imagination, if there are some interesting touches. But it’s attractive to a chef looking to make money.” He laments that even talented chefs — “people with classical training and years of apprenticing” — have turned to burgers and French fries.
Spike Mendelsohn, the former Top Chef contestant who opened Good Stuff Eatery in 2008, doesn’t share Kliman’s cynicism.
"I think the appeal of a burger is that it’s comfort food,” he told me in an email. “I imagine that it would be hard to find a chef or restaurateur who doesn’t love burgers.”
No one seems willing to pin the blame on us, the consumers. We follow the blog chatter, wait in line at high-profile openings, and tweet about restaurants’ tone-deaf gimmicks. And we’re the ones eating all that ground beef. Maybe it’s the economy — we can’t eat at Zaytinya every night, after all — and our enduring desire for something familiar, ideally with a twist that makes the age-old burger seem new again.
So maybe it's time we embraced our status. Washington: first in war, first in peace, and first in its hunger for hamburgers.
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