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A burger worth a detour

AA Gill is a renowned restaurant critic who writes for The Sunday Times Style magazine. Here is an example of one of his reviews…

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‘I have become an economic refugee in the land of anecdotage. A place of steepled fingers, clip-on microphones and decanters of dusty water sipped as a self-regarding libation to allow the audience a moment to titter politely at some over-sucked Werther’s Unoriginal apercu. Have you noticed that the unshaggable wonks on University Challenge always self-toast after they get a question right? Performers on podiums do the same thing.

‘This has been my week of literary festivals. I had no idea so many places had hardback aspirations. Even Wimbledon has a literary festival, for Dickens’ sake. I wouldn’t have had Wimbledon down for owning a Waterstone’s. Book festivals are a strange Lewis Carroll-ish idea. Why would you want to hear a writer talk? It’s like paying seven quid to hear a footballer sing. And the good thing about books is that they are self-explanatory. If it needs extra instruction, then it’s not a very good book. I have a theory: reality is the new virtual, live the smart download, everyone’s going back on the road. Led Zeppelin, the Dalai Lama and me. Doing it face-to-face.

‘Somewhere along the way, I asked an audience how many of them were actually reading a book at the moment. Less than a quarter raised a hand. Festivals aren’t for people who are interested in reading; they’re for people who are interested in writers. So, as I progress around the small stages and Eames chairs of trite observations and limp giggles, I come across the same names carved into the furniture of green rooms. I seem to find myself following Simon Sebag Montefiore, who, so flirtatious, squirming ladies tell me, goes down a treat.

‘There’s obviously an intolerant interest in Stalinism among the dormitory suburbs. Then there’s Roy Hattersley, Ian Hislop and Howard Jacobson, who seem to appear with prune-like regularity. We are pop-up book raconteurs, perhaps not the premier cru of authors, the fictive equivalents of easy listening in the park.

‘Personally, I like to think of myself as the spoken Peter Sarstedt, peddling a medley of my infuriatingly unforgettable hits. We are reinventing the roving troubadour. The books are incidental; we’re better as live acts. It has an ancient heritage: Homer was the Bob Dylan of his day; Dickens was as famous for his performances as his part-works.

‘In Guildford, I was interviewed by a nice chap who was a latenight live phone-in DJ on LBC, whose demeanour spoke of unrequited Samaritanism. He had a stalker who waited outside to pass on a suspicious plastic bag. “She phones up a lot,” he said, as he emptied the contents: a triangle of gorgonzola, cheese biscuits and a family pack of chocolate KitKats.

‘He rolled his eyes in an, “Oh, the things we have to endure” celebrity sort of way, carefully repacked the bag and 4put it under his chair. This is why literary festivals are never going to be the new rock’n’roll. The stalkers don’t want to have your love child, or carve a pentagram into your chest because if they read your last page backwards it would be an incantation to the devil. They just want to do your shopping. And then there’s the signing. Books are bought not to be read, but to be given.

‘“Would you make it out to Tony? He’s my son-in-law.” There is the bat-squeak inference that Tony is an uneducated oik, who spends too much time down the pub and could do with a book to keep him at home.

‘Students get them, too, though why someone who already has a reading list longer than the Yellow Pages would want a collection of Sabbath journalism is beyond me. I suppose worried parents can’t give undergraduates the same things that everyone else gives them: crabs, chlamydia, cold sores and skunk-induced psychosis. People ask for odd things to be inscribed; surprising numbers ask for something rude, so I sign “Kate Moss”. The strangest was a large and sensually explicit woman, who demanded I write: “You were fantastic last night.” What an intimate gift, I thought, and wrote: “You were fantastic last night.” Signed: AA Gill.

Her friend looked over her shoulder and muttered, “You always get them to write that.” “Yeah,” she replied enigmatically. And I imagined the bookcase at home, groaning with handwritten jiggy quotes from Sebag Montefiore, Hattersley and Jacobson, the trophies of a grand fictional groupie. I wanted to write a review from the literary festival at Woodstock, so quietly exclusive that even the people of Woodstock don’t know it’s happening.

‘Woodstock is another slum of filthy Cotswold aspiration, a huddle of genteelly doffing genuflection at the gates of Blenheim, itself the most depressing aristo loony bin in Britain. There are two places to eat in Woodstock: The Bear and The Feathers.

‘The supremely unhelpful waitress at The Bear stood in the pristinely empty dining room at 1.15pm and said they couldn’t possibly serve two of us for at least half an hour, probably longer.

‘The Feathers wasn’t allowing anybody into its dining room either, but it offered us the Bistro, an inglenook that smelt like a Turkish farting contest with apparently, but understandably, nobody working in it at all. So I bought a pork pie at a butcher’s which was excellent, though waiting to be served by the staff, who outnumbered the customers, took longer than turning your own vitals into chipolatas. ‘So instead, I’m back in London, reviewing the Butcher & Grill, a butcher’s in Battersea that also grills. It’s a good idea.

At the butcher’s, you can pick your meat and they will cook it, and you can eat it in a warehouse of a room with uncomfortable furniture while you look at paintings of meat. Why paintings of meat? Who can tell?

‘Probably for the same impulse that yacht-owners always have pictures of boats on the walls of their yachts. ‘I’ve been told this is the place with the best burger in London.

‘Hamburgers, like pizza, bloody marys and fellatio, are things that incite fierce argument about technique, authenticity and heresy. In fact, they’re all just simple constructions. The trick with burgers is not to make them posh, expensive or large. They are supposed to be cheap, hand-held mince sandwiches. The further they get from their motorway origins, the worse they are. The Blonde said her 8oz, £10.50 bacon-and-cheese burger was perfect. A perfectly perfect bacon cheeseburger. I thought mine needed a touch more fat, and that the nozzle of the mincer was too fine, but essentially, it’s a good burger, a burger worth a detour, if you’re the sort of person who makes detours for burgers.

‘And that would all be fine, and The Butcher & Grill would get a head-patting review, if the waiter who gave me the bill with the 12.5% service charge hadn’t also told me that it was used to make up the staff wages. Of all the things I talk about at literary rock concerts, the only riff that always gets a round of applause is my rant about the mean-spirited, inhospitable and underhand practice of using tips to augment lousy wages.

‘And I’m not going to give up writing about it. So, by all means, get a burger, but leave cash for the staff.’

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