MeatLiquor occupies a dark space in the ground, near Oxford Street. The location is rumoured to have been a strip joint. Though it is now a burger joint, the tinted windows and abundant neon confirm the rumours. Walking in, it is hard to avoid the figurative (and literal) seediness of the place.
MeatLiquor’s history deserves its own article. It used to be called MeatWagon. It involved an old American Blood Wagon. It was temporary and moved from place to place. It was cheap. It changed each week to match the space it adopted. It sold very good burgers.
For whatever reason, it became a permanent restaurant. Sometime in 2011, I think. It had succeeded in everyone’s eyes, and it deserved a real home. Milo and I were very excited about it. It still sells good burgers, maybe even very good burgers, but something fundamental has changed with 2011’s establishment.
I will discuss older MeatLiquor (and MeatWagon) experiences another time. Last week, I went with the intention of a review. If possible, a vianderie deserves several stabs before tearing it limb from limb. I have eaten several dozen burgers at MeatLiquor, and now its review is overdue.
A previous encounter with MeatLiquor
Charlotte, my acerbic atmospheric assistant, has a problem with the neon. There is a lot of neon. It is very busy and a man asks if we mind sitting at a high table with benches. We oblige, but eventually move to a low table in the corner of the room. It is very dark and we have to lean in to see each other. This aids our conversation; it is also very loud. Charlotte tells me the waiters and waitresses are “sexy and young”. A waiter comes over to our table and asks for our order. I ask for a medium-rare cheeseburger. Charlotte asks for a chicken burger. The waiter asks, “Do you want it dirty?”. Charlotte wants it dirty. There aren’t many families here.
While we wait for our orders our drinks arrive. Warm cans of coke and jam jars full of ice. Overflowing with ice. This is the first of many contrivances. We talk about these as we confront them. There is novelty about the whole place. It is an obvious draw for newcomers. But by burger number three or four, the novelty has gone.
It is practical. Trays, paper towels, and young staff must all contribute to low overheads. This makes for cheaper eating in a more expensive part of London.
The food is served informally on a tray. You are given one sharp steak knife. There is a good quantity of fries. They are the skinny kind. Like the rest of the food there is no sign of how they are made. They do not appear to be hand made, and they fall far short of a bar as high as Five Guys.
You think the darkness is your ally?
You merely adopted the dark, I was born in it.
I bite into the burger. I write down MUSTARD. I write it in large capitals because the taste is completely overpowering. It takes too much away from the other flavours. The patty is slightly overdone on the edges, rarer in the middle. Overall, a little unevenly cooked. My teeth find a little gristle, but only a little.
It doesn’t feel like the meat sings. The burger is not proud of its patty, it just seems overworked and overladen. Maybe this can be said for the whole experience. Maybe that’s the thing that detracts most from an otherwise good burger. Straight up, in the light, cleanly presented it would do better. Not so much pretense. What is there to hide?
Sugar glazed bun
Pickles (three or four)
Cheese (plastic American, full marks here)
I write down MUSTARD.
The things that gave MeatWagon its name and appeal were its relocation and transience. You had to catch it in the moment. There is no fleeting spark at MeatLiquor. You know when you return that the same Gonzo-derivative-Burroughs-adoring murals will be there. Yes, the place is cool, but cool doesn’t last long. In trying as hard as it has, MeatLiquor lost sight of what made MeatWagon so special: ad hoc burgers.
The art is cool, the setting, the people - the sexy young waiters and waitresses - are all cool. I think this is its major problem. Everything about MeatLiquor is trying to be cool. The result is very little originality, obvious derivative influences, and a dramatic oversight of what brought life to the places MeatWagon inhabited. They brought great burgers to run-down, underused, and malnourished locations. They didn’t need to make those places falsely cool: the conversations, the experiences, and the very good burgers would do that naturally.
Today it is loud. The music is good. You have to lean forward to have a conversation. This adds to the intimacy, but takes away from any extra-burger experiences you might have. You are unlikely to meet new people. Everyone is pouting and pruning, angling to be seen. Actual engagement with another diner is unheard of.
MeatLiquor is cool, it tries too hard, but it also makes sense. Charlotte and I understand why it has to be like this. Milo and I understand. You will understand. It has to have a draw. It has to pull people in from Oxford Street. It masquerades as a mildly leftfield place near Soho in a fabled strip joint (many meat/sauce jokes are in poor taste here) to make it economically viable. That is what makes it so sad. I, Milo, Charlotte, and every other eater don’t want to think about that. I want to enjoy my food and my company, and MeatLiquor will not let me. I am forced to think about the place. I am forced to think about how cool it is. I am forced to think about why it is so cool. I am forced to think that, commercially speaking, it makes sense. But I do not want to be forced to consider the relative merits and demerits of the decor as a consequence of the financial meltdown. That opposes everything an independent burger restaurant stands for. Either way, MeatLiquor’s look today will need a significant overhaul in a few years so as not to appear dated.
Murals are great. Art is great. Etc. But it has to be well motivated. Intentionally trendy art burgers are bleak and depressing. As Charlotte and I leave we are genuinely uplifted. We walk out of the darkness into the blinding white sky. When you’re uplifted by the clouds of a failing English summer you know something’s amiss. I realise how hard I was trying to be cool inside the strip-joint-cum-burger-joint and how pressured the meal was.