Sunday, 18 April 2010

Byron At The Intrepid Fox, Soho

When Lord Byron - poet, aristocrat, traveller, soldier and politician - died in 1824, his contemporary at Cambridge and lifelong intimate Lord Hobhouse said of him that "No man lived who had such devoted friends." Judging by the praise lavished upon it by critics, bloggers and particularly the Twitterati, it would seem that his namesake chain of upscale burger bars inspires similar heights of fidelity. The enthusiasm generated by this relative newcomer to the ever-expanding gourmet burger market has been almost as frenzied as the 19th century public's reception of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage; burger afficionados go no more a-roving in search of their beef-patty-'n'-bun fix.

And yet, despite my usually being a sucker for good word-of-mouth, until this week I'd not been in the least bit tempted to go, for the very simple reason that I just don't give a toss about burgers. Not that I don't like them - I do, very much, and my home-made ones are my fiancé's very favourite meal - but they're just not something I feel able to muster any excitement for or especial interest in. Sure, I care if I get served a really bad one - burned, or cold, or in a stale bun say - and can appreciate a good one, but beyond that I'm really not greatly fussed about the beef used, or what cheese goes in it, and certainly couldn't fail to be less concerned about whether or not there are seeds on the bun.

Someone however who could and does care, very much, about such things is my friend Frankie, who I meet up with every few months for drinks, dinner and general merriment. Frankie loves a good burger (and indeed has very definite ideas about what distinguishes a good burger from a great one), so when it came to choosing somewhere for our latest nosh-up, and given that our main criteria were somewhere central, informal and cheap and cheerful, Byron sprang quickly to mind from some deep recess of my remembering.

The West End outpost of the six-strong chain takes its extended name from the pub which used to occupy the site, and which was known to taxi drivers and locals alike as 'that Goth pub' after its black-clad, white-complexioned clientele.Why the name of the pub has been retained is anybody's guess, the interior having been so completely reinterpreted as to erase any vestiges of its previous incarnation. The result is a very agreeable space with its exposed brick walls, low-hanging lights and Eames-ish furniture.

When we arrived at about 8.30 almost every table was taken; I didn't like the one we were shown to but within a few minutes of being settled at another (which I did like) we were told that it was needed for a group and asked if we would move downstairs. The sourness of my expression as we gathered our belongings must have spoken volumes, as we were offered free drinks as a sweetener; the prospect of free booze completely mitigated our annoyance.

As it transpired, the downstairs room was, we both agreed, actually the nicer of the two rooms, its white tiling, neon signs and modern, sculpted plastic furniture creating an atmosphere of part-Bond villain's lair, part-Berlin nightclub. The effect was spoiled slightly by its also being used partly as a store-room; stacks of trays of pop are not the most attractive sight. A very attractive sight however was our charming young waiter who was attentive, friendly and efficient, and knowledgeable and passionate about the Byron concept without being at all preachy.

The concept is, as it happens, remarkably simple and unpretentious consisting of just five points: burgers will be good beef, from small (Morayshire) farms, freshly made, cooked medium and served in proper buns. We both ordered the Byron Burger ('dry cure bacon, mature Cheddar, Byron sauce') and a portion each of French fries and courgette fries. Other options include chicken and veggie burgers and a few salads. There's also a selection of desserts but no starters - at all - unless you count 'proper olives ' (as opposed to what, I wondered? 'Pretend' olives? Parvenu olives?) or tortilla chips, which I don't.

Depending on which one of us you ask - and as it's me writing this review, which rather limits your options, I reproduce Frankie's opinion here too - we enjoyed either 'a very nice burger served simply without being three-feet high and held together with a skewer like in some places' or 'a really fantastic burger, 5 out of 5 for everything, absolutely delicious'. No prizes for guessing which of those accounts is Frankie's.  He loved the bun, commenting on its softness and freshness, whereas I just noticed that they were nice and flat and didn't need squashing or cutting. He liked the tasty cheese and crispy bacon, and noticed the crunch of the lettuce and thick-but-not-too-thick slice of tomato; my assessment was less forensic, focusing more on the (admittedly very palatable) whole rather than appraising the composite parts.

Most importantly, my gourmet guest was very impressed by the excellent meat (a blend we were told of chuck, skirt and brisket, which I thought sounded rather like a 60s California boy-band) and how perfectly it was cooked - it was, as promised, cooked medium, beautifully pink, moist and oozing. Neither of us could detect any discernible flavour to the Byron sauce - vaguely tarragon-y, and were those chopped capers I could see? - but it was perfectly pleasant, as was the tangy quarter-gherkin served with each burger.

The fries both French and courgette were good; crispy, hot and abundant if in the case of the courgette fries a little on the oily side. We drank a very nice bottle of South African Chenin Blanc, from a list which offers a choice of 'Good', 'Better', 'Great' and 'Best' at prices ranging from £13.50 to £21.00. There's also a lengthy selection of soft drinks, shakes and beers and ciders.

So, the dinner and the soiree too were done, and the bill - less our side orders, rather than drinks, by way of apology for the earlier table-changing nonsense, plus a coffee and including a definitely well-earned 12.5% service - came to a very fair £18 each. It had been a very enjoyable meal, and was just part of a long boozy evening which began with cocktails at Quintessentially Soho and ended with karaoke in a tacky-but-favourite gay bar. The notoriously high-living Byron himself would probably have liked to have come along for the ride. I'm still no greater a fan of burgers than I was before, and there was certainly no Damascene conversion as one fellow blogger had suggested there might be, but based on my wholly enjoyable experience I'll happily be recommending Byron to my, I hope devoted, friends.

Byron At The Intrepid Fox, 97-99 Wardour Street, London W1F 0UD Tel: 020 7297 9390

Byron on Urbanspoon


  1. Byron Hamburgers kindly contacted me via Twitter to clarify about the name: "We kept the Intrepid Fox name to retain something of a famous Soho landmark. Also makes it easy for people to find us!"

  2. Turncoat thee! Turncoat I say!

  3. "Chuck, skirt and brisket" - ha! It's true - it sounds like you like burgers now ...

    Btw, meant to say - your blog design is looking really gorgeous!

  4. Wonderful post Señor. Still not 100% convinced. . .

  5. So now I've read the whole review I appreciate your begrudgedness (is that a word?) but you've been somewhat hoisted by your own petard...for if we are on the same page, which I think we are, then the point was that, however good this burger might be, it still is just a burger, and I fear your review adds further to the Byron legend.

    When I first went for lunch I was greeted/blindsided by Tom who runs the show. An incredibly nice guy, he'd been following the twitter anti-burger-eulogising and professed to agree entirely with our viewpoint - very good it might be (and is!) but it's still only a burger.

    Brooklyn Lager on the other there's a beer.

  6. 'Hoisted by my own petard' eh, gosh first Lord Byron (did you spot the cunningly concealed paraphrasings readers? Well did you?) and now Shakespeare, what a literary feast this is turning out to be! Thanks for sharing Tom's view James; I think that has to be taken as the definitive view on the subject!

  7. They do a great vanilla malt milkshake. I like milkshakes!

  8. I've heard a rumour that *your* milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, Mr White!


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