The humble hamburger is to everyday food what the Volkswagen Beetle is to the motor industry: an old standby that never was all that exciting to begin with but which has become a beloved staple because of its perseverance, its pluck, and in the way that it stands in its own space in its own way, and refuses to die.
The Beetle, and the hamburger, are like the kid at the back of the school athletics field, holding their head up and battling on, despite the sniggers in the stands and the sighs of the teachers. The kid who, by just hanging in there and ignoring any jeers and jibes, ultimately earns a round of applause and some quiet respect.
Odd, then, that the burger is mimicking the Beetle’s fortunes, and that just as Volkswagen has upgraded the old 1940s family favourite, the burger in the last two years or so has become a sought-after gourmet icon with all manner of attempts afoot to try to pluck it from its also-ran status and turn it into a gourmand’s delight.
Okay, so we’re not going to paint pink and blue daisies on our hamburgers and make a peacenik sign in the sauce on the bun, but they have both become very cool 20th century items now enjoyimg a resurgence of love.
In Cape Town, a slew of burger palaces purporting to offer a grander version of the meaty treat have sprung up in recent years, from Royale and Hudsons to the Dog’s Bollocks, which I have not been able t o get to and probably never will because I never eat at 5pm, which is when the place opens, to offer a limited number of burgers until there are none left, which apparently doesn’t take very long. The place is a 7-minute walk from my house, but at 5pm I’m either working or needing a drink, not a burger.
Latest on the scene is Gibson’s Gourmet Burgers & Ribs, which is situated in surprisingly small premises in the original mall at the V&A Waterfront and is owned by Ian Halfon, who launched his St Elmo’s pizza franchise in the 1980s and went on to give us Baldduci’s and Balthazar at the Waterfront. Halfon is a reliable observer of trends at the lighter end of the restaurant business, and is a fan of the edgy New York approach to an off-the-street buzz palace. He has made it work with aplomb in various guises over the years, and I would be surprised if he doesn’t make Gibson’s work too.
The way it is put together makes it absolutely clear that he intends it to be a franchise of the kind you will soon start seeing cropping up in malls throughout the country and at casinos. Or at least that this is the plan. As those places go, this would already be in the upper echelon of those mall-based quick-bite outlets for anybody wanting a bit of style with their sustenance.
The menu ranges from a small starters selection to a whole bunch of beef burgers, designer burgers, chicken burgers and even vegetarian burgers (which kind of defeats the object really), and on to “Gibson’s export quality beef and pork spare ribs”. Then there’s wet and dry-aged beef, “supplied by Balthazar” (next door), two fish choices, two chicken dishes, and four salads. That’s pretty extensive, and parallels start to emerge with the good old Spur tradition.
Which brings us to the burger styles and sauces. Mushroom burger. The “Wharton”: that’s cheese and creamy mushroom sauce. “Vegas”: creamy pepper sauce. There’s monkeygland, smokey barbecue sauce, Hawaiian, Mexican, Manhattan (guacamole and bacon), and Wisconsin (creamy Gorgonzola). And on the table are two bottles of sauces that will look eerily familiar to any Spurburger baby.
The burger patties themselves, though, are superbly meaty, subtly seasoned, substantial, and served in a chunky seeded bun. Sauces are served in little jugs so that you can control how much or how little you’d like. Chips are good quality and served in miniature chip baskets. Mine was the Long Island, with hickory bacon, Cheddar and smokey barbecue sauce, although I also tried the Gorgonzola sauce to see what it was like. The sauces were well-made and pleasingly not gloopy.
Starters are pretty meaty too. I ordered sticky pork spare ribs (you can choose that or beef), which was sweetly sauced and a small enough portion to suit a starter although the idea of meat before more meat is not the obvious route to go.
There are also marinated chicken wings (where’ve we encountered that before?), calamari, peri-peri chicken livers, and “the famous Gibson’s onion blossom”, which is a deepfried whole onion that’s been cut to look like a big flower. But once you’ve got over thinking how pretty it looks and actually eat it, it tastes just like those onion rings you get at the Spur.
You pay R45 to R80 for your starters, most of the burgers cost R80 to R90, ribs R129 to R160 (for lamb), steaks R115 to R145 (and R99 for steak roll and chips).
The menu is a little upmarket of the Spur, but certainly not in the luxury zone, meats and sides are of a good quality, and if there is indeed a niche for this concept, as there seems to be, it may well fly.
Gibson’s Gourmet Burgers & Ribs, Victoria Wharf, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town 021 418 3660/2