Eating Out

American nightmare

Lisa Hilton reluctantly samples a Five Guys burger in Milan and regrets it

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Five guys is the most popular burger chain in the US. It opened a branch in central Milan in 2018, to a degree of triumphalist press: “Ecco il fast food made in USA!

The announcement says as much about the degraded state of the Italian language as the queues in Five Guys do about the deplorable condition of much of its food, but stranded on a rainy Saturday night in the Brutalist wasteland that is Piazza San Babila recently, there was nowhere else to go.

Milan is an odd place for restaurants. There are lots of mediocre to decent traditional Italian joints, but from a city which gets quite so much of a kick from positioning itself as the peninsula’s Manhattan, the offering of anything more cosmopolitan than pasta and costolette milanese is frankly pathetic.

The city might think of itself as a melting pot, but there’s nothing but polenta in the cauldron. There’s a lot of awful sushi and ’70s-era Chinese, but for food that sings of other cultures and palates, you’re better off in Bari. This has left a convenient gap for big Anglo chains like Wagamama, which make the Milanese feel touchingly sophisticated.

So, Five Guys. The group places great emphasis on the freshness of its ingredients — there are no freezers on the premises, only fridges. All the chips are hand-cut to order and you can customise your burger with a range of supposedly just-prepared sauces.

Décor is glaringly blood and bandages red and white, and operating-theatre lighting discourages lingering.

Naturally the food is disgusting. Not in the “dirty burger” so-bad-but-so-good fashion popularised by one-time hipster gaffs like Meat Liquor, just nasty. Greasy grey meat wadded in a thick sponge of industrial bun with all the visual appeal of a heavy-flow sanitary towel.

Cheese that might strictly be referred to as a “cheese food product”, even if it had never been frozen. The chips were OK. Unlike the far superior Patty and Bun, you can’t have a cocktail to cut through the slithy lard, but there are beers and unlimited refills of Coke on offer, for that crucial bloat factor.

You’d think that the burger-munching turd currently tweeting from the White House’s executive restroom might have dimmed the appeal of the US’s most exported contribution to world cuisine, but if the masses of masked youth in San Babila were anything to go by they still believe you can get a bite of the American Dream alongside your applewood-smoked bacon milkshake add-in. I’m only reviewing it because there are more than 100 branches in the UK, all serving the same menu of revolting choices available in Milan, so you can go if you like.

Actually, there’s an ulterior motive. Early in July, the food critic Jay Rayner announced on Twitter that for the foreseeable future he wouldn’t be publishing any negative reviews. Quite rightly, he observed that the hospitality industry in Britain is haemorrhaging money and jobs and that the last thing anyone needs is a critic being snotty.

William Sitwell echoed his sentiments in a Newsnight interview, though he encouraged viewers that “You can rest assured that the sharp pen of the critic will return, when the good times return.”

Far be it from me to poke a hole in such well-meant pomposity, but do these chaps really think that an iffy write-up from a middle-aged gentleman writing in a broadsheet is what’s keeping millions of restaurant owners and their staff awake of an evening at the moment? Do they still believe that a vicious adjective can any longer close a place in a week, or that a carefully-honed paean will bring the Michelin inspectors waddling? The grand old days are gone, boys. Everyone’s a reviewer now.

It’s quite sweet, really, a bit like Italian GQ claiming in its review of Five Guys that the restaurant wasn’t really up to its position in “the pulsing heart of the Milanese metropolis”.

Everyone knows that the biggest challenge to a restaurant critic is making the same routine (you go, you order, someone brings it, you eat it) sound thrilling. Superlative or execrable restaurants are a gift, because they give you something juicy to say.

Places which are mediocre, decent, quite nice, are much more challenging. But Messrs Sitwell and Rayner seem to have forgotten that the point of a restaurant review is as much (hopefully) to amuse the reader as to evaluate the restaurant.

Critics are not nearly so important as some of them seem to believe in terms of restaurants’ success or failure, but they have to be fun to read. And who doesn’t love a stinker? Spite and schadenfreude are what keep critics, if not their subjects, in business.

Positive, upbeat reviewing may be laudably intentioned, but long-term it’s about as interesting as your friends’ children’s glowing school reports. If critics don’t sharpen up their hatchets soon, they’ll write themselves out of a job. Still, I haven’t slagged off a UK restaurant, so I feel I’ve done my bit.

Eat out to help out if you can afford it, but not at Five Guys.

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