Where were you when you first heard about the Meat Wagon? I was here, in front of my computer, and reading Cheese & Biscuits. It was May 2010, pre-van theft, pre-Meateasy and at a time when the gales of hype were just an area of high pressure somewhere far away.
A few months later I got to try the actual thing at a Dalston pop-up (believe) and joined the cult. And so when a tweet went out two days before #MEATiquor (as it’s known to its weak-kneed, slavish followers) opened, reading “hungry carnivores might find themselves in luck if they pop down tonight”, I was there.
Forty five minutes after they opened the doors and their dark den of flesh and booze was a hive of status updates, phone photography and furtive twittering. I’ll get my food blaggger’s contractual obligation out of the way now:
Meat Liquor is utterly amazing / worthy of the hype / the best burger place in London (delete according to your propensity for hysteria). My first visit involved their bacon cheeseburger, that now iconic blend of ground chuck steak, charred piggy, French’s mustard and of course that brilliantly bland America cheese fused into the whole thing by the steam of a cheeky squirt of water onto the hotplate at the last minute, and some headband-sized onion rings piled into a little volcano of battered joy. Add a double absinthe Memphis Steamer to wash it all down while the Yardbirds, Blue Oyster Cult and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins yell into the gloom and you have one hell of a place to get your burger and booze on and kick-start your evening.
A second visit saw a static queue that sent me packing so you’ll have to rely on others for more. Food Stories gives the history and a decent review while Cheese And Biscuits probably knows their wares the best. Hamburger Me is pretty comprehensive too, while Burgerac’s the best on the decor, a “dark, clandestine and rebellious” place according to The Perfect Trough where, in the words of Spoonfed, you can try their “slutty” burgers in a “dive bar slaughterhouse“.
The most startling thing about Meat Liquor, though, is the sheer scale of its popularity. There’s been buzzy openings before (Russell Norman’s revered quartet of Polpo, Polpetto, Da Polpo and Spuntino and the Hawksmoor three spring to mind), but this is something else. Forget talked-about, Meat Liquor has been bellowed about from every rooftop and smart phone in the city; I don’t seem to know a single person that hasn’t eaten there when it was their little secret unknown baby, DJ’ed at a party there, worked with the designer or delivered Yianni’s post back in the ‘90s.
This one’s transcended food geek speak. The Evening Standard’s been, Time Out’s made a video with the owners, and even that guy at work who thinks the Gourmet Burger Company represents the sharp end of London’s gastro-scene has knocked back a couple of Dead Hippies. For many Londoners, 11/11/11 wasn’t Remembrance Day or Black Sabbath Friday or fun for binary nerds, it was the day Meat Liquor saved the city. Queues after 5.30pm move slower than the cogs in Tram Lady’s bigoted head.
The hysteria tells us three things: Meat Liquor is a restaurant of rare quality, serving arguably a top five burger for the capital at a recession-friendly price in an effortlessly cool room backed with inventive cocktails and an insouciant charm; Londoners love being there first – they just can’t help themselves; there’s a dearth of similar places elsewhere.
It’s the last one that’s most worrying. Why is Meat Liquor such an unusual beast? Burgerac proves on a weekly basis that good burgers aren’t that rare (although the best are cooked semi-rare), great places to drink are ten a penny if you look hard enough and London has more than its fair share of thoughtfully-designed spaces. Somewhere that combines all of the above, though? That’s harder to find.
Surely there’s plenty of keen food enthusiasts and budding chefs with good taste in music and decor, and a similar understanding that popularity through fairly-priced quality will make you as much money in the long wrong as overcharging for crap. So what’s holding them back? The initial funding? The risks?
Hopefully the fervid devotion shown by Meat Liquor’s endless queues and platoons of unpaid promoters will show anyone thinking about giving it a go that the rewards can be handsome. This place is great, but we could do with a few more of them.
Why do you think Meat Liquor is so rare / popular? Have you been? How long would you wait?