Burger Bar, San Francisco

Hubert Keller’s CV is impressive. Born in Alsace, France, he started his career as a pastry chef and worked in several Michelin 3-star restaurants shadowing culinary icons like Paul Bocuse and Gaston Lenôtre. Since then, Keller–who you may wonder–bears no relation to Thomas Keller, has collected a myriad of awards including James Beard’s best chef in California and Food and Wine’s top 10 chefs in America. His charming personality also made him a celebrity chef with his own TV show on PBS and several appearances on Bravo’s Top Chef. But Keller’s claim to fame can be attributed to his 23-year tenure at Fleur de Lys, one of San Francisco’s most renowned fine dining restaurants.

When I heard Keller had opened a burger restaurant in Las Vegas I knew I had to try it. Fine-dining restaurant burgers have been around for a while; a whole restaurant dedicated to it sounded like a great idea. And that it seemed was exactly what everyone else thought. Unfortunately the 2-hour wait didn’t fit my tight schedule and I had to leave it for another time. Before I finally gave up though, I remember looking around and feeling something wasn’t right. It looked cheap, not in a good way. I blamed it on Vegas.

After several months of rumors and anticipation, Burger Bar finally opened in San Francisco. Despite the questionable location, I couldn’t wait to finally give it a try.

I put my preconceptions aside and tried to forget for a moment that I was going to dine at Macy’s–there are great restaurants in the city that have managed to keep their atmosphere independent from the monolithic buildings in which they’re housed. Luce and RN74 come to mind. Burger Bar is accessible by elevator from Macy’s main lobby, right across from the entrance to The Cheesecake Factory. No preconceptions, right? You can’t judge a restaurant by its neighbors; just remember, COI is surrounded by strip clubs.

As the elevator moved up, stopping on every floor, keeping an open mind was becoming more and more difficult. Fragrance & Beauty, Sportswear, Wedding Registry and, there it was, Burger Bar.

The design of the 235-seat dining room makes no effort to keep its privacy from the retail environment that surrounds it. A large glass wall serves as a constant reminder that the dinnerware department is right outside. Floor to ceiling windows give diners a wide view of Union Square. But other than the outside views, what you see inside is puzzling at best.

Non-descript granite tables, leatherette chairs, mahogany booths with table-level TV screens and a handful of beer brands neon signs. A hodgepodge of sports bar paraphernalia with faux casual elegance that lacks personality and style. Like a themed restaurant that hasn’t found its theme. Or simply, a sad version of TGI Friday’s. However you look at it, it looks cheap and tacky. Las-Vegas-tacky.

Perhaps one of the most glaring indications that the restaurant carries the stylistic heritage of its birthplace is the dismembered torso that proudly displays the chain’s classy merchandise. For sale, black bikini underwear with a prominent Burger Bar logo in front–perfect for using with sweatpants that say “Juicy” on the back. Again, classy.

The menu

The laminated multi-page menu is as colorful as a theme park brochure. Complete with mouth-watering pictures of burgers and the more questionable photo of Mr. Keller by his motorcycle. But unlike The Cheesecake Factory or Friday’s (both feature similar-looking menus), here the fare is focused. As the name suggests, this is a place for burgers. Burgers of all kinds.

There are 8 burgers recommended by the chef. From the simpler American classic–a plain cheeseburger ($14.50) to the famously expensive Rossini–made with Kobe beef, foie gras and truffles ($60). Substitutions on these burgers can’t be made–why would the chef’s integrity to be compromised anyway?

Diners can customize their own burgers form countless combinations of 8 meat patties and 46 accompaniments. There are toppings for all tastes, from bacon ($1.15) to black truffles ($30). Even a half lobster ($12) can be piled on for a true surf-and-turf experience; Vegas style. Your final burger cost will depend on how excited you get when placing your order but in average expect to pay between $13 and $20, not including fries. Definitely not cheap.

The meal

A chef’s burger is often distinguished by the quality of its ingredients and the care in its preparation. And that’s something that, for the most part, you won’t miss at Burger Bar. Keller’s patties are tall, meaty and juicy. Accompaniments are well prepared and nicely balanced.

Hubert Keller Burger. Made with buffalo meat, served with caramelized onions, baby spinach and blue cheese on a ciabatta bun. Keller’s namesake sandwich is noted on the menu as his favorite choice. Although I ordered mine medium and what I got was well over medium well, this is a good burger. With a nice layering of flavors and textures.

From the custom menu, Country Natural beef patty with cheddar on a sesame bun. On the side, Fleur de Lys’ Peppercorn Cream Sauce. Once again, a good burger with a nicely shaped patty but nothing extraordinaire. The best thing here is definitely the sauce.

Black-and-white shake. Served at almost room temperature, with a thick, emulsified texture and a Disneyland-like presentation, it resembles a dessert more than what you would expect from a classic American shake.

The restaurant also serves a couple of “sweet burgers” for dessert. But after an underwhelming meal and a large shake, none of them looked that appealing.

In short

Hubert Keller is a great chef and his home, San Francisco, is one of the best gastronomic destinations in the country. A city that offers outstanding restaurant burgers. Burgers that are made with high-quality ingredients and exceptional talent by also great chefs. Burger Bar is a good idea but its execution is a big let down. The cheap ambiance doesn’t help, but even if you can ignore it, for what it is, the food is overpriced. If you want to try Keller’s cuisine, go to Fleur de Lys. For the best burger in town, go to Spruce. But beware, there you won’t find branded underwear.

Burger Bar is at Macy’s Union Square
No reservations are taken for parties under 13


Cookie said...

We tried to go to this place last weekend but there was a 45min wait even at 2pm so we gave up and went to The Cheesecake Factory instead. Hopefully the crowds will die down and we can finally see what these burgers are all about!

Sydney Kania said...

I was just at the Burger Bar in Las Vegas and got the buffalo sliders and a chocolate milkshake. It was absolutely delicious, the service was great, and there was no wait (although we went at 10:30 AM to work off a hangover). My dad got the veggie burger and even that was really good!

Anonymous said...

Try the fried pickles. I know they are trendy but you will crave them in about 10 days.