I knew before I entered that I would love it. So many hushed whispers of a secret place, an in-the-know restaurant unceremoniously dumped in the car park of a North London branch of LA Fitness. An insalubrious entrance hidden beneath a steel fire escape.
I entered with the same level of expectation and thrill as descending the stairs into a newly opened speakeasy. Yanking open the stiff iron fire escape door you come out into a small room. One central table, authentically strewn with copies of the bastion of the objectification of women, The Sun, and a bottle of HP sauce. Industrial stools are screwed to the floor and a wooden shelf runs around the perimeter. The toilet is in Pizza East, outside, in the cold, around the corner.
Inside it is horrible. Except that it’s not. And I don’t really understand why. Dirty Burger is housed in a corrugated iron lean-to. Literally, a lean-to. It overlooks the car park. It is heated ineffectively by volcanic red overhead lights. It shouldn’t work. It just shouldn’t. But it does.
The menu is as pared back as it can be: cheeseburger, fries, onion fries. That’s it. Nothing else. To drink: milkshake, beer in cans, coke, lemonade. Nothing else. The milkshake was, delightfully, more or less just melted chocolate ice cream. The burger isn’t posh. It’s not all big and Byrony. It’s small and greasy and riddled with a ketchupy-mustardy goo. The squashed brioche is soft and chewy. Inside is one slice of gherkin. Just one. And one slice of plastic cheese. It’s probably what the first MacDonald’s burger tasted like. No frills, no pretention. Just a burger. But one of the best I’ve tasted.
As your eyes gaze around you start to realise that it is rather nice really. The friendly, joyful service belies its appearance. The little details give it away: the bottle of Cowshed by the sink, the posh Victorian lemonade in the fridge and the coffee machine clad in corrugated iron to disguise its chicness.
It’s all an act. But a very convincing one. It’s good pretending to be bad, it’s Ralph Fiennes playing Abel Magwitch, Oliver Reed playing Bill Sykes.
Forget Sewer Chic, we’ve moved on to Garage Chic. And I can’t wait to go back.
Dirty Burger, Rear 79 Highgate Road, London NW5 1TL