Wednesday 9 March 2016

Restaurant review: Meatliquor, Islington

Several years ago I found myself queuing on the stairs of a disused east London pub, waiting for two hours to get inside a pop-up burger joint – and once inside, waiting two hours for my food. This was the last days of #Meateasy, a burger joint that started as a van called the Meatwagon. Moving around locations in London – largely in Peckham car parks as this was before the days of the streetfood markets – the Meatwagon’s reputation grew until it was almost legendary.
Sadly, the burger van was stolen, but without this turn of events we probably wouldn’t have the restaurant chain that we have today. The owner, Yianni Papoutsis, moved instead in early 2011 to the upstairs room of a pub in New Cross Gate that was closed for refurbishment. If memory serves, it was there for a few months, then had to close when the pub re-opened. At that point, nobody knew what was happening next – was this the end of Meateasy? So their final night – advertised on social media as the last hurrah as even the owners themselves didn’t seem to know if they would be able to reopen – was busy, and I mean busy.
Dead Hippie and fries

My friend Geoff was a huge fan and loyal customer, and as I still hadn’t visited Meateasy by the time it announced it was closing, he took me on one of the last nights. He knew his way around which was a relief – and as we spent literally hours queuing, kept persuading me it would be worth it.

Once inside, I took in the dive bar décor, the menu scrawled on the wall behind the bar, the food that was served on paper plates and the music so loud you could hardly hear yourself speak. I ordered the Dead Hippie burger- which I’d heard had become something of a cult – and it was messy, juicy, artery-clogging, delicious. It’s a double cheeseburger with a secret sauce – so secret that in their cookery book-cum-autobiography, the recipe is blacked out so you can’t read it.
Yes, that’s right – it’s gone from the Meatwagon burger van to a pop-up dive (Meateasy) to a chain with its own cookery book which you can buy on Amazon.

Dead Hippie up close
Meatliquor opened in 2012 in a permanent location in the west end. By then, there were other ‘dirty burger’ chains opening in London, making me wonder if Meatliquor was still all that special. I took my boyfriend as he hadn’t been before; we went early after work and managed to get in without waiting, but when we came out there was a queue. The restaurant was grungy, noisy, and a good representation of the restaurant’s roots. I can’t remember all that much more about it as several years have since elapsed; it was the last time I ate there as I don’t like restaurants where you can’t either book or walk straight in, and there were plenty of other burger places I wanted to try (Patty and Bun, Shake Shack and Five Guys, to name just a few).
Fast forward four years and I was working late at a supplier’s office in Islington. As it was gone 8pm by the time that I left and it takes me nearly two hours to get home from there (welcome to London) I always grab something to eat before I leave. I was really excited to find a Five Guys on nearby Upper Street (I was introduced to the chain by an American boss and love it) so have eaten there a couple of times over the past six months or so, and have also tried a couple of other places. This time, I’d gotten off the bus on my way there in the morning a stop late – as the bus stop I wanted was closed – so I was further up the street than I’d normally go. As I walked back down, I did a double take – a branch of Meatliquor!
Looking at the website, I see the chain now has branches by slightly different names – I’m not sure what the difference is: a Meatmarket in Covent Garden, a Meatmission in Brixton and also a Chickenliquor in Brixton – which only serves chicken or chicken burgers, and surprisingly has a vegetarian option of a halloumi burger. I say surprising, because when I first went to Meateasy I’m sure I remember a fairly derogatory sign implying that vegetarians were in the wrong place! Even now, in the west end Meatliquor restaurant, the (small) vegetarian section of the menu is referred to as rabbit food.

Inside the restaurant
But I’m not a vegetarian and by the end of my long day at work I was ready for a burger. The Islington outpost is set back from Upper Street in an old garage; you have to walk down a small alley to get there which starts to build the atmosphere. Inside is even more grungy than I remember, with red graffiti on the walls – and the passageway to the toilets has to be seen to be believed. It was actually quite creepy!
I also spotted a photo booth against one wall, and on the menu tickets to operate the photo booth were listed at £3 each – so if you love your burger that much you can commemorate the moment perhaps!
With the graffiti, the loud music, the messy food (complete with rolls of kitchen paper on each table) this isn’t somewhere I would come for a date – but that’s because I’m a 30-something City worker who prefers slightly more refined dining! The place was busy with people of all ages (including a small girl of about three, which was a bit random). I only wanted a quick meal and didn’t want to spend too much, so nice as the cocktails and milkshakes sounded, I decided to stick with a coke – this didn’t seem the sort of place you would order a diet coke! I also decided to have a Dead Hippie burger as I couldn’t even remember what they were like.
The burger was described as two ‘mustard-fried beef patties’ with minced onions, cheese, pickles and lettuce with their mysterious Dead Hippie sauce. It’s not quite so big that I can’t finish the burger but not far off. The bun surprisingly didn’t go soggy either given how much the burger was practically dripping. I couldn’t decide if I actually enjoy the Dead Hippie more than I would just a normal cheeseburger – the sauce didn’t make my tastebuds explode, and wasn’t as tangy as something like burger sauce, but it definitely added something to the meal.

the corridor to the toilets!
The staff were surprisingly polite – I saw surprising, because the décor makes me think they would be deliberately rude or at least a bit rough and ready – but they were very friendly and when I asked about the cookery book advertised at the back of the menu, they brought me a copy to read while I waited for my food. I decided that since my fiancé hadn’t been able to come to Meatliquor with me, I would bring Meatliquor to him so bought him the book to take home.
If you’ve never been to Meatliquor or one of their outposts, you must try it once. Whether you go back again for the grungy atmosphere, the extensive booze list or the Dead Hippie is up to you.

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