I missed Holby City for this?

Originally posted 2nd September 2012

It’s Tuesday night and I find myself propping up a bar, drinking something called House Grog.  A sign next to me lays down a ground rule;

No wanking

The place is heaving, there is graffiti on the walls and angry rock music crudely chisels the ambience.  On face value – not my kind of haunt – it’s like a backstreet tattoo parlour owned and run by Linkin Park.  But here I am – willingly missing Eastenders and Holby City – and very, very excited, especially now that a tray of sexy-looking burgers has been swished under my nose by an even sexier waitress.  Alas, a few seconds later, both disappear into the crowds.  I return to my House Grog; it’s slipping down a bit too well for a drink laden with overproof rum.

Like many stories, this one begins earlier.  An hour-and-a-half earlier in Mayfair to be precise; when three hungry gentlemen decided that a long overdue catch up needed to be continued over din dins.  They – sorry, we – upped sticks from the Audley, headed north, crossed the living hell that is Oxford Street and made a beeline for the unpleasant-looking Welbeck Street Car Park that houses (amongst a few hundred cars), MEATLiquor.

This night was destined to end well.

MEATLiquor may be only literally a few hundred metres away from Mayfair but in terms of style and class, it may as well be a few million.  The name itself doesn’t exactly scream ‘la de bloody da’ and the brutalist NCP building lacks a certain grace that even a run-of-the-mill Maccy D’s inherently possesses.  Nevertheless, MEATLiquor has been on my infamous restaurant hit-list longer than Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental; the talk about town being that this is the place to go for burgers, cocktails and a no-frills, full-on, pig-out experience.

Turns out there are plenty of other people out there who have been told the same thing.

I was advised to expect a queue, and sure enough a snake of MEATLiquor pilgrims stretched out of the door, round the corner of the restaurant…

unto the horizon

Well, not quite, but we decided to join in and spend the time deliberating whether or not to go somewhere else.  As if that was going to happen.  An impish young waitress told us that there would be a 50-minute wait seeing as we were “just a bit further back than the pillar”, but alleviated our rumbling tummies with the promise of snacks.  We had our hands stamped with “Food” – an innovative anti-queuejump measure – no stamp, no entry.  Presumably when you leave MEATLiquor they stamp your hand with “Full” and bundle your bloated carcass into a cab.  There was little time to debate the exciting eventualities of this evening as the line started to encroach upon the door surprisingly quickly.

Now call me cynical but I couldn’t believe it when the seemingly empty promise of snacks actually came true.  Our spritely, lovely waitress – now a purveyor of all things deep-fried – worked the queue with a tray of onion rings.  The man in line behind me – a MEATLiquor veteran – had painted a very pretty picture of the house onion rings prior to their arrival and sure enough, each bite was like a shot of adrenaline that took me closer to the spirit of this restaurant; simple things done very, very well.

Could this be the most exciting queue in London?

Alas the experience was short-lived as after what felt like a very quick 50 minutes we were at the bar, toasting MEATLiquor with baited breath and watering mouths – over that round of deliciously strong House Grogs; a hearty mix of four different kinds of rum and fruit juices which rather alarmingly, they seem to keep on tap.

There was just enough time to nip to the loo before dinner was served.  The toilets lurk beyond two doors – labelled ‘Chicks’ and ‘Dicks’.  The vibe at MEATLiquor is unbelievably aggressive; almost going beyond a simply natural aversion to the pleasantries of typical restaurant service.  Yet somehow it all gels together and makes sense, almost in the same way that I get why Sergeant Hartman is so batshit crazy in Full Metal Jacket – it gets the job done.

Sat underneath Oliver Reed’s famous quote “I do not live in the world of sobriety”, I peruse the menu.  It is not extensive, but offers an eating challenge.  Blimey, they’re like buses; wait ages for one and then…etc.  MEATLiquor offers a ‘Chilli Challenge’; consumption of  their chilli cheese dog, chilli cheeseburger and chilli cheese fries in yes – you guessed it – 10 minutes; success earning you a free meal (and heartburn).  If your time breaks into the ‘top three’ then you get unlimited queue jumps; now that’s cool.  The quickest time was something like three and a half minutes.

Thankfully we managed to talk ourselves out of the challenge.  My pals opted for a ‘Dead Hippie’ burger, naturally drenched in ‘Dead Hippie’ sauce.  We asked our waitress (another impish fittie) what this sauce was;

Oh, um, it’s our sauce.  It’s like what you get on a Big Mac”.

With that cleared up, I ordered a mushroom and Swiss cheese burger and between us, we shared an order of chicken wings, onion rings, Southern Slaw and Philly Cheesesteak Fries.  A fine feast indeed.  We moved on from House Grog and decided to wash the goodness down with a lager called ‘Hobo’.  The can described it as brewed in the Czech Republic – but apparently made in East London.

By now, so many things about this evening should have irked me.  The overt ‘making of statements’ through swearing and the meanlingless names given to food, drink and toilets.  The rock music.  Servers picked for looks rather than brains.  The rickety, tiny table that we were huddled around.  The dimmed, red lighting – the place felt like De Wallen.  But despite all of this, I felt happy here – and I am still not totally sure why.

I was even happier when the food arrived.  MEATLiquor’s modus operandi is squeezing all the food onto one plastic tray.  I like that.  It’s brings people together, in a farmyardy, troughy kind of way.

Tastes great, too.  To be honest, I do wonder how anywhere that makes its scratch from serving wings, burgers and beer could get it wrong, but MEATLiquor not only finds the board, but the bullseye as well.  We grazed upon moist, medium rare burgers, the chunkiest and tastiest onion rings I have ever experienced in London and devoured the Philly Cheesesteak fries like men possessed.  OK, so the wings were nothing to write home about and I am still at a loss as to what made the coleslaw ‘Southern’, but as a package, our trough tray was a happy place to be.  Even Hobo – of dubious origin – was quite nice (for a lager).

The service is clinical and quick.  After a cheap settlement (about £50 all in I think) we found ourselves spat back out on the pavement on a desolate backstreet, the rock music playing in the background and the thick BBQ smell already causing me to long for the return.  I am sat here now, thinking about why I want to go back to MEATLiquor and all I know for certain is that I do.

It won’t be for the service; pleasant enough, with lots of kooky touches like the freebies in the queue and the fact that our waitress looked very, very drunk.  The food is great – go there for the onion rings and stay for the burgers – but it is not too different from Red Dog last week.  The dining room; a car crash of graffiti, gothic panelling and crude signs, was bizarre.  But combine all three and somehow, MEATLiquor comes into its own.  It’s idiosyncratic, contradictory and bold – tempestuous yet relaxed, simple yet complicated, brutal yet friendly.  Because of this, people leave MEATLiquor remembering it. Remembering it for the meat, the liquor – and the queue; the most tangible tell of all as to why this is possibly one of the most vibrant restaurants in London today.

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