Barney’s Gourmet Hamburger

Something must be done!

I don’t typically use this space to launch campaigns to make the world a better place. I’m happy to leave that to the paper’s news pages while I blather on about how a slice of pizza reminds me of my childhood or something. But there comes a time when to remain silent is to acquiesce, when it behooves us to shout from the rooftops, This cannot go on! And now the moment is at hand, and for the good of us all I must lay down my mask of neutrality and raise my voice: Something has got to be done about the service at Barney’s on College in Oakland!

Some context: Barney’s Gourmet Hamburger is a local minichain with two branches each in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. It specializes in mass-produced quarter-pounders; rather than season them with any special flair, Barney invites patrons to disguise their flavor with ham and pineapple or blue cheese or some kind of nonsense like that. There are milkshakes. There are grilled chicken sandwiches. You get the drill.

The food is totally adequate. My lifestyle has me eating out in North Oakland at least once a week, and sometimes someone wants a hamburger and someone else wants a salad and a third party would like fallafel but could maybe handle a chicken sandwich, and Barney’s seems like an acceptable compromise restaurant. Acceptable compromise restaurants are valuable, especially when you’re in Noakland and one of your friends refuses to eat Ethiopian food. But we have essentially taken Barney’s Gourmet Hamburger out of rotation, because if we go there we can count on the fact that there will be some kind of ridiculous problem with the service and at least one of us will leave miserable.

A restaurant is an unusual business, charged as it is with stewardship of one of the fundamental processes of our animal biology. Until breath and excretion can be commodified, the restaurant manager inhabits a rarefied sphere whose only other residents are obstetricians, undertakers, and whores. And as with those professions, the margin of error is slim. When a restaurant fails in its self-assigned task, its failure strikes at the customer’s deepest and most primitive feelings. When you’re hungry and tired and you go to a restaurant and the burger you’ve ordered fails to show, it’s upsetting on a level that transcends the small slights the world doles out on a daily basis. When, after you’ve complained, the burger finally arrives … and it’s well-done when you’d ordered medium rare, and there’s cheese where you asked for bacon—it brings up ugly feelings, painful feelings of loss and abandonment that date back to our childhoods.

Waitstaff are human beings, and they make mistakes. But the more spectacular service foul-ups I’ve experienced at Barney’s are merely the extreme end of an endemic problem that manifests in smaller ways on every single visit. Here’s the two things you can count on at College Avenue Barney’s: Your fries will arrive 15 minutes before your hamburger, and your hamburger will be overcooked.

The overcooking is irritating for those of us who prefer a burger that doesn’t have the taste and consistency of a leather wallet. But Barney’s is hardly the only place where I’ve ordered medium rare and received well-done. (They usually get it right on the second try, if you’ve got time to send it back.) The fries thing, on the other hand, is baffling. The fries appear in advance of the sandwiches, as though they were an appetizer. This happens so reliably that it appears to be a matter of restaurant policy rather than a regrettable error. As a policy it’s absurd.

French fries should accompany the burger, rather than precede it. In saying this, I am well aware, I am taking the conventional position, and thus leaving myself open to attack from radicals and relativists. But when the very cornerstones of our culture are under assault, there are times when we must stand up for convention. A plate of fries is more filling than an appetizer has any right to be. And yet leaving the fries untouched until the burger arrives is obviously unfeasible, because (a) leaving a plate of salty french fries untouched for 15 minutes would require the self-restraint of a Buddhist monk, and (b) once his burger made it to the table, the monk would find that his fries had cooled off considerably and lost much of their Buddha-nature.

(For the record: The fault here is not with an individual server, or even with the waitstaff as a whole. When problems like these plague a restaurant over a period of at least three years, there’s some kind of systemic thing going wrong. And while my experience with the other Barney’s branches is limited, I’ve eaten at the Noe Valley one at least three times, and I don’t remember leaving grumpy.)

Like the dogged consumer watchdog that I am, I’m going to eat at Barney’s on College two or three times in the next month, and I’ll be monitoring for signs of improvement. I’ll post an update in a month or two. No service, no peace!