British chain Byron was established by Tom Byng in London in 2007 with the aim of serving simple hamburgers done well, in the tradition of great American diners. Not that there's anything kitsch about this burger joint, though – the decor is more along the lines of stripped-back industrial chic than 50s retro. Until recently, Byron's branches could only be found in the capital, but in July, their Oxford outpost opened on George Street: just two doors down from recently-renovated GBK. A burger battle was about to commence, surely?
Well no, as it turns out. Stepping through the doors of Byron one weekday evening, the atmosphere couldn't have been more different from that of its near neighbour. Rather than a brightly-lit space full of families polishing off a towering stack of meat plus topping, Byron is as simple and fuss-free as its menu. The varied clientele show that burgers appeal to all ages, while the cool and quirky design differentiate it from other Oxford restaurants: as N said, it's 'very London'. Clearly appealing to a different demographic than GBK, there should be space enough in this town for the both of them.
But the proof of the burger is in the eating. How would Byron's 'proper hamburgers' fare when put to my Belgian burger connoisseur's taste test? The restaurant manager explained the concept behind the menu: it's structured around the Classic burger (£6.75), a 6oz hamburger cooked medium (unless otherwise requested), topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion and mayonnaise and served in a bun. The beef they use comes from small farms in Scotland and is freshly ground every day. The menu features only 5 other items: Cheese (a choice of 5, £7.75), Byron (with dry cure bacon, mature cheddar and Byron sauce, £9.25), Skinny (no bun, with salad, £7.50), Chicken (chicken breast with tomato mayonnaise and spinach, £8.75) and Veggie. Which isn't a burger at all, but a portabello mushroom with roasted red pepper, goat's cheese, spinach and aioli (£7.75). Apparently the idea was to give vegetarians something like a burger so they don't feel 'left out'. As one of their number, I say give us a burger! If you go for a burger you erm, want a burger. But still, I decided to withold judgment until I'd sampled one for myself.
While we waited for our Byron (N's choice on the manager's recommendation) and Veggie to arrive, we munched on some 'proper olives' (£2.75) and tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole (£3.50). Both were excellent: good quality olives, and delicious homemade dips. I normally flinch at the English pricetag on olives, but shared between a few of you, these are worth it. When it comes to drinks, Byron's prices reflect its London origins, with soft drinks weighing in at £2.30+ and milkshakes for £3.95. In-keeping with the 'simple' ethos, the wine list is divided into 'good', 'better', 'great' and 'best' categories. I opted for a large glass of 'good' red (a Spanish Tempranillo, £5.25) – and very good it was, much nicer than the house red at my local – while N chose the 'great' Malbec (£6.95), which she loved but I wasn't sure warranted the price tag.
After a short wait, the burgers and our sides of skin-on chips and courgette fries (£3.25 each) plus a house side salad (£3.50) arrived. Prices may be in an entirely different bracket to Maccy D's, but the portion sizes and presentation take Byron's burgers out of the fast food category entirely. N's burger was definitely sizeable enough to keep her quiet for a good few minutes; once she surfaced from meaty mouthfuls she reported that it was the definition of medium, juicy and delicious. The salad was fresh, the bacon and cheddar were both 'perfect' – as she put it, 'the whole experience was enjoyable'.
|The veggie versus...|
My veggie 'burger' was also generously sized yet less tricky to eat than some I've been faced with: it didn't collapse or crumble everywhere. The mushroom, red pepper and goat's cheese all worked well together, providing plenty of flavour and texture. Everything was fresh and tasty, but ultimately I couldn't help but feel that it was more of a fancy sandwich than a burger. It was definitely less substantial than N's meat version, but with the addition of starters and sides I was more than satisfied. The lightly-battered courgette fries were clearly made to order and it showed: they were delicious and moreish. The skin-on chips were the only dud note of the evening – in their haste to feed us, the chefs hadn't let them cook quite long enough.
Dessert more than made up for this slight fault, though. I didn't think an Oreo and Brownie Sundae sounded like much to get excited about: after all, it was just ice cream mixed with chunks of cookies and brownie with some chocolate sauce thrown in for good measure. I was wrong. It was pure indulgence in a dish; so good I almost wanted to lick the remnants from the glass. Clearly inspired by the Olympics, N declared that the person who invented it deserved a gold medal. I'm inclined to agree. Silver would have to go to the cheesecake: a worthy contender, although outperformed by the sundae on the night.
Providing simple, fresh food at a decent price, Byron is bound to succeed in Oxford. Although once you've added sides and drinks to your main a meal doesn't come too cheap, it's worth it if burgers are your thing. With excellent service, a relaxed atmosphere and a setting that's a little out of the ordinary for Oxford, it's worth a visit. As for me, I'll be back once there's a veggie burger on the menu...
Byron is at 33-35 George Street, OX1 2AY. Tel: 01865 792155.