From time to time — okay, make that daily — I make fun of the foolishness and frenzied fanaticism that drives social media.
Ridiculous scandal-mongering, celebrity trash talking, and all manner of crazed conspiracy theories are posted, downloaded and endlessly discussed as if they’re substantive pretty much 24/7/365 on innumerable websites, podcasts and blog posts.
That said, the flip side of the online ocean of information we navigate at our own peril, and with little guidance as to the credibility of the content, is that there’s bandwidth to create stories and conduct projects that might otherwise struggle to find sufficient means to commandeer an audience in conventional media.
That’s the beauty of the outliers who create websites and proceed to build a following.
One such site is The Thrillist (www.thrillist.com), which calls itself “The leading men’s digital lifestyle brand, providing all that’s new, unknown or under-appreciated in food, drink, entertainment, nightlife, gadgets, and travel.”
Notice that “food” is first, and a casual review of the stories posted to The Thrillist reveals a fascination with food-related “insights,” some of which are way outside the mainstream.
For example, consider some if its recent headlines:
“Cocktail-flavored Donuts Turn Breakfast into Happy Hour.”
“Get Free Reservations at Taco Bell’s Insane Test Kitchen.”
“Forget the Cherry: This Massive Milkshake Has a Big Hairy Cinnamon Bun on Top.”
One recent project made a lot more sense, however, and in fact made me jealous: Why couldn’t I get this assignment?
The project’s report was teed up as follows: “Our National Burger Critic Kevin Alexander’s yearlong Burger Quest took him to 30 cities and saw him consuming 330 burgers.”
The result was a ranking of “The 100 Best Burgers in America.” Here’s how Alexander described the motivation behind what he called “the greatest trip of my entire life.”
“Burgers are the most democratic of foods,” he wrote. “The best burger in any one city might be in the dankest of dive bars, or in the fanciest of restaurants. Finding the ones that matter takes you all through a city (and outside it) and helps you understand a city’s geography, its class structure, its views on race.”
The Eats and the Eatery
There’s much more in the story about the strange foodservice establishments the writer explored, but more to the point is the impact of his story on one such modest pub in one of those less-traveled corners of American Eatery. As described in a major story headlining the Arts & Life section in The Seattle Times, getting “listicled” on The Thrillist — by being named the No. 4 best burger in the entire country — turned the eatery into an instant hot spot.
“Loretta’s is a modest, cozy, beloved little dive bar [in] South Park, a Seattle neighborhood that’s still described as ‘gritty,’ ” The Times columnist began. “If you’re a newcomer to the city, you may have never heard of South Park — some of the Seattle burger-hunters showing up at Loretta’s are admitting they hadn’t. But it goes far beyond that, with hamburger fans from as far away as South Africa now arriving on Loretta’s doorstep.”
Chef/manager Steve Timlin told the newspaper he “had no idea” what was happening when the hamburger-seeking hordes descended. “It’s been a little hectic, I can’t lie,” he said. “We’re busy as hell.”
So busy, in fact, that during the first frenzied weekend after The Thrillist post went online, the modest little tavern faced a sudden surge with only a skeleton crew, expecting business to be slow over the Memorial Day holiday.
“We were kind of decimated,” Timlin said. “We had to stop taking to-go orders right away,” and in fact the tavern hadn’t resumed that service ever since.
And what makes Loretta’s specialty one of the best four burgers in America? Here’s a description:
“The #4 burger is on the petite side, and it comes wrapped in brown paper. It’s called the Tavern Burger, costs $4.50 and [in contrast to] huge, dripping, indulgent hamburgers, Timlin set out to create a more unassuming archetype.”
As food columnists tend to do, the Times’ writer waxed rhapsodic about the Tavern Burger: “[It] hits the spot in a very specific way: the char taste of the meat, bits of onion for sharpness, a little sweetness from the special sauce, pickles for tang, the particular creaminess of melty American cheese.”
That sounds mouth-watering, although in all honesty, that’s pretty much the “archetype” for most mass-produced, fast-food hamburgers.
Keep in mind, though, that the dining experience resides as much in the ambiance of the restaurant as it does in the organoleptics of the menu offerings, and Loretta’s no doubt charmed National Burger Critic Alexander as a “paragon of a neighborhood bar: it’s low-ceilinged and wood-paneled, like being inside a cabin or a cigar box — it’s arguably perfect, in its own old-fashioned way.”
A pair of takeaways from this story. First, hamburgers still matter—especially if a hip, quirky website says so — and the best of the best are never going to be stuffed into a bag and flung into your car window at some drive-thru. Dining is more than simply fueling up on something edible, it’s a sensory event that ought not to be divorced from the environment and the company in which one consumes a meal.
Second, I’m thinking of a sequel: “The 100 Best Steaks in America.”
And I’m ready, willing and able to visit the requisite 30 states and 330 steakhouses to get the job done.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.