The humble hamburger has come a long way in the past couple of decades.
For so long the preserve of cheap fast food outlets and post-pub takeaways, in recent times the staple burger in a bun and chips has become something of a gourmet meal.
It has to try that bit harder to stand out from the crowd - and on the evidence of its Sixfields diner, I feel it’s struggling to do soNeil Burkett
More upmarket establishments will think nothing of including a ‘coarse-ground Aberdeen Angus burger and oven-roasted garlic chips’ as option on their menus.
And George Osborne even made the headlines in 2013 when he tweeted a picture of himself eating a £9.70 ‘posh burger’ after finishing an important speech.
Which is why I think the Buddies chain in Northamptonshire has a problem.
When its first restaurant opened in the town centre in 1981, it was an obvious class above McDonald’s, Wimpy et al.
Now, though, it has to try that bit harder to stand out from the crowd.
And on the evidence of its Sixfields diner, I feel it’s struggling to do so.
Eight of us arrived late one Saturday afternoon (four adults, four children, aged six months to five years), having booked a table weeks earlier.
One of Buddies’ unique selling points is its Americana decor, with the restaurant at Sixfields having a superhero theme and featuring a life-sized Spider-Man clinging to the ceiling.
Unfortunately this decor hasn’t worn well since this particular branch opened in 2006, with rips in some of the seats and a generally faded feel to the whole place.
Another area where things have moved on in the eating- out business is the treatment of people with young families.
Maybe we’ve been spoiled by experiences elsewhere, but there was disappointingly little to keep the children amused while we were waiting for our food. A ready supply of colouring crayons and paper should be a prerequisite for any restaurant aiming to attract families.
Likewise, the high chair (which we had to ask for despite our obvious need for one) was in need of a good clean – again, not good enough compared to other eateries.
One look at the menu, however, reminded us why we had chosen Buddies as a venue – it really is something else.
Aside from the dozens of quirkily-named burgers, there are various chicken, steak, fish and barbecue dishes, salads, sandwiches and more.
In fact, the menu is almost overwhelming and you would be better off checking it out online to decide what you want before you arrive.
The grown-ups eventually settled on three hand-made steakburgers and fries, one with a Hick from the Sticks topping, one Zero Tolerance (cheese, lettuce, gherkins, tomato and mayo) and one Hell’s Kitchen (Cajun spice rub, cheese, jalapeňos, house steak sauce, mushrooms and fried onions), as well as a chicken burger and fries.
The three eldest children all had cheeseburgers, chips and beans from the children’s menu, from which you are helpfully able to choose big kids or little kids portions.
The food was undoubtedly the best part of the experience.
The portions were plenty big enough, the meat was succulent and well-cooked, the fries were tasty and crispy, without being burned; it was all delicious and all the plates were (just about) cleared in anticipation of the dessert course.
The choice here isn’t so great as first appears – most of what’s on offer is actually just variations on the same vanilla ice-cream dish with different chocolate pieces added – but the children weren’t to be dissuaded and plumped for banana and custard sundaes.
When it was time to leave we left on a bit of a sour note as we noticed when querying the bill that service had been included in the total – it’s been many years since I’ve eaten anywhere which still did this.
Leaving aside the question of whether or not one should tip, surely it should be up to the customer to decide, not the restaurant?
Unfortunately, the eating out experience is about so much more than just the food and a lot of what we took away from Buddies had nothing to do with what was produced in the kitchen, however nice it was.
Ratings at a glance
Value for money: OK
Food: Best part of the experience
Disabled access: Good
Parking: Own car park
Total cost: £85.95
Star rating: 6/10