05 October 2009


Photos: Chef Hubert Keller's Burger Bar, Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas. By author, August 2009.

In our era of gourmet-burgermania--when almost every restaurant boasts a specialty hamburger with high-grade ingredients, stylish presentations, or ultra-fresh in-house meat grinding--what is the difference between one such "upscale" hamburger served at a casual-dining restaurant and one at a fine-dining establishment?

Price, you think? Think again. The sixty-dollar burger pictured above is on the menu of Hubert Keller's sports-bar-like Burger Bar in Vegas, which--with the omnipresence of TV monitors, rolling luggage, and openness to the casino hallway--has all the rarified atmosphere of an airport pit stop.

The ingredients, you say? Not necessarily. Both Umami Burger (in Los Angeles) and Burger Bar, typical of today's casual places with a high-style burger option, feature burgers with truffles. Burger Bar's sixty-dollar special then adds foie gras to that. And, as you can see from the photos showing this burger's accompaniments--the sauce perigourdine, salt, and pepper in a side tray--care in presentation isn't a key distinction, either.

Perhaps context is the definitive difference. Would the sixty-dollar burger at Burger Bar be a class-elevating experience, for example, while the same burger at Michael Mina's XIV in Los Angeles, in the fine-dining category, would be a "comforting" one? Possibly. That is, if the customer believes strongly in the highbrow/lowbrow distinction between the likes of Burger Bar and XIV. Such a person, however, would be clinging to a fading past.

While high/low distinctions between casual and fine dining do still exist, in recent decades the lines between them have gotten a lot blurrier. Fine-dining restaurants incorporate increasingly casual architectural elements, service, and menu items and casual restaurants take menu cues from the fine-dining world.

The hamburger is one of those items closest to the brow-blurring line. To some extent, this is the hamburger's fault. An iconic yet versatile food, it can be dressed up, with truffles, or down, with lettuce and tomato, for the occasion, and still retain all of its force as a pop-cultural symbol. As long as the burger is anchored to the symbolic machinery of nostalgia and physically acts as a blank canvas for class signifiers, it can thrive where brow lines are most blurry.

At the point of breakdown between highbrow and lowbrow, "burger brow" may be likened to a contemporary condition that cultural critic John Seabrook has called "nobrow." In the world of nobrow, vertical distinctions of high versus low are superseded by status markers based on what's hot, what's buzzing. Media-driven topicality, novelty, fashion--these drive the status of things more than class-based distinctions. In his book Nobrow (2001), Seabrook mostly addressed music and clothing, but his idea could just as easily be applied to food.

In this light, what gives a burger its brow status is not so much whether or not it is adorned with truffles and foie gras and the like or made with Kobe beef, but rather the novelty and mixed-brow chic of such ingredients on a burger in a sports bar ventured by Hubert Keller, a Michelin-starred fine-dining chef. In burger-brow terms, that sizzles.

Copyright 2009. Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.

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