A hipster burger bar should have me railing about gentrification and pretentiousness, but I genuinely enjoy sampling different takes on a classic burger – on Americana comfort food in general, I think – so it doesn’t. Whether it’s a signature sauce or aioli, or a particular seasoning for the fries, or fusion items like hoisin or curry burgers, I’m game to give most “hipster”-y burger joints and bars a try, because I appreciate the spirit of trying to bring something new to an old classic.
That said, there are a few things a “neo-burger” place can do that get on my nerve. Overpriced, slow food is one thing. Obviously, you don’t want frozen burgers or a McDonalds-style assembly line – that’s the model most “ethical burger” places are trying to get away from, with fresh ingredients and some actual care put into food preparation. And again, I’m completely behind that. That said, food shouldn’t really take more than half an hour, forty-five minutes at the outside, to get to the table. Cocktails and drinks should take even less time. And while you expect to pay about ten to twelve dollars for a good entree – like a burger, for instance – no single dish should be costing upwards of twenty or thirty dollars, and no appetizer or salad should be priced like an entrée.
This was one of the ways in which the Armsby Abbey in Worcester, Massachusetts started to lose me.
I go up to Worcester every six months or so to visit the UMass Memorial Multiple Sclerosis clinic, where I’ve been going for treatment since I was diagnosed in my junior year at my Five Colleges alma mater. Even for appointments where my old lesions are non-active and no new lesions have appeared, it’s still a stressful time, especially since it usually involves getting blood drawn (as a diabetic, I should be used to this, but I’m not). The past couple appointments have not been some of those times – I have one small active lesion currently, and the radiologist who did my last MRI claimed to have seen some plaque on my spine, although my doctor couldn’t find it. So when we finally left the hospital, I especially needed a drink and a good burger. Normally, after my appointments we go to the Flying Rhino Cafe, but this time we decided to try something different.
The Armsby Abbey staff was very nice. I always feel like this is worth mentioning, because customer service is fucking hard. The hostess accommodated our desire for a low table (rather than the raised kind with the stools or chairs that you need to climb up into, constantly feeling like if you shift, you’ll lose your balance) happily. Our server was almost overly friendly, and used gender-nonspecific language, which provided a welcome break from social dysphoria. She was very patient while I figured out which cocktail I wanted from the drinks menu I’d seen too late. I got a Morning Dew cocktail, which was not bad, but to a lightweight like me, could have used a little more juice in its juice/tea/flower water to vodka ratio. For what it’s worth, my father, who bartended for awhile in college, and is more of a social drinker than I am, did think it was well-balanced. However, we still faced the overpricing issue – the cocktail cost as much as some of the entrees.
We split a house salad, which was priced modestly, but was also just mixed greens, radish slices, and mustard vinaigrette dressing – if you don’t like mustard, the Armsby Abbey may not be the place for you. The greens were good, and I actually did enjoy the dressing, but the salad could have used more variety of texture, whether cabbage or shredded carrot or cucumber, to provide additional freshness. The few radish slices we got didn’t fully serve.
Feeling adventurous, I got the house burger, and didn’t ask for any substitutions or for any toppings to be kept on the side. This may have been a mistake, but on the other hand, I’m not sure that a burger without the caramelized onions or the mustard aioli would have been a big improvement. The burger comes without any fresh greens, or even a slice of fresh tomato – there’s only the house-made ketchup, which tasted like thin, Southeastern barbecue sauce without the heat, and as if it was made with tomato paste, rather than the fresh item itself. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Heintz, but even house-made ketchups that I’ve enjoyed have been tomato-y, thick, and with at least a bit of fruity-tasting sweetness. Armsby Abbey makes all their condiments in-house, which leads me to bring up another mistake that these places typically make: reinventing the wheel when they don’t need to, with a side of pandering to whatever fancy/innovative food craze is happening right now. Aioli? Homemade condiments? It sounds slick, but it’s only cool if you can make it work, and in my opinion, this place currently can’t.
It’s not just about a “crafted” burger with state-of-the-art ingredients: those ingredients have to actually work together. When you put sweet, soft onions; aged, sharp cheddar; mustard aioli and a few pickle slices on top of a burger that itself rests on a “sesame-ale” roll (seems suspiciously similar to a pretzel bun, like the type we see at Wendy’s), to me it’s a neverending parade of dense, sweet, sharp flavors, with no bit of plant-based freshness to provide an effective contrast. If that was what the pickles were for, then two pickle chips (one of which slid off the patty) was not enough. The fries were well-seasoned, but at a place like this – and for prices like these – that’s the least I expect.
When I think about the enjoyment I have for places like Five Guys, and even experiences like Crave and Smashburger, I feel like I’m probably doing food criticism wrong if I prefer eating at those places to a place like this. Maybe I’m accidentally pulling a Brad Johnson (the infamous OC Register food critic who refused to review any taco trucks for his list of the 10 Best Tacos in the Orange County, and has been known to grade Mexican restaurants on their chips and salsa and their “papas francesas/fritas” – French fries) and doing the burger-reviewing equivalent of allowing the lack of metaphorical sit-down tables (ketchup, lettuce and tomato) to close my mind to a new culinary experience. But the thing is, those places seem like they understand what makes a burger good, and why burgers are good. They also know they’re fast food. They may try to make their burgers more healthy or ethically sourced, sure, but they aren’t trying to put extra bells and whistles on a dish so they can overcharge their clientele. They’re trying to reinvent a classic, but in a way that shows some knowledge of why it’s classic in the first place. I value that, and whether it makes me a whitebread yuppie or not, I think I’ll continue to value it. If you have the chance to visit Armsby Abbey in Worcester, MA, please feel free to try the burger (and whatever else strikes your fancy) for yourself, and tell me where I went wrong. Just make sure you’ve got enough in the bank to pay your tab.