Designer Beef: Why Are Hamburgers Taking Over Tallinn?

Designer Beef: Why Are Hamburgers Taking Over Tallinn?

What is it about the hamburger that seems to survive endless upgrading? Why has it become the go-to dinner for a large number of Tallinners? It was a question that intrigued me, so I thought I'd go with two friends to two of the newest restaurants in the capital promising top-quality meat patties.

My mind went back to my first encounter with a gourmet hamburger restaurant. Five years ago, when dating a girl who lived in Birmingham, I would go regularly to the Gourmet Burger Kitchen in the Mailbox shopping complex. A friendly greeter would ask me, each time I arrived, "have you been to GBK before?" I must admit this became an irritating tic when I was tired and stressed, but with hindsight it was brilliant customer service, as a whole generation of British people reared on terrible, flat, lifeless burgers didn't know the potential of the pattie.

GBK established in my mind that the hamburger was no longer the lowest of the low, the food one would consume only if either drunk, or about to get drunk. It was, in the right restaurant, something to be savoured. Topped with combinations of pineapple, blue cheese, fried egg, avocado and many other choices, GBK burgers became my refuge from an uncertain world. I'm only slightly joking.

Cheese and Bacon Burger at Estonian Burger Factory, Tallinn

Cheese and Bacon Burger at Estonian Burger Factory, Tallinn

It was Estonian Burger Factory, close to my flat in Tallinn, that alerted me to the possibility of there being another GBK in the capital of Estonia. Visiting, I found a really nice building, likely an old house, next to the Kosmos IMAX Cinema. 

Cheesy fries at Estonian Burger Factory, Tallinn

Cheesy fries at Estonian Burger Factory, Tallinn

The burger there is thick, juicy and made from excellent beef, cooked to medium strength. Usually in a burger restaurant, fries are just a bit by the side to make you feel fatter and less satisfied. This time, they're what my mum calls "real chips", and they come liberally-salted, with a massive gunk-tank of ketchup. It would be rude not to.

Estonian Burger Factory, Tallinn

Estonian Burger Factory, Tallinn

If you're not into hamburgers (and yes, those people do go in occasionally), there are daily specials including a quite inspirational tuna steak burger with salad, cooked to keep its delicacy, and smoked salmon burger.

As with all burger restaurants in Tallinn, Estonian Burger Factory will change your regular white bun for "healthy" black bread. As if that'll make you feel more noble.

Üülits Diner, Tallinn

Üülits Diner, Tallinn

Üülits is a bit of a copycat, jumping on that round meaty bandwagon at the end of 2014. It's out in the relatively unknown (to me) Kadaka area, across the road from an enormous Selver store, and no doubt giving a new generation of Estonian kids a reason to keep quiet as Mum and Dad shepherd them through the fruit aisle.

Üülits Diner, Tallinn

Üülits Diner, Tallinn

Once again the authentic-look blackboard is on the wall, as is the serif-loving handwritten font, perhaps to distract you from the fact you're about to shell out pushing €6 on a fried piece of meat.

Üülits Diner, Tallinn

Üülits Diner, Tallinn

Üülits Diner, Tallinn

Üülits Diner, Tallinn

What Üülits do to a different level to any other restaurant I've visited, according to what the owner says - which I am assuming is true - is home-making all the ingredients. He and his business partner get up at 5am every day to mix the mayonnnaise. It's an impressive level of effort.

Interior decor is pine-by-numbers, until you get to the corner of the room, where, as you can see below, there are stacked packing crates, saving interior budget and giving an urban touch to this American-style roadside shack.

Cheese and Bacon Burger at Üülits Diner, Tallinn

Cheese and Bacon Burger at Üülits Diner, Tallinn

The burger is thick - so thick it dominates - and it takes a hardy type to eat the pattie in the bun, and not be distracted by the veggies running into the wrapper.

Common to every Estonian burger joint is the serving of sandwiches transverse, in an open wrapper. It was new to me in 2011 when I first came here, but it's the accepted way of serving, as it allows for increased amounts of salad, and, in some places (not here, thankfully), industrial smearings of salad cream that wet the bun. There's none of that here - a blessing, as the bun is nicely toasted.

I am a fan of Üülits, and I love the way fresh, ground beef in their new-that-day pattie is complimented by a beautiful, huge, pickle.

Üülits Diner, Tallinn

Üülits Diner, Tallinn

On a night out with an old friend of mine, I was taken to a third burger restaurant - Diner, in the suburbs, on the edge of Nõmme. This is not on the tourist trail, but for any Tallinn resident it's well worth your time, and for visitors, it's an essential break from the guided tour.

Diner, Nõmme, Tallinn

Diner, Nõmme, Tallinn

Inside, the decor is all reds and whites, mirroring the classic 1950s American roadside retreat of George Lucas and Bruce Springsteen's minds. It had me quoting my favourite Back to the Future lines. "MAYOR Goldie Wilson? I LIKE that!"

Diner, Nõmme, Tallinn

Diner, Nõmme, Tallinn

Fries, unlike the sturdy ceramic bowl of Estonian Burger Factory, where the cheese arrives freshly and lovingly-sprinkled, are in a plastic tray, with the cheese already-melting, and looking a bit more chemical and orange. It was a minor disappointment caused by overinflated expectations. Nonetheless, the fries, crispy, have the skins still on, and though thinner than the Burger Factory ones, are moreish.

Diner, Nõmme, Tallinn

Diner, Nõmme, Tallinn

The burger I ordered had bacon and some salad along with cheese, but the unique selling point, should you want it, of a Diner burger is their insertion - through mind-melding magic, I assume - of melted cheese at the centre of the patty, making for a texture that is unique among Tallinn burgers, though very much an acquired taste.

Diner, Nõmme, Tallinn

Diner, Nõmme, Tallinn

After all this discussion of the food, back to the question posed originally. 

I mentioned at the top that gourmet hamburgers were a refuge from an uncertain world. Maybe that's what they are to us all - something comforting and simplistic, a hug in a wrapper, the savoury equivalent of jelly and ice cream. As we dive head-first into a world where we have all the consumer choice but little influence on which way our society is going, maybe that's what we need.