CRAFT BURGER (573 King West, at Portland, 416-596-6660) Average main $6. Open Monday to Thursday 11 am to 9 pm, Friday 11 am to 10 pm, Saturday noon to 10 pm, Sunday and some holidays noon to 8 pm. Unlicensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN
King and Portland hasn't always been the centre of the universe for Toronto's glitterati. Home to Susur, Thuet and the members-only Spoke Club - as well as a slew of swanky cocktail lounges that also cater to the chi-chi set - this once-sleepy intersection is now a buzzing hive of late-night activity.
What better location to open an upscale burger joint? And that's exactly what Mustafa Yusuf has done with Craft Burger, a very busy month-old beanery that rocks until well into the night. Formerly El Penco, the narrow space is already a chaotic scene at lunch, when customers queue out the door for organic Healthy Butcher burgers at $6.65 a pop. "We appreciate your patience," a chalkboard menu over the cash advises.
If Craft Burger sounds a little familiar maybe it's because Yusuf - along with partner Saeed Mohammed - launched Burger Shoppe (688 Queen East, at Broadview, 416-850-7026) just nine months ago with a similar concept. They also had big plans to franchise, even though their first effort was far from ready for the spotlight when it first opened.
Yusuf seems to have agreed and split - in rock 'n' roll terminology, this is politely referred to as "musical differences" - this summer to launch Craft Burger and have it his way, as the Burger King would insist. Besides the decor - Burger Shoppe: 50s lunch counter; Craft Burger: hip Harvey's - the two are virtually identical right down to the recycled brown paper napkins and poutine ($4.95).
True, Craft's toppings push the envelope further than its cousin with things like blue cheese and avocado (Craft Bleu, $6.95), but in side-by-side taste testings, Craft's Classic burger and Burger Shoppe's equally Classic would-be Whopper (both $5.45) are difficult to tell apart.
Craft's onion rings are not only interchangeable, they're described with exactly the same words and price ("crispy, breaded, tasty, $2.95").
Like the Shoppe back when it first opened, the capable kids behind the counter are still learning the drill. It's not until I get back to the Test Kitchen that I discover my takeaway contains three cans of Coke ($1.25 each) instead of the mixed greens with vinaigrette ($3.45) I order. And it would be nice if Craft's otherwise quite acceptable fries ($2.95) weren't pre-salted, stuff all easily rectified.
A recent visit to Burger Shoppe finds a smooth-running machine, a fate that no doubt awaits Craft Burger once it irons out its initial kinks. But I'm surprised that, after trying it out for a couple of weekends, Craft no longer goes after the post-clubbing crowd by staying open till 3 am on Friday and Saturday nights.
"Babysitting those people at that hour can be a bit of a headache," says Yusuf.
The Shangri-Las may have said that you can never go home anymore, but a trip back in time to my old stomping grounds proves otherwise. Growing up in north Toronto, the Golden Star (7123 Yonge, at Doncaster, 905-889-6891) was the holy grail of burgers. Some liked this new drive-in up the road in Richmond Hill called Harvey's, but we cool kids of Thornhill Secondary preferred the Star. Why, the gruff counter staff even had a song they sang while they slung.
"The Golden Star, the best by far/ You come from near, you come from far/ It doesn't matter if you bring your car."
Nowadays, the Star's homeburger ($4.90) is just how I remember it, 8 ounces of juicy perfection run through the garden. Mark McEwan probably wouldn't approve, but it provides me with my own Proustian madeleine epiphany.
Others contend that the Burger Shack (233 Eglinton West, at Oriole Parkway, 416-487-1974) is the best spot in town to get a shot of hamburger nostalgia. Until last Saturday, I'd never tried its 6-ounce homeburger ($3.85), but now that I have, I don't see the fuss. Charbroiled and topped with optional sweet caramelized onion and hot banana peppers, it's competent, a Harvey's in disguise. Of course, I wouldn't think so if I'd gone to Upper Canada College instead of TSS.
Decked out with images of the Virgin Mary and Mark Messier, the Bellwood (756 Queen West, at Niagara, 416-504-8855) doesn't make the best burger in town - for NOW's picks, see page 35 - but it certainly makes one of the biggest. The house homeburger ($6.30 sided with fries and gravy) weighs in at a hefty 16 ounces, a veritable frisbee of roughly ground beef topped with a salad's worth of lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo. That's one hell of a hangover helper!